Music review: Rapper Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick+Lamar
Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar

Tom Overlie, flickr.com

Tom Overlie, flickr.com

Kendrick Lamar

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Kendrick Lamar doesn’t miss a step as his new album maintains his career-long streak of amazing records.

Kendrick Lamar is a Compton-based rapper, signed under the Top Dawg Entertainment label with fellow big name rappers like ScHoolboy Q and Ab-Soul. For a few years now, Lamar has been considered one of, if not the, best rapper currently. This praise is based primarily on the unprecedented quality of his past few records, most notably “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” and “To Pimp A Butterfly.” These projects have received high critical acclaim for not only the quality of the music, but for their ambitious themes, storytelling, and general presentation. While “good kid m.A.A.d. city” was an introspective story about Lamar’s experiences as a teenager, “To Pimp A Butterfly” was more of a broad reflection of the world today, centering around topics like self-worth, depression, and race relations in America. Combine these two albums with the project “untitled unmastered,” an unexpectedly great collection of B-sides that were made during the recording of “To Pimp A Butterfly.” So going into “DAMN.”, there was already a ludicrously high standard set for the project. “DAMN.” was first revealed in the track Lamar dropped on March 23 titled “The Heart Pt. 4,” in which he says, “My next album, the whole industry on a ice pack” and reveals that the album would be coming April 7, which was later pushed back to the 14.

This new album “DAMN.” certainly delivered on the promises made on “The Heart Pt. 4,” as it has sold reportedly over 600,000 copies in its first week since release, selling more than Drake’s last project “More Life,” which only sold 500,000 copies, according to XXL. The lead single of this album, “HUMBLE.”, saw great success as well. It has become Lamar’s highest-charting single yet and the highest-debuting rap single on the Hot 100 since 2010, with Eminem’s “Not Afraid.”

These huge numbers aren’t a coincidence either. “DAMN.” features some of the most pop-friendly material of any Lamar album, even compared to “good kid m.A.A.d. city,” which had some great mainstream breakthroughs like “Don’t Kill My Vibe” and Lamar’s last big single: “Swimming Pools (Drank).” Between trap bangers like “HUMBLE.” and the monstrous “DNA.” as well as more ballad-esque tracks like “PRIDE.” and “LOYALTY.” which has a feature from Rihanna, adding even more to its pop appeal. However, this doesn’t mean Lamar lacks at all when it comes to lyrics. Throughout the record, Lamar is either reliving traumatic parts of his past, or giving his thoughts on various subjects like politics, race, and religion.

Each track on this album, with a few exceptions, has an almost entirely different feel, approach, and tone to it. The first track “BLOOD.” serves as an intro for the album, as it sets up some it’s over branching themes. The song begins with some very heavily layered vocals by Bēkon, a producer formerly known as Danny Keyz, that transition into a spoken verse by Lamar. This verse tells a hypothetical story of Lamar taking a walk and stumbling upon a blind woman. He says the woman seems frustrated and that she seems to be looking for something, so he tries to help:

 

“So I was takin’ a walk the other day, and I seen a woman—a blind woman—pacin’ up and down the sidewalk. She seemed to be a bit frustrated, as if she had dropped somethin’ and havin’ a hard time findin’ it. So after watchin’ her struggle for a while, I decide to go over and lend a helping hand, you know? “Hello, ma’am, can I be of any assistance? It seems to me that you have lost something. I would like to help you find it.” She replied: “Oh yes, you have lost something. You’ve lost… your life.”

 

The song ends with a gunshot, and transitions into the next track “DNA.” with an audio clip from  Fox News discussing remarks Lamar had made on “To Pimp A Butterfly.”

 

“Lamar stated his views on police brutality with that line in the song, quote: “And we hate the popo, wanna kill us in the street fo’ sho’…” “Oh please, ugh, I don’t like it,” said the Fox News anchors.

 

Similar remarks made by Geraldo Rivera are played during the middle of “DNA.”

 

“This is why I say that hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years,” said Rivera.

 

“DNA.”isn’t necessarily a response to these remarks, but rather a small establishment of Lamar’s beliefs that will expanded on deeper into the album. Throughout the song, Lamar varies between listing what he sees as the most positive, inherent traits of African Americans, and the vices that the race has succumbed to in the past. This is presented through different lyrics like:

 

“I got, I got, I got, I got

Loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA

Cocaine quarter piece, got war and peace inside my DNA

I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA

I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA.”

 

The message behind these lyrics is further enhanced by the raw energy of this track. Between Lamar’s speedy delivery and the brutal production by Mike WiLL Made-It, “DNA.” certainly stands out as one of the most exhilarating songs on the album. That feeling is doubled down upon on the second half of the song, when, after a short bridge that includes the remarks made by Geraldo Rivera, there is a major beat switch-up and an even more unstoppable delivery by Lamar.

