kendrick lamar, “DAMN.”, and the inevitable condemnation of the conscious rapper.

(or: a nonsensical blog post in which I ruin my career as a blogger before i even get to start it).

*i strongly reccomend listening to the album before reading this post.

i. a mandatory preface

there is plenty to like about Kendrick Lamar: his lyrical hability, the (ostensible) thematic concinnity of his albums, his vocal acrobats, the way in which explores said themes, the multivocality of his turns of phrases, the intricacies of his ostensibly complex themes, the sheer importance of the topics he explores, his incredible ear for melodies, the legions of producers he assembles to construct his albums (which often results in records that transform from the title of a mere “record” into an entire social event over the course of ten hours), and his overall ability to bridge the gap between “groundbreaking” and “experimental” music to the apex of the radio charts with relative ease. in many ways, Kendrick Lamar is almost too good to be true for hip hop. there isn’t a single figure in contemporary music who has been extolled and celebrated to such a high extent almost unanimously by both the average music consumer and music critics from all over (maybe except for Kanye west, however, his winning streak seemed to be thoroughly attenuated by the extremely decisive Yeezus). it’s not difficult to see why Kendrick Lamar, with albums such as “To Pimp A Butterfly” or “Good Kid City”, would receive such unanimous praise, for he seemed to play a pivotal part in the restoring of faith in a genre of music which so frequently declares creative bankruptcy and sterility (the only time hip-hop wasn’t declaring its own preemptive death was in its golden age, which while applicable to every genre/medium of art ever, is especially true in hip-hop–a genre which evolves and leaves behind trends faster than every other genre ever). i like Kendrick Lamar (while section 80 was a masterclass in mediocrity and left plenty to be desired, it was gkmc that marked a turning point in his career, where he truly hit his stride both commercially and artistically).

like Kendrick Lamar, there’s plenty to like about albums such as “To Pimp A Butterfly”, and all of the best traits about Kendrick Lamar become intensely palpable on tpab. immediately, one gets the sense that they’re truly listening to something of immense importance–as if they’re not only listening to an album, but a cultural event. Kendrick weaves a rich tapestry of sounds and aural puzzles through countless production tricks percolating through and the use of vocal guests which comfortably hide within the alcoves of his sonic mosaic. a nexus is built between live jazzy instrumentation and sample-based colleges–something simultaneously revivalist and yet ostensibly innovative (note my repetitive use of the word “ostensible”, which we’ll get to). there’s just so much shit thrown at you, an entire world to unpack: butterfly analogies and motifs and poems and autobiographical passages and funk ditties and aspersions against the black community and celebrations of blackness and social comment after social comment and depression and self-acceptance and a fucking 2pac interview, and that doesn’t even scratch the tip of the iceberg of what Kendrick throws at the listener. “Good Kid M.a.a.d City”, by contrast, isn’t as nearly as complex as tpab is, which in turn weaves a more coherent narrative, but takes less sonic risks. what rings true about both projects, though, and even all of Kendrick’s projects, is that Kendrick clearly has a lot to say and wants to ensure that he says all of it, which is certainly preferable to a rapper who has considerably less to say and yet decidedly occupies an hour of your time regardless.

and like Kendrick and his previous two projects, there’s plenty to like about “DAMN.” (the unnecessary period at the end of that album title definitely makes it difficult to distinguish when a sentence begins and ends. thanks Kendrick.) it’s (in my opinion) his most mellisonant project yet. never has he sounded more smooth, the hooks now hookier than ever, him now bearing a formidable grasp on both the hip-hop industry and his sound, yet not allowing himself to become complacent. understanding now that he is here to stay and that there’s not possibly any sonic mishap that could ruin his career, we now get legitimately weird moments on this record, some which go incredibly well (the reversed drums on “LUST.“, the glitchy sonic puzzle that is “ELEMENT.” and pretty much all of “XXX.“) and some which elude me entirely (“GOD.” and the admittedly amateurish cover). this is indubitably Kendrick’s most daring project yet, and i wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up being his most decisive record to date. “DAMN.“, in the same fashion as tpab, has a shitload of producers, and yet is somehow more straightforward than it’s predecessors. yet, in all it’s ostensible thematic and sonic procacity, “DAMN.” only ends up being Kendrick’s most perplexing artistic statement to date.

ii. words, words, words and more words.

