Kendrick Lamar — DAMN.
What do you do when you’ve scaled rap’s highest peaks and taken its crown? If you’re Kendrick Lamar, you tear up the rule book and start from scratch.
A problem that only the greatest (and luckiest) artists have isn’t how to produce a masterpiece, but how to follow one up. If you’re the Beatles, you follow the cohesive Sgt. Pepper with the schizophrenic White Album. If you’re Kanye, you step out of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s shadow with the intentionally off-putting Yeezus.
So what do you do if the masterpiece you’ve got to follow up is the world-beating To Pimp a Butterfly? If you’re Kendrick Lamar, you tear up the rule book and start from scratch.
In retrospect, Kendrick Lamar’s ascent seems inevitable. But as it happened, it was anything but. His beginnings were humble — as a teenager he released mixtapes online before catching the attention of Top Dawg records. His breakthrough only came in 2012 with the release of good kid, M.A.A.D. City. The album’s about Kendrick’s childhood in Compton. Rather than glorifying street life, good kid’s about “trying to escape that influence.” Not the kind of album that tends to go platinum, but go platinum it did.
That album seemed ubiquitous in 2012. I remember going to high school parties where teenagers drank while rapping along to Kendrick’s alcholism-skewering track ‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’, its irony lost on them.
But if good kid, M.A.A.D city had Kendrick invading house parties, 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly raised him to the level of messiah. It was no less complex than good kid, but more socially conscious, a fireball of introspection and political anger. Critics raved over it like nothing since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
In other words, the pressure on Kendrick to produce a masterpiece with his new LP Damn. was monumental. I’m sure a lot of fans hoped Damn. would be TPAB 2.0, which it isn’t. It’s not a sequel to good kid either. Instead, it’s very much its own thing: smaller but not solipsistic, angrier but not petty. It’s not as cinematic or as full of musical references as its predecessors, but that’s the point. As always, Kendrick refuses to be consigned to a box. And if he’s not breaking as much new ground as he has on previous albums, he’s still saying what’s on his mind.
He takes shots at FOX and Donald Trump. He frames his life like a superhero origin story. He rails against hypocrisy, asks society to be real for just one second, and goes viral with his left stroke, all while smugly taunting his peers.
Which brings us to the biggest takeway from Damn.: Kendrick Lamar is the best rapper in the world right now, and it’s not even close. Young Thug might have his vocal pyrotechnics, and Future’s got his AutoTune, but Kendrick’s got bars. He’s all about the lyrics and flow, window-dressing be damned. It’s ironic that the most groundbreaking emcee is — in form at least — also one of the most traditional. Rap has a long history with fetishizing authenticity, but by all appearances Kendrick is the real deal. He doesn’t rely on ghostwriters (like Drake) or an army of producers (like Kanye). Which isn’t to say that his production is subpar. It takes a backseat to his lyrics, but it’s meant to. And even when the beats on his new LP aren’t the main attraction, they still go hard enough to piss off your neighbours or wake up a dance floor.
For me at least, the joy of listening to Kendrick’s music is his unique ability to let you see from new perspectives. I am not a black man from Compton. There are so many elements of Kendrick’s narratives that I’ll necessarily never be able to understand. But he’s better than most at offering his listeners a vantage into his world, and in these times especially, that’s incredibly valuable.
As the LP’s final track — the autobiographical DUCKWORTH — comes to a close, the album’s intent seems pretty clear. Kendrick’s message to his fans is “I’m back.”
To his critics: “Sit down.”