Compton rapper's 'DAMN.' earns its all-caps title
With great power comes great responsibility, and Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar feels the weight of his considerable gifts on his fourth full-length, DAMN., released in April. “I feel like the whole world want me to pray for 'em,” he raps on one song. “But who the fuck prayin' for me?”
Dense and streamlined, worldly and introspective, brash and humbled, the vital, revelatory DAMN. finds Lamar wrestling with demons both internal (pride, fear) and external (the police, FOX News) as he adjusts to life in the spotlight.
The album kicks off with a skit in which Lamar attempts to help a blind woman who appears to have lost something, only to wind up dead when she flips on him. (“You have lost something,” she intones. “You've lost … your life.”) Though the true meaning of the intro has been debated — some online theorists have drawn complex, Yellow King-like comparisons that trace back to the biblical Book of Deuteronomy — in its basest form, Lamar positions himself as someone who is here to provide guidance, even at the risk of placing himself squarely in harm's way.
But first he has his own business to take care of, unpacking his long-felt dread on “FEAR.,” which traces Lamar's progression from childhood terrors (largely parental discipline) to more grown-up concerns. “At 27 my biggest fear was losin' it all,” he raps. “Scared to spend money, had me sleepin' from hall to hall/Scared to go back to Section 8 with my mama stressin'/30 shows a month and I still won't buy me no Lexus.”
It's a feeling to which many can relate: that the bottom can give out at any moment. Indeed, DAMN. is in many ways Lamar's most accessible record, with the musical pendulum swinging from the galactic jazz explorations that shaped To Pimp a Butterfly, from 2015, to more streamlined, beat-heavy backdrops. The rapper even invites along A-list collaborators like Rihanna (“LOYALTY.”) and U2 singer Bono, who turns in a thankfully understated outro on “XXX.” This simplicity, at times, informs Lamar's lyrical approach, with the rapper embracing repetition and flaunting a sharpened wordplay and delivery that run in contrast to knotty past tunes, which often included the kind of coded language that attracted linguists and scholars like moths to a porchlight.
“I am legend, I feel like y'all is peasants,” the rapper boasts on the nervy, straightforward “FEEL.” “I feel like all of y'all is desperate/I feel like all it take is a second to feel like/Mike Jordan whenever holdin' a real mic.”
Gnawing fears and mounting pressures aside, there's no doubting the air is sweet at the rarified elevation at which Lamar currently resides. Eyes up, everyone.