Albums of 2017 (#1): Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

Kendrick Lamar names and faces his fears on his fourth studio LP, and it's The Skinny's Album of 2017

Feature by Aidan Ryan | 28 Nov 2017

Kendrick Lamar was interested in the prophets and apostles long before he realised that he had become one. Since then – sometime between the conception of K-Dot’s dialogue with Tupac at the end of To Pimp a Butterfly and the album’s frenzied critical reception – he’s become an ethical lightning rod and an icon for a generation; he’s met with a president to talk policy and (hood) politics, and he’s seen his lyrics become anthems for protest movements. He’s also seen more young boys and girls who looked up to him get killed or go missing without explanation. He’s seen a new president come into office, bringing with him a messy cohort that in many ways appears like a photo negative of the memorable TPaB cover. And he’s seen protest movements sputter and falter, heard his lyrics picked apart by FOX pundits and trolls, and heard his art form accused of doing more damage than racism.  

DAMN. is Lamar’s way of grappling with all that, a question-and-answer session that picks up where TPaB left off – that is, in the silence after Tupac’s voice disappears, leaving only Kendrick, the prophet, in dialogue with himself and his times. 

Because of that, DAMN. feels closer, more claustrophobic (though not anywhere near Danny Brown's Atrocity Exhibition-level claustrophobic) compared to the freewheeling, far-sampling, jazzy Butterfly. The beats are heavy, spare, and hard. Lamar demonstrates the versatility of his flow – like a natural force on DNA., so entrancing and totalising we forget the beat behind it; smoky and cool on YAH., like a light rain on the remnants of a wildfire; and with a nasality on LOYALTY. that he tailors perfectly to Rihanna – but the buoyancy of earlier efforts (think Alright and King Kunta) is gone. 

Or perhaps interiority is the better word. While TPaB unleashed a host of voices, characters, and ciphers over Compton, the White House, and the political landscape of 2015, Lamar here is … mostly Lamar. Lauded as a prophet, a positive influence, a new lyricist, jazz-soul messiah, yam-bringer, Lamar now has to retire into a personal desert to ask questions that belong only here. Every question he asks, though, is bi or tri-directional: addressed to himself, to his audience, and to God.

He fixates on the loyalties of those in his inner circle while prodding his own. He uses the lances of criticism to further explore his own wounds – his motives, his honesty, his past. He names and faces his fears. On HUMBLE. he simultaneously knocks his critics and competitors and vents his ever-present doubt about his own skill, truthfulness, impact, and longevity. Then on LUST. he slips into a heady, heavy-steeped expression of intoxication, desire, and exhaustion – from sex, celebrity, and politics. It will also stand the test of time as one of the rawest and most cogent expressions of the day after the last American presidential election.

The themes are familiar from earlier efforts – but this is more obviously an effort, a struggle. Appropriately then, he laconically raps on YAH., 'I’m a Israelite, don’t call me black no mo'.' He’s mining a deep vein – many African American artists have appropriated Old Testament narratives to describe their social and political experience. Here, though, Lamar really is Israel: “he who struggles with God.” The result, like TPaB, has a few great bangers, but is in toto difficult listening. And we need to listen from start to finish, because the album doesn’t remain trapped inside its closed loops of doubt, and personal and political exhaustion.

The final track, DUCKWORTH., breaks the “cycle,” and breaks Lamar’s hold on himself. It tells the story of how Anthony 'Top Dawg' Tiffith, founder of Top Dawg Entertainment, spared the life of Lamar’s father – another break in a cycle, this time the cycle of violence and fatherless childhoods in Lamar’s Compton. Like the best of the prophets, Kendrick offers no prophecy here: instead the album closes with an acknowledgement of just how difficult choosing mercy, trust, and community can be – while reaffirming that if we are to have any salvation, it is in these small moments, in making this choice again and again, every opportunity we get.

And while he’s emerging from the desert with this luminous parable, of course, Lamar manages to slip in one last reminder that he’s 'the greatest'. DAMN.

DAMN. was released on 14 Apr via Top Dawg Entertainment/ Interscope/ Aftermath; this piece was originally published as a four-star album review on 7 May 2017.