Kendrick Lamar is human again. On To Pimp a Butterfly he asked to be loved like Nelson Mandela and Michael Jackson—and he meant it. He wanted to embody the highest ideals of artistry and leadership and purpose. On Damn he just wants be himself. Stripped of the charged symbolism of To Pimp a Butterfly and the soul-baring confessions of Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, Damn is weightless minimalism, rap pared down to one man speaking his mind in all its complexities and contradictions and convictions, the music itself corroded into a sludge of soul, bass, and 808s. It’s one of the most thorough redefinitions since Yeezus, and in many ways Kendrick’s most ambitious album to date.
Kendrick’s self-image tends to mirror his ambitions. On his debut album, Section.80, he was content with being a mere observer. “I’m not the next pop star. I’m not the next socially aware rapper. I am a human motherfucking being,” he declared on the album’s outro. On his next album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, he was “Compton’s human sacrifice,” robbed of his innocence by a swirl of violence, poverty, and hormones. Observation remained his primary means of engaging with his fraught world, but suddenly the act was transformative. He was changed by what he witnessed, and the more he observed, the more he was capable of, as a person and as an artist.
Among fans and critics Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City turned Kendrick into the star and socially aware rapper he didn’t want to be, but Kendrick’s own ambitions were greater. “Tell me that you love me, always thinking of me, unconditional, I’m hoping I’m your favorite,” he rapped on Tech N9ne’s “Fragile” in 2013, seeking something grander than adoration. By 2014 he could name what he was looking for: immortality. “Tell me I can live long and I can live wrong and I can live right,” he demanded on Flying Lotus’ “Never Catch Me.” To match that grand ambition he had to become something more than a man, a daunting trial that his third album, To Pimp A Butterfly, depicted in awing, visceral detail. Kendrick spends that album cocooning himself in the cosmic sprawl of blackness, determined to transcend fame and racism and self-doubt and emerge perfected, unblemished by the rage and alienation that define being black in America. He ends up failing though, sending him into a spiral of depression and self-hatred that he narrowly escapes through his god, his family, and Tupac.
That Pyrrhic victory haunts Damn to its core. Less concerned with who he must become, Kendrick explores who he is, focusing on his most elemental urges. “What happens on Earth stays on Earth,” DJ Kid Capri announces periodically, anchoring the album to the mortal realm. The song titles are brutally fundamental—”Blood,” “Element,” “Love,” “DNA,” Fear,” “Feel,” “Loyalty,” etc.—and Kendrick spends the album detailing how modern life is shaped by these primordial forces.
Damn is weightless minimalism, rap pared down to one man speaking his mind in all its complexities and contradictions and convictions.
Kendrick’s belief in the cosmic doesn’t wane, but you can feel his resolve shift as he views his life through an earthly lens. On “DNA” he takes the idea of original sin literally, packing the entirety of human experience into nucleotides and proteins: “I got royalty, got loyalty inside my DNA/Cocaine quarter piece, got war and peace inside my DNA/I got power, poison, pain, and joy inside my DNA.” For Kendrick DNA is both fate and possibility, incarceration and freedom, and as he peers deeper into the microscope he sees the human condition and himself with new clarity. Midway through the song the beat shifts to match his new perspective and he emerges with utter purpose, responding to a racist Geraldo Rivera quote with blunt conviction: “I live a better life, I’m rolling several dice, fuck your life/This is my heritage, all I’m inheriting/Money and power, the making of marriages.” Through DNA, original sin becomes possibility incarnate, a cursed heritage forged into a weapon.
Relieved of his messianic ambitions, Kendrick speaks freely and directly. His rapping is often loose and winding and anxious, meandering in and out of melody and easing into hooks. He’s always had a freeform delivery, but here he actually sounds free, spacing out his words, dwelling on syllables, and swaggering rather than sprinting through beats. “Element” and “Humble” are full of slowed pronunciations that allow Kendrick to treat syllables like tiny accordions, extending and compressing rhymes as needed. His narratives follow suit, landing with a blunt force that he couldn’t quite accomplish on To Pimp a Butterfly. “I feel like there’s no tomorrow, fuck the world, the world is ending/I’m done pretending and fuck you if you get offended,” he says plainly, on “Feel.”
Kendrick has been confronting reality head-on throughout his career, but the difference here is a matter of scale. No longer speaking for a generation or a city or a people, he speaks for himself, and this frank, unfettered honesty rouses him to new levels of expression. You can feel him seethe with rage when he addresses the hypocrisy of white America on “XXX” (“It’s nasty when you set us up/Then roll the dice to bet us up/Overnight the rifles, then tell Fox to be scared of us”). And on that same track, when consulted for spiritual guidance after the death of a friend’s son, he endorses absolute, unbridled vengeance (“Ain’t no black power when your baby killed by a coward”). “Pride” and “Humble,” two obverse meditations on ego, are just as scaled-down. On “Pride” Kendrick details the ways his ego makes him less responsible to others; on “Humble” his ego empowers him to put others in their place. Because “Pride” and “Humble” prioritize Kendrick's voice, they aren’t as multi-dimensional as some of his older songs—his critique of beauty standards on “Humble” doesn’t at all consider how women themselves feel about those standards—but together they bring out an ambivalence in Kendrick that rarely appears in his songwriting.
His catalog is filled with parables and morals and lamentations, forms of storytelling that compress people and experiences into neat, digestible lessons. On Damn, these experiences and people—Kendrick included—are permitted their flaws, lusting and loathing and shit-talking and all the other things humans do. Kendrick ultimately ends up coloring these flaws as a biblical curse imposed on humanity (“Fear”), but the stories themselves remain distinct from his fire-and-brimstone conclusions. “Duckworth” the album’s final track tells the story of Kendrick’s father and Kendrick’s boss, Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, encountering each other at a KFC in the ‘80s. Top Dawg was a gangbanger and planned on robbing the KFC, but was stopped by the generosity and ingenuity of Kendrick’s father, who offered Top Dawg and his posse free chicken. Kendrick describes the story as a “coincidence,” but he stages it as an act of divine intervention, the curse of original sin momentarily lifting, and the awe with which he tells it strongly suggests that he interprets it as an act of god. My interpretation is, damn, that’s a good story.
Some will be disappointed to hear Kendrick embrace the limits of his own perspective, especially after an album where he channeled so many voices so evocatively. But Kendrick’s self-indulgence on Damn isn’t a loss of ambition. It’s a shifting of priorities, an effort to live life rather than transcend it. In a world on the brink of global war and in a country on the brink of fascism, that sounds quite ambitious to me.