Kung Fu Kenny & the Compton Conundrum
A Kendrick Lamar album is like a riddle. The answer to the question a riddle poses is one that brings satisfaction and a sense of achievement when finally discovered, a revelation that was lying under your nose the whole time. But ‘DAMN.’ isn’t a riddle. If his previous albums were just that then his latest effort is like deciphering ancient hieroglyphics. A pretty surprising release given that it was announced on ‘The Heart Part IV’ just last month, ‘DAMN.’ comes 2 years after the Compton rapper’s masterful, generation-defining LP ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ – a 2 year break that has seen him stay well within the reams of relevancy. Along with the equally high-regarded ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city‘ back in 2012, the question of whether K.Dot could pull of a ‘3-peat’ was on. Was it to be another story of life in Compton? Another dive into how black culture fairs in modern day America? Or will it be something else entirely? An indescribable body of work formed of deep thought and philosophy? Spoilers.
Kendrick sits atop a throne in rap wearing his ‘thinking man’s rapper’ sash with glistening pride. Since his debut back in 2010, TDE’s golden boy has always defined himself by his lyrical ability, his tomes of wisdom and his ever-slick approach to tackling the intertwining issues of black America and the working class, often embodying those outside of his own presence to tell a plethora of stories laced with hardship, hope and what he calls ‘hiiipower’.
Since kicking down the door of the underground to reveal his parables to the mainstream, it’s clear Kendrick has struggled with living the life of rapper while juggling both vices and commitments to those who stand in contrast to the stereotypical lifestyle of hip hop. These conflicting ideologies and beliefs come to fruition on ‘DAMN.’, cleverly portrayed as juxtaposing song titles and the simple control Kendrick has over how he delivers his many lines and limericks. Deciphering a pair of tracks like ‘PRIDE.’ and ‘HUMBLE.’ requires knowing what themes run through the veins of the record and how each song plays into the overall picture. Take them at base level and you have two songs crafted to show conflicting human feelings, albeit playing off their ideas ironically, with ‘HUMBLE.’ and it’s rattling bass and skeletal piano mixture playing stage to one of Kendrick’s most braggadocios songs “(Bitch) Sit down / Be humble”. Steve Lacy’s sour-tongued guitar riffs on ‘PRIDE.’ play stage to the exact opposite; an introspective K.Dot looking deep inside himself to study his own ego in relation to what makes up his consciousness.
This is what ‘DAMN.’ represents for Kendrick Lamar the rapper; an exploration of what defines his existence and how his fame has brought him closer to his vices and further away from the God-fearing Kendrick under the surface. ‘DNA.’, the album’s fantastically superficial banger coated in Mike WiLL Made-It’s knock-filled bass and ear-shattering snares, is fronted as another ego trip when it’s really the rapper labelling what makes up his individuality in the wider view of his ‘blackness’. Equally as great, and arguably Kendrick’s most enticing performance on the album, ‘ELEMENT.’ has him take his stand against his contemporaries and declare his dominance through the wicked hook “If I gotta slap a pussy-ass nigga, I’ma make it look sexy / If I gotta go hard on a bitch, I’ma make it look sexy / I pull up, hop out, air out, made it look sexy”.
Though these songs may play more the style of the very contemporaries he challenges (with much of ‘DAMN.’ peppered in trap music features), Kendrick is sure to address the other half of his consciousness with tracks that add ever-more depth to just what the record is about. ‘FEEL.’ is more low-key and atmospheric in its execution, akin to the self-deprecation found on ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’s’ ‘u’ but shrouded in further bitterness and regret. He craves for people to look out for him but at the same time craves the isolation his fame won’t let him acquire. His position has granted him success and wealth, but has also wickedly forced him to stray from his religion: “I feel like the whole world want me to pray for ’em / But who the fuck prayin’ for me?”. This conflict runs rampant through ‘DAMN.’, more often than not creating moments of brilliance like this and only reinforcing Kendrick’s claim to the crown.
While this puzzle makes for a wonderfully-disjointed and thought-inducing listen, it makes the album’s drawbacks stand out a little more. ‘LOYALTY.’ and ‘LOVE.’ feature lacklustre performances from both the Compton rapper and his guests (here being Rihanna and Zacari) over pop-rap production I never really wanted to hear Kendrick on. They work in the wider perspective of the album, but as tracks in themselves they’re some of the weakest pieces he’s ever put out – making it just more jarring when they’re paired with other pieces of masterful effort.
The album’s defining track ‘FEAR.’ perfectly sums up Kendrick’s mind state in relation to the album’s writing – he discusses this inner battle with his own accomplishments that block the road to heaven. At the very beginning of ‘DAMN.’ a question is posed: “Is it wickedness or weakness?” and this is a question K.Dot ponders in great depth over the 14 tracks. To be wicked is celebrated in conventional hip hop, to admit weakness is to fall from grace and be considered ‘whack’ – a struggle Kendrick blames on himself. On ‘FEAR.’ and it’s sweet, soulful instrumental he wonders what his death will bring – will his earthly actions bring him descent or will God see his true intentions despite his vices? If what happens on earth stays on earth, should he live for rap or for God? Will it all matter in the end as his fame distances him from his loved ones, leaving him with pride and riches rather than humbleness and real loyalty? Questions that have no real answer in our simple world and only really have one reaction when posed to a mortal man – “damn”.
‘DAMN.’ is the manifestation of Kendrick’s conflict of existence – is the Compton rapper living under God or under rap? The record begins with a blind woman (presumably the personification of justice) shooting and killing him as a result of his actions of kindness, sparking him to look back at his life and contemplate what he really lives for. The album itself is a duality of art, both in praise and in analysis. Expertly composed beats and writing provide a pretty picture to look at – but art is more than the overall image, it’s the sum of the parts that make it up, the message and meaning of every stroke the artist intends to convey in order to connect with the observer at a humane level. In that sense ‘DAMN.’ is true art in its study just as much as its likeability. It’s not Kendrick’s most finely tuned LP as far as the music goes, but it’s his most deep and complex body of work; and piecing it together is one hell of an enjoyable experience.