The Breakdown, Damn. by Kendrick Lamar

Micah: It’s been two years since To Pimp a Butterfly dropped and expectations couldn’t be higher for Kendrick Lamar. In the six years he’s been releasing albums, he’s vaulted himself into the highest echelons of the rap game, and has made a strong case for the title of greatest rapper ever. He says it himself: “I feel like debating on who the greatest can stop it / I am legend”. While it felt premature to make such claims with the last album, if Damn. stands the test of time in the same way that Section.80, good kid, m.A.A.d city, and TPAB have, I’m confident he’ll make his way into my personal all-time top five. With more great albums under his belt than The Notorious B.I.G. and a more consistent opening run of albums than Nas, Jay-Z or Kanye West, you have to at the very least put him in the conversation.

The first couple of times I listened to this album from start to finish I noticed a couple of things right away. For Kendrick, this album is a return to a more familiar kind of Hip Hop than what we heard on TPAB. On the last project Kendrick was breaking the conventions of how a rap album is made. Instead of being fed beats, he worked with jazz musicians to organically build a sound from the ground up, but this latest effort is built on straight beats and rhymes. It’s fundamentally hip hop. There are still some elements of jazz and funk on the new project, but they’re baked into the hip hop sound instead of the other way around.

As a result, Damn. has all the cuts, scratches, and Kid Capri interjections that TPAB didn’t. Ideas are often cut off before they reach their natural end and the transitions between songs more resemble a mixtape than a live performance. Damn. is throwing you for a loop, keeping you on your toes. You don’t get any time to settle down and get comfortable on Damn. It’s a constant barrage of changes and left turns.

Henry: The project of Damn. to me seems one of resistance, of allowing nothing to settle in, of making points in fragments and snippets of different voices, which makes listening to it a decidedly different experience from each of his earlier projects–the mixtape leanings of Section.80, the grand narrative of GK:MC, the mind-expanding funk odyssey of TPABDamn. Is Kendrick’s most aggressive album, both lyrically and instrumentally, and also I think his most concise.

There’s a minimalism to the production that serves to really underscore the