A rap album made for vinyl in 2017.
By Sam Barker
‘DAMN.’, Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, finds an artist coming to terms with his increased fame, visibility, and accountability all while navigating the pitfalls of celebrity, and the changing relationships that come along with it. The album largely stays away from the suggested bravado of its first single, ‘HUMBLE.’, instead exploring such themes as targeted violence towards African-Americans, religion, rap artists being scapegoated for crime, stardom, family, and, yes, even humility. Indeed, in the context of the album, ‘HUMBLE.’ takes on a different meaning. Following on from the lyrics in the outro of ‘LOYALTY.’ – ‘it’s so hard to be humble… Lord knows I’m trying’ – it feels as if the song is directed at Lamar himself as much as at his peers.
That’s not to say that Lamar never exhibits any bravado. On ‘ELEMENT.’ Lamar boasts about his skills and dominance in the rap game, but on the very next track, ‘FEEL.’, he breaks down all of his feelings regarding his own stardom, which are largely negative and tinged with sadness for, despite his presence and fame and dominance, ‘ain’t nobody praying for [him]’. ‘GOD.’ also contains Lamar boasting, but then he immediately reprimands himself for it and humbles himself in the second verse. ‘DAMN.’ is an album of contradictions, making it an entirely human work.
This humanity is one of the most important aspects of the album. While he may be referring to himself by another moniker – Kung Fu Kenny – ‘DAMN.’ feels much more immediately about Lamar himself than some of his other albums. ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ billed itself as a short film, and chronicled a day in the life of 17-year old Lamar, while ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ felt like an episodic film of sorts. Both albums were personal, but distinctly told stories. ‘DAMN.’ concerns itself less with story-telling than revelation and meditation upon certain topics.
There is one story-telling device utilized on ‘DAMN.’, however, that stands out. The entire album is framed as a cyclical work that reaches back further into Lamar’s past as it progresses, while still concerning itself with his present-day self. The order of the tracks is clearly important, with juxtapositions and relationships jumping out at the listener as the album progresses in order.
The last track, ‘DUCKWORTH’, takes us back to the beginning of the album by taking us back to the beginning of Kendrick Lamar’s career, and the curious twists of fate and coincidence that led to him being signed. At the end, after a gunshot, we get various sounds from the rest of the album played in reverse, as if the album were rewinding itself back to the beginning, and we hear, once more, Lamar’s first line from opener ‘BLOOD.’, ‘So I was taking a walk the other day…’. If we were listening to the album on vinyl, as perhaps Lamar would prefer (‘fourteen tracks, carried out over wax’), we could lift it up, flip it, and loop it all over again.