With ‘DAMN.,’ Kendrick Lamar turns inward, exploring emotional dichotomies

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On the single “The Heart pt. IV,” released March 23 through Top Dawg Entertainment, Lamar embraces the title of “greatest rapper alive” and warns us all that we had until April 7 to get our shit together. That effortless confidence in his abilities, perhaps unsurprisingly, is fully warranted. DAMN., which dropped last Thursday at midnight, is a blistering 55 minutes of masterfully interwoven dialogue in which Lamar counterposes pride and humility, lust and love, and religion and fear, while taking shots at Fox News and Donald Trump and exploring the baggage that accompanies his slingshot career from the streets of Compton to superstardom.

DAMN. is a highly circular, cyclical album — a fact reinforced by the texture of the music itself, as rewinded, reversed segments and phrase repetitions redirect us back into different cuts and into different points in Lamar’s life. In certain stretches, Lamar’s voice is artificially pitched up and down like changing the speed on a record player. Most prominently: the outro of album-closer “DUCKWORTH.,” which reverses the entire album in a few short seconds to leave us with the opening line as the closing line.

DAMN. is one of Lamar’s most personal works. His breakout album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (2012) focused more heavily on Lamar’s experiences growing up, and To Pimp A Butterfly (2015) was built around social ills and unrests. DAMN., in contrast, is a spiral inward into Lamar’s character and the internal diametric oppositions between fame and humility, and the way Lamar as an artist deals with the pride not only requisite to success as a rapper, but the pride imparted by a musical community that has hailed him as king.

Right off the bat, “DNA.” examines Lamar’s relationship with his Blackness and how the world around him responds to it. In the first verse, he raps, “I got dark, I got evil, that rot inside my DNA,” referencing his upbringing surrounded by and participating in gang violence — a common theme in his songs — as well as his rise to fame, referenced in the line before: “I got millions, I got riches, buildin’ inside my DNA.”

He contrasts these sentiments in the bridge, where he raps “I got loyalty, got royalty, inside my DNA,” referencing both his oft-expressed devotion to his friends and family and to Afrocentrism in a direct juxtaposition with a sample of Fox News host Geraldo Rivera claiming of Lamar’s BET performance: “This is why I say that hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years.”

Lamar calls out Rivera more than once in DAMN., reflecting on the hypocrisy of consuming Black art — Rivera has been quoted saying Lamar is (besides Drake, apparently), “probably the best hip-hop artist out there today” while still implicating his music as more problematic than racism. “Fox News wanna use my name for percentage. … Somebody tell Geraldo this nigga got ambition,” he raps on “YAH.”

Ultimately though, these jabs are just flourishes on top of an album, the strength of which is in its structure. As DAMN. works its way past the Kendrick-Rihanna collab “LOYALTY.,” we find two back-to-back pairings: “PRIDE.” with “HUMBLE.” and “LUST.” with “LOVE.” And then, after the U2 feature “XXX.,” another pairing: “FEAR.” with “GOD.” As Lamar explores these emotional dichotomies he seesaws between expressions of his greatness and admissions of his vulnerabilities, painting a swirling picture of inner conflict. The centerpiece of these deliberations is “FEAR.,” which, at nearly eight minutes, is the emotional center of the album.

The song is bookended by a recorded voicemail message from his cousin Carl Duckworth, who in the opening says, “I know you feel like, you know, people ain’t been prayin’ for you,” and, after quoting Deuteronomy 28:28. returns eight minutes later to close the song with “I love you son, and I pray for you. God bless you, shalom.” The idea that no one prays for Kendrick also crops up in “ELEMENT.,” and “FEEL.,” which are other examples of the way Lamar builds his albums thematically and then threads key phrases throughout his tracklist to direct us back to those ideas. “FEAR.” also encompasses the full scope of the album chronologically, from his early childhood to the current day as it circles around the way Lamar’s relationship with himself has evolved over time.

One could easily write entire articles about each and every song on DAMN. and Pitchfork seems content to do exactly that — a testament to Lamar’s ability to simultaneously braggadociously spit rhymes destroying his haters while also crafting incredibly depthful, layered, cohesive albums. With this fourth release, Lamar re-cements that ability yet again, all while under the weight of skyrocketing expectations.

Imad Pasha covers film. Contact him at [email protected].