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A Hip-Hop Opera From a Scion of Black Lives Matter

With “DAMN.” Kendrick Lamar struggles with his identity and that of the artist in society.

Brady O’Callahan Apr 30

Issue 224

The world’s a mess and we’re all looking for answers. We’re all looking for someone to inspire us, someone to blame. Where does change start? Where did it all go wrong? Most of us look to the political landscape, religion, the media. Kendrick Lamar looks within. He’s been a protégé of Dr. Dre, Compton’s torch-bearer, and put out rallying cries for the Black Lives Matter movement. Now, with DAMN., he struggles with the responsibility of being the savior, the anointed one, the answer.

The album begins with a man out to lend a helping hand who is killed for his selflessness. If that sounds intense, good. Lamar has a flair for fervor, and it’s on full display here. Where To Pimp a Butterfly positioned him as a voice among voices, navigating through a jazzy expanse, DAMN. places his voice at the forefront over clean, simpler beats that set the tone but don’t steal the show. Over the course of its 14 tracks, he’s funny, angry, flawed, bold, but always unabashedly himself. The album artwork is stark, focusing on Lamar, head slightly bowed, standing in front of a brick wall in a plain white T-shirt. He seems weathered, exhausted, but defiant and, more important, still standing.

Lamar has seen his fair share of battles, too. “FEAR.” hurls warning upon warning from the perspective of his mother (“I beat yo’ ass, keep talkin’ back”) as she tries to instill in her son the skills he’ll need to survive as a young black man in America (“I’ll prolly die anonymous / I’ll prolly die with promises.”) On “DUCKWORTH.,” however, he acknowledges that it’s not just these outside forces he must handle with caution: “It was always me versus the world / Until I found it’s me versus me.” Maybe to change the world around you, you need to start with yourself.

It is Lamar’s mix of introspection with political consciousness that has led many fans to consider him a voice for real people. Throughout DAMN., he relates how some consider him “anointed” and plead for him to guide and pray for them. In the video for “HUMBLE.,” he appears emblazoned with a tongue of fire, a Biblical image which signifies the guiding presence of the Holy Spirit, granting the apostles the ability to speak in languages previously unknown in order to spread the good word to all peoples. He embraces this role and intends to reach those who might not want to hear him.

Of course, such responsibility can also be thankless, opening you up to personal attacks, pain and frustration. Lamar has gotten a lot of heat for his portrayal of police brutality in his music, videos and performances, mostly from tone-deaf talking heads like Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera (whose condemnation of Lamar’s lyrics is sampled directly on “DNA.”). We ask a lot of him, but he admits, “Ain’t nobody prayin’ for me.”

DAMN. is a monument, a chronicle of the role of the artist and the self in a world standing on the edge of collapse. Kendrick Lamar is at his absolute best here.

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Illustration by Charlyne Alexis.