The next track “YAH.” offers a nice contrast to “DNA.”, with its smoother sound and chill delivery as opposed to the aggressive tone of “DNA.” The song’s title refers to Yahweh, which some consider the real name of God. In the track, Lamar once again references Geraldo Rivera’s comments, as well as briefly mentioning some of the Afrocentric views that Lamar will further explain later in the album.

 

“I’m not a politician, I’m not ’bout a religion

I’m a Israelite, don’t call me Black no mo’

That word is only a color, it ain’t facts no mo’

My cousin called, my cousin Carl Duckworth

Said know my worth

And Deuteronomy say that we all been cursed

I know he walks the Earth”

 

Following this is “ELEMENT.”, another poppier track, with its rather straight-forward instrumental and catchy hook. The lyrics on this song not only contain a lot of braggadocio, but also feature references to Lamar’s family. The next song “FEEL.” is one of the deeper cuts of the record, with its emotional, somber beat and dark lyrics. Lamar is specifically reflecting on the negative results of his fame, and the feelings that come with it. This is seen in lines like:

 


“I feel like it’s just me

Look, I feel like I can’t breathe

Look, I feel like I can’t sleep

Look, I feel heartless, often off this

Feelin’ of fallin’, of fallin’ apart with

Darkest hours, lost it

Fillin’ the void of bein’ employed with ballin’

Streets is talkin’, fill in the blanks with coffins

Fill up the banks with dollars

Fill up the graves with fathers”

 

This song features an appearance of the notion “nobody prayin’ for me,” which is repeated several times throughout the whole album. On this song, as well as “XXX.” and “FEAR.”, Lamar acknowledges that he is praying for other people but not receiving the same treatment back.

The next couple tracks following “FEEL.” (“LOYALTY.”, “PRIDE.”, “HUMBLE.”) are more of the poppier and more mainstream songs that have appeared so far on the album, and while these songs are very good, with their clean production and catchy hooks, they don’t add that much to the overall message of the album aside from a few lines here and there. However, after these tracks comes the song “LUST.” This song seems to refer back to some of the vices that were brought up in “DNA.” The lyrics point to a lot of negative indulgences Lamar suggests African Americans are prone to “lust” over. He lists some of these things in the lyrics:

 

“Cop you a fit or maybe some kicks and make it work today

Hang with your homies, stunt on your baby mama

Sip some lean, go get a pistol, shoot out the window

Bet your favorite team, play you some Madden

Go to the club or your mama house

Whatever you doin’, just make it count”

 

These lines are set over a mellow, yet ominous beat with several passages in which the snares and hi-hats are played in reverse. This message about lust and giving into self-indulgent luxuries will be expanded on further on “FEAR.”

The next notable track would be “XXX.” which is not only a staggering song with its multiple beat switches, but one that speaks on a few very relevant topics. The song starts off with an extremely minimal beat that features a distorted bassline, record scratches, choppy piano samples, as well as monotone  delivery by Lamar. Here he talks about a character named Johnny, who Lamar believes gets very easily swayed into bad lifestyles by his environment.

 

“Johnny don’t wanna go to school no mo’, no mo’

Johnny said books ain’t cool no mo’ (no mo’)

Johnny wanna be a rapper like his big cousin

Johnny caught a body yesterday out hustlin’

God bless America, you know we all love him”

 

This is followed by the first beat change in the song, which is more fast paced and features an ambulance siren sound combined with a deep moving bassline. This passage tells a story about Lamar getting called by a friend who tells him to pray for him, because his son had just been killed.

 

“Yesterday I got a call like from my dog like 101

Said they killed his only son because of insufficient funds

He was sobbin’, he was mobbin’, way belligerent and drunk

Talkin’ out his head, philosophin’ on what the Lord had done

He said: “K-Dot, can you pray for me?

 

I know that you anointed, show me how to overcome.”

He was lookin’ for some closure

Hopin’ I could bring him closer

To the spiritual, my spirit do no better, but I told him

“I can’t sugarcoat the answer for you, this is how I feel:

If somebody kill my son, that mean somebody gettin’ killed.”

 

Lamar emphasizes this point that he would take revenge on whoever did this to his son, before telling his friend that he has a speech about gun-control to give. There is an obvious hypocrisy here that Lamar has acknowledged before in the past when it comes to his views on gun violence and the partaking of it that he’s done as a teenager. Part of him would want to him to avenge the loss of a loved one, but he still wants to maintain peace.

This transitions into another beat change that takes a far slower and smoother style than the last passage, as well as including a chorus from Bono of U2. In this final part of the song, Lamar gives his views on the most recent events in America, including Trump’s presidency, and how him and many others have missed Obama since he left office.

With the possible exception of “GOD.”, the last tracks after “XXX.” are probably the most dense and important to the overall moral of the album. The following track “FEAR.” is an almost eerie track, with its sparse, cavernous production and dark lyrics. Here, Lamar speaks on different types of fear, along with the questioning of God he has felt because of the struggles he’s had to endure.