one motif/theme which seems to appear frequently in Kendrick’s work is dichotomy, and to an even greater extent, hypocrisy. hypocrisy played a significant role in tpab, especially in songs like “The Blacker The Berry“, and on “DAMN.“, Kendrick is far from done with exploring it. the lead single, “HUMBLE.” illuminates this reoccurring theme with a blinding light of photic effulgence, which features Kendrick deliberately contradicting the demands he so eloquently vocalizes in the chorus. tracks like “LUST.” and “LOVE.” dissent greatly in both lyrically and sonically (the titles obviously are opposites of each other). there are plenty times on this record and others where Kendrick becomes introspective and publicises his inner fears, like on the noscible and highly lauded “Mortal Man”. this song isn’t necessarily the breaking point in Kendrick’s use of the hypocrisy motif, but it is a pivotal moment where it starts to come loose at the seams and collapse in on itself. its admirable and even refreshing that a rapper is even capable of acknowledging the nuances of the self and the various social issues that he explores, but i’m sorry, the execution just results in a gradual degradation of the thematic concinnity once one begins to examine his logic from a critical point of view. it’s not necessarily the fact that his logic may or may not be faulty that makes these moments of hypocrisy ineffectual. what it really is is the improper and infuriatingly convenient application of these hypocritical moments. the moments between when Kendrick is rapping from his own perspective or the perspective of others begins to become blurred. on gkmc, the various intonations and vocal inflections acted as a useful storytelling tool, but as Kendrick’s career goes on, it seems to become less of a storytelling tool and more like a song crafting tool. which would be fine, if these albums were just an assemblage of new songs like albums often are, but it’s clear that Kendrick is trying to tell a narrative in even the case of his latest record, as evinced by the first and last tracks and the reiteration of the “wicked or weakness” anthem. from whom’s perspective is Kendrick rapping from on the catchy but emphatically pointless and redundant “HUMBLE.”? Kendrick compellingly remarks about how it’d be superfluous to feign humility and largesse in order to preserve the egos of significantly less confident rappers. i considered this to effectively be the thesis statement of “PRIDE.”–Kendrick battling with desire and materialism, experiencing the struggles of being consonantly declared the greatest rapper alive. so, why is it that Kendrick effectively just says “fuck it” and embraces that title with open arms on the track that immediately follows? unless we assume that there is no specific chronology or coherent logical succession that acts in service of the album, in which case i question the artistic decision of putting these two tracks directly after each other in the first place. or, if Kendrick simply wanted a banger on there, then i question the decision of creating a narrative in the first place.

this is only one example of Kendrick’s numerous narrative/logical mishaps. there’s too many instances where these moments of hypocrisy on Kendrick’s records are only applicable when it’s ostensibly convenient for them to be there. am i supposed to be impressed when Kendrick perplexingly interjects a completely random pre-chorus about “good pussy” on loyalty–a song that is otherwise entirely NOT about good pussy? am i supposed to laud Kendrick for the completely supervacaneous and utterly vacant (and inappropriately titled) “GOD.”? when am i supposed to take Kendrick’s lyrical abstractions at face value as just “things that sound good” and when am i supposed to take each individual stanza serious? am i supposed to praise Kendrick for his album’s seemingly complex themes/narratives/motifs and dismiss every parisological turn of phrase or undeveloped stanza just as volitional contributions to the concept that Kendrick can be and often is contradictory? this video by the fantastic Channel Criswell was released concurrently to the creation of this (my) blog post, and it just about covers everything i mentioned here. Criswell, in stark contrast to what i’ve argued thus far, opines that Kendrick’s subversion of identity and the blurring of ipseity acts in service of this ubiquitous theme of “growth”; that Kendrick understands, values and seeks to acurrately represent multiple perspectives in his music. while that may be agreeable, the things i’ve already mentioned remain difficult to reconcile, especially when taking into consideration a song like on tpab’s “King Kunta“, where an ineluctable reality about one of Kendrick’s greatest flaws is exhumed; where his lyrical improvidence is brought to the forefront. we get vacant filler lines about the “yams”, and how the “yams are the power that be”, which he seems to also be in possession of, and then we get lazy references to life screaming “Annie, are you ok?”–an undeniably purposeless line in an undeniably purposeless song which failed on every level (in the same fashion as “HUMBLE.“) to contribute to an ostensibly grand narrative. i can understand the purpose of the song like “Hood Politics“–a song where Kendrick recalls a time when all he knew was the streets–but this song, while catchy and quotable, only serves to reiterate themes that he’s already explored operosely, thus making it completely redundant and in turn, useless.

it’s these moments of thematic pointlessness (such as the obnoxiously saccharine love balladry of “LOVE.“, and, again, the utterly perplexing “GOD.“) that make me question the reasoning behind crafting these narratives to begin with if Kendrick loses interest in maintaining their consistency. Kendrick, on “DAMN.”, seemed to be completely disinterested in making a concept album. and yet, we ostensibly got one anyway. why is this?

iii. the inevitable condemnation of the conscious rapper.

