“Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence/ Because if Anthony killed Ducky/ Top Dawg could be servin’ life/ While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight.”
For the first time ever, we are forced to grapple with the idea of life on Earth without Kendrick Lamar. Over bullets and extra biscuits, we become acquainted with a previously elusive Top Dawg, Ducky, and his son, “Kung-Fu Kenny” — the Kendrick Lamar with the itchy trigger finger, razor-sharp tongue, and quiet reluctance to touch his hard-earned riches. All of them black men on these circuitous but seemingly preordained missions — from the projects to the front register of KFC and cartwheels at the estate — to bring or ultimately speak life into the world. To fill a very obvious void. Whether that requires taking young spitters off the street and placing them in the studio, torching other rappers for their failures, putting competing label rosters to shame, or penning protest anthems, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth and Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith’s common calling is one constructed to relay the human experience and somehow finally cement rap as more than the reductive valuations of hyper-critical outsiders who have leaned for decades on the suggestion that hip-hop is not art, but instead just talk. To make black manhood more than just lifeless bodies, iced-out caricatures, and exaggerated media tropes. It is a calling that becomes very real and urgent when Kendrick avoids the predictable gut punch of rap beef on wax to instead call out Geraldo Rivera and FOX News within the first trio of tracks. Even more, however, these men remain committed to making the brevity of black life very real by the end of the opener, which finds Kendrick perfecting his cinematographic pen game and dying at the hands of a blind, gun-toting assailant in spite of his success on “BLOOD.”. Play the project loud enough and the opening shot is palpable. The pause after the gun fires is just long enough to force each listener to contemplate the toll this calling has taken on Kendrick and the role they may have played in inflicting the damage.
By the Good Friday 2017 release of DAMN., Kendrick Lamar had battled the evils of Lucy and journeyed to the mountaintop to lay claim, once and for all, to high power. At the arrival of his fourth studio LP, he stands at the summit and stares out over the universe — worlds he created and those he inherited by virtue of his birth — ultimately disappointed by the awe-inspiring transcendence he does not find there and likely at a loss for words as it pertains to what he will tell the homies waiting for him back below the base of the mountain, fanned out across the block, still eager to get on. Ultimately, he defaults to being brutally honest — a forte of his and a fitting decision given his aversion to uplift by this point. With the release of this album. Kendrick Lamar throws off the messianic trappings of life as a rap god and the unlikely voice of a cursed people to focus instead on Kung-Fu Kenny, the mortal man. If a speeding bullet is not enough to elicit appreciation for a life, then what is? Here, Kid Capri lends his unmistakable signature to the mix as the intermittent voice of god, reminding the ungrateful mortals listening that “what happens on Earth stays on Earth”; the riches, bitches, bling, and other trappings of the rap life are not the summation of a human being or appropriate measures of the expanse that is the immortal soul. On “DNA.”, Kendrick slices himself down the middle, spills his guts, and mines the finer points of all of his moving parts over an 808-heavy production from Mike Will Made It. The combination may sound to purists like it should not work on paper, but it is absolute fire, and they reprise their magic again on “HUMBLE.” and “XXX.”, challenging rap’s own perceptions of itself and what value really boils down to from the Hot 100 to the underground.
A sonic departure from the jazz inflected funk of To Pimp a Butterfly and the hyper-melodic, west coast revival feel of good kid, m.A.A.d city, DAMN. is much more concerned with trading groove for thump and concept for straight spitting. With Rihanna dropping bars by “LOYALTY.”, it becomes clear that even at its most poignant, DAMN. is built for the whips. “PRIDE.” follows, giving context to the cock-grabbing bravado of “HUMBLE.” — both tracks ultimately offer a window into the conscience of a man crumbling under the weight of success even as he continues to add bricks to his ivory tower. Sourcing writing and production from Mike WiLL Made It, Ricci Riera, Kaytranada, Anna Wise, Zacari, Steve Lacy, BadBadNotGood, Greg Kurstin, Alchemist, 9th Wonder, and Cardo, Kendrick creates a sonic landscape that references earlier projects but stands as an entirely separate chapter that should be respected as the singular release that it is. Usual suspects DJ Dahi, Sounwave, Terrace Martin, and Top Dawg shepherd the production, which is driven in large part by the contributions of Bekon aka Daniel Tannenbaum — the relatively silent sound man behind a rack of left coast releases including tracks from Eminem, Snoop Dogg and Anderson .Paak. Borrowing from Juvenile’s flow on the deep-fried NOLA anthem “Ha”, Kendrick serves up a stylistic homage to the gangster drawl of the founding Cash Money Baller on “ELEMENT.” That nod echoes a “game recognize game” tip of the hat to Jay Z earlier in the release. A surprising contribution from James Blake helps the track to levitate as Kendrick turns into Candy Man and Blake’s burnished, weepy timbre takes a turn from the evocative to the ultra hard.
Still unsure of who exactly is praying for him, Kung-Fu Kenny stands naked in the mirror on “XXX.” to give the United States of America a good look at herself. The decidedly subdued vocal contribution from U2 frontman Bono is a sobering contrast to the booming police chase of a production that Mike Will provides for Kenny’s verses. Arguably a very sobering continuation of “Alright” and stylistic nod to the critical exploration of race and manhood The Roots capped with 2014’s …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, the track initially feels like the denouement of DAMN. — a dissection of the country that created the circumstance of blackness for Kenny the Israelite, ultimately burning down everything good, bright and holy for black men in America. Continuing his examination of the topic, K-Dot goes back into “The Heart…” to introduce the listener to the subtext of the project — and arguably his entire life — on the Alchemist-produced “FEAR.”. Kendrick looks to Deuteronomy 28 at the suggestion of his cousin, hoping to find his place among a cursed people. He digs deep into the consequences of mankind’s failure to obey the laws of god — still dying of thirst but more immediately afraid of drowning inside himself. Then the self-titled 9th Wonder-produced closing track, “DUCKWORTH.”, arrives to obliterate the notion that Kendrick was anywhere near spent. The climax of the beginning has only metastasized by the chronological end of the project as the possibility of never having had a Kendrick Lamar in the first place is only reinforced by imagining the worst. Listening front to back or in reverse, DAMN. is an album with no resolution, driven by what might be the boldest statement Kendrick Lamar has ever made — the suggestion that he could, in spite of every dollar, every win, and all of his promise, still slip through our fingers and manage to disappear. How many other young, black men have been looked over, under-appreciated, and ultimately lost the exact same way?
Essential Tracks: “DNA.”, “ELEMENT.”, “XXX.”, and “DUCKWORTH.”