 

“Why God, why God do I gotta suffer?

Pain in my heart carry burdens full of struggle

Why God, why God do I gotta bleed?

Every stone thrown at you restin’ at my feet

Why God, why God do I gotta suffer?”

 

He also goes into more specific fears he has had, including being afraid of his mother, which he expresses by speaking from his mother’s perspective, and the fear that he may die too young.

 

“I beat yo ass, keep talkin’ back

I beat yo ass, who bought you that?

You stole it, I beat yo ass if you say that game is broken

I beat yo ass if you jump on my couch”

 

“I’ll prolly die anonymous

I’ll prolly die with promises

I’ll prolly die walkin’ back home from the candy house

I’ll prolly die because these colors are standin’ out

I’ll prolly die because I ain’t know Demarcus was snitchin’”

 

“Or maybe die from pressin’ the line, actin’ too extra

Or maybe die because these smokers

Are more than desperate

I’ll prolly die from one of these bats and blue badges

Body slammed on black and white paint, my bones snappin’

Or maybe die from panic or die from bein’ too lax

Or die from waitin’ on it, die ’cause I’m movin’ too fast

I’ll prolly die tryna buy weed at the apartments

I’ll prolly die tryna diffuse two homies arguin’

I’ll prolly die ’cause that’s what you do when you’re 17

All worries in a hurry, I wish I controlled things”

 

The end of this song features a voicemail from his cousin Carl Duckworth, who is mentioned several times on this album, in which Duckworth explains some more of the Afrocentric views that Lamar has referenced throughout songs like “DNA.”, “YAH.”, and “FEEL.” In this voicemail, Duckworth tells Lamar about a Deuteronomy verse and its application to Afrocentric belief that, according to this belief system, explains why races like African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans have gone through the horrific things that they have.

 

“Verse two says, “You only have I known of all the families of the Earth, therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” So until we come back to these commandments, until you come back to these commandments, we’re gonna feel this way, we’re gonna be under this curse. Because He said He’s gonna punish us, the so-called Blacks, Hispanics, and Native American Indians, are the true children of Israel. We are the Israelites, according to the Bible. The children of Israel, He’s gonna punish us for our iniquities, for our disobedience, because we chose to follow other gods that aren’t His son, so the Lord, thy God, chasten thee. So, just like you chasten your own son, He’s gonna chastise you because He loves you. So that’s why we get chastised, that’s why we’re in the position we’re in. Until we come back to these laws, statutes, and commandments, and do what the Lord said, these curses are gonna be upon us. We’re gonna be at a lower state in this life that we live here in today, in the United States of America. I love you, son, and I pray for you. God bless you, shalom.”

 

Following this is the final track “DUCKWORTH.”, a smooth, jazz-influenced song which tells the true story of how Anthony A.K.A. “Top Dawg”, who is the owner of the record label Lamar is signed under, almost killed Lamar’s father, Ducky, in a robbery at the KFC Ducky worked at.

 

“Crooked cops told Anthony he should kick it

He brushed them off

And walked back to the Kentucky Fried Chicken

See, at this chicken spot

There was a light-skinned ***** that talked a lot

With a curly top and a gap in his teeth

He worked the window, his name was Ducky”

 

“’Cross the street from the projects

Anthony planned to rob it”

 

“Ducky was well-aware

They robbed the manager and shot a customer last year

He figured he’d get on these ***** good sides

Free chicken every time Anthony posted in line

Two extra biscuits, Anthony liked him

And then let him slide; they didn’t kill him

In fact, it look like they’re the last to survive

Pay attention, that one decision changed both of they lives”

 

Lamar then explains how they would meet again once Lamar was signed to Top Dawg:

 

“Twenty years later, them same strangers you make ’em meet again

Inside recording studios where they reapin’ their benefits

Then you start remindin’ them about that chicken incident

Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence?

Because if Anthony killed Ducky

Top Dawg could be servin’ life

While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight”

 

Lamar is also essentially saying here that if that robbery hadn’t gone the way that it did, Lamar could’ve possibly gone down a different path during his teenage years, leading to his death.

The end of this song is especially interesting. After the last lyric, the gunshot heard at the end of “BLOOD.” is played once again, and then the album is reversed all the way back to beginning, as several pieces of the album can be heard in reverse, until it stops at the beginning line of “BLOOD.”

 

“So, I was takin’ a walk the other day…”

 

In conclusion, while this record definitely takes a much more mainstream, “pop-rap” approach to its structure and sound, as compared to the jazzier style of “To Pimp A Butterfly,” the album still delivers some great insight into Lamar’s current feelings, and shows us sides of him that we still hadn’t seen up until this point. Even where the album may lack in terms of story-telling or lyrical substance, it definitely makes up for in its pure musicality. “DAMN.” by Kendrick Lamar gets a:

 

8.7/10!

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