You could say that Kendrick Lamar’s new LP DAMN. is a modern-day lament psalm, replete with faith and doubt and supplication. You could point out that though it’s chock-full of cuss words and slurs, it’s more honest than some contemporary Christian music. You could highlight lines like “Is it anybody that you would lie for? / Anybody you would slide for? / Anybody you would die for? / That’s what God for” on “LOYALTY” or “I’ll take all the religions and put ‘em all in one service / Just to tell ‘em we ain’t shit, but He’s been perfect, world” on “PRIDE” as proof of Kendrick’s orthodox Christianity. Reviewing DAMN. could quickly turn into a religion major’s senior thesis, and no one wants that.
Besides, DAMN. feels too personal for an academic thesis. We’re invited into the mind of Kendrick Lamar, where we encounter alter-egos (Kung Fu Kenny), scattered thoughts, and vicious struggle. It’s no coincidence that the instrumentals riding underneath Kendrick’s lyrics on “PRIDE” and “HUMBLE” play paradoxically to each song’s title—‘PRIDE’ slow-burns and glides along while “HUMBLE” nearly honky-tonks. This is the inconsistency in all of us. Well, at least it’s the inconsistency in me. I’m most humble when I acknowledge my pride, most arrogant when I boast about my humility.
Maybe it’s obvious, but I’m having trouble articulating exactly why I can’t stop listening to DAMN. I don’t imagine I’m Kendrick’s target audience with this record (I mean, I wear Chacos a lot, guys), and so there’s a part of me that knows I can’t completely relate to the storytelling. I don’t know Compton or gang violence or the black American experience or really even hip-hop. I listen to Kendrick and Kanye and Killer Mike, but hip-hop isn’t a culture or a home for me. It’s not anything I live and breathe.
DAMN. helps me live and breathe, though. Even as a white twenty-seven-year-old who shares almost nothing in common with King Kendrick, I relate to this album. I’ve grown “accustomed to more fear” (“FEAR”). I “need some water” (“LUST”). I’m scared to die (“FEAR”). I’m in love (“LOVE”). I’m torn through by the interplay of good and evil inside me (“DNA”). I’m confused by my own sin—is it wickedness or weakness (“BLOOD”)? Will I capitulate to sin and let it control me or admit my weakness and submit to God’s grace?
Ultimately, DAMN. is so incredible and Kendrick is the greatest rapper alive because he empathizes more thoroughly than any other recording artist. He’s gifted technically, of course (“DNA” is particularly impressive), but what separates K-Dot from his contemporaries has to be his deep compassion. He’s in the trenches, he listens, and then he tells you all he’s heard and how he’s processing all he’s heard and seen and done. At the risk of sounding too hyperbolic, he does all of this on DAMN. with the utmost craft and care.
I’ll finish with an anecdote. So I was driving the other day, listening to a previous Kendrick album called good kid, m.A.A.d city. In the middle of “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” good kid’s magnum opus, a recording plays. It’s Kendrick and his crew on the streets of Compton, immediately after one of his friends has been shot and killed. A voice, assumedly belonging to the victim’s brother, cries out, exasperated and despondent: “I’m tired of this shit! I’m tired of fuckin’ runnin’, I’m tired of this shit! My brother, homie!” The beat switches and Kendrick starts to rap: “Tired of running, tired of hunting/My own kind but retiring nothing/Tires are steady screeching, the driver is rubbing/Hands on the wheel, who said we wasn’t/Dying of thirst, dying of thirst, dying of thirst.”
Suddenly, I was crying. Weeping, actually. I was immersed in this world so foreign to me, and still Kendrick’s empathy pulled me into this story, a story that should sound utterly strange but felt oddly familiar. Then, a few days later, the same thing happened listening to “FEAR” off of DAMN. and hearing these lines: “I’ll prolly die tryna diffuse two homies arguin’/I’ll prolly die ‘cause that’s what you do when you’re seventeen/All worries in a hurry, I wish I controlled things.”
I don’t know. Two albums that have ripped my heart open, made me cry, left me at a loss for words. I think that’s transcendent.
DAMN. is good. Listen to it. If you hate it or it offends you, keep listening. Kendrick does.