it’s in this section where i will be going into dangerous “pop psychology” territory, but hear me out. this is where Kendrick’s ineffectiveness and Kendrick’s laziness become unclear. a concept album was clearly the intention here, as evinced by the rewinding tape à la Good Kid M.a.a.d City on “DUCKWORTH.” and the reoccurring “wicked or weakness” mantra. the problem is that Kendrick doesn’t do nearly a good enough job at delivering on the shit he set up with the terminally quaintise “BLOOD.”–a song which initially gets one very excited for what’s to come. a thousand rap geniuses will opine and dissent on the symbolic significance anent the anecdote about the old woman, but i’m not interested in unpacking that at the moment. the question that i’m more interested in exploring is “did this need to be a concept album”, as opposed to “what is the concept behind this album”. this album irrefutably places less emphasis on the concept than Kendrick’s previous two projects. the chronology is even more fragmented than the previous record’s chronology; the overall intentions of the record now more unclear than ever before. it seems that even Kendrick himself was disinterested in making this a concept album. i’m lead to believe this by the fact that it all just comes across as so fucking lazy. the concept introduced by the proemial “BLOOD.” is lazily concluded at the end of “DUCKWORTH.” with a rewinding of the tape and the aforementioned “So I was takin’ a walk the other day”. the only glue holding “BLOOD.” and the rest of the songs together are these laconic and frustratingly vague vocal interludes about “wickedness” and “weakness” and “him being against the world”. while tpab suffers from the fact that the longiloquent talking/poem reciting interludes and outerludes diminishes the replayability of the record, “DAMN.” suffers from the opposite, where Kendrick’s intentions are more unclear than they’ve ever been. we do not get a 12 minute documentary/emotional whirlwind in which all the album’s themes are succinctly affined by a long (if not kind of vague) poem and 2pac interview. in lieu of those two very welcomed things, we get a boom-bap inspired beat with a 4-minute anecdote superjacent–great song, but not exactly the greatest way to end the album. now, compared to all of the other tracks, sure, it is the most appropriate track for a closer, but it does make for Kendrick’s least eventful closer yet.

it is for these reasons that i can’t shake the feeling that the reasoning for creating this narrative, to begin with, was out of some sort of self-imposed obligation. Kendrick himself put this pressure on himself to release another “classic”–a habit which he seems to be aware of given the themes he explores on this record, but a habit he hasn’t seemed to shake regardless. all good things must come to an end, and this is a party that Kendrick clearly doesn’t want to stop. because even in all the struggles that come with being unanimously declared the greatest rapper on the fucking planet, it also ain’t that bad neither. in order to effectively deliver in an era of the universally condemned TRUMP, to satisfy after calling your own album “urgent” and necessary, to assuage after the industry bombshell that was “The Heart Pt. 4“, Kendrick needed to tie the loose ends somehow. fandom is a funny and fickle thing which is easily susceptible to abrupt degradation upon learning that it’s favourite thing didn’t deliver on the thing that it promised, and that was a hornet’s nest that even Kendrick wasn’t prepared to poke. this fear of losing the championship belt and industrial exaltation is something he expressed on the fantastic “FEAR.“–the fear of losing creativity. the fear of disappointing an often irresolute crowd of hip-hop listeners. the fear of “falling off” (a ubique phenomenon that he himself said he hopes to elude as an artist on “The Heart Pt. 4“). the fear of condemnation. the fear of being the guy who used to be the greatest in the world.

this hole that Kendrick forced himself into is inevitable for any artist who makes consistently great works of art. there’s a certain ineluctability to greatness; a standard that one creates for themselves after delivering so many times. Kendrick Lamar is not the same person he was when he released To Pimp A Butterfly. Kendrick himself recognizes that he is merely a product of his environment who is constantly changing. And as the artist changes, the art changes too. however, i think that this fear, in this case, has only served to restrict Kendrick as an artist. it has resulted in a feckless attempt to recapturing the spirit of it’s predecessors, which has only, in turn, had a negative impact on “DAMN.“‘s ability to crafting an identity of its own. it is for this reason that “DAMN.” ends up being a mishmash of conflicting identities, where songs like “PRIDE.” and “HUMBLE.” only end up working in direct opposition to each other rather than working together to limn a coherent picture of what Kendrick is trying to say. yet, it’d be an oversimplification to simply declare that fear has conquered Kendrick. to claim fear as the victor would require ignoring all the stuff that does work, such as the aural delectability of “PRIDE.” or the heteroclitical yet deeply effective “LUST.” or the autobiographical prepossession of “FEAR.” or the tarantismic “ELEMENT.“. there’s simply too much here that works to claim that it doesn’t work as a whole. “DAMN.”, from the perspective of an unwitting listener, forces you to sit down and watch the brutal digladiation betwixt fear and the conflicted artist, and in the end, neither of them win. rather, the both of them collapse onto the bloodied pavement, sedent, suffering temporarily from post-brawl anhelation, the both of them eventually calling a truce after 55 minutes of ceaseless fisticuffery. while “DAMN.” may not be as thematically coherent as To Pimp A Butterfly or Good Kid M.a.a.d City, it is also staggeringly alike in that in provides not just merely an album, but an entirely unique experience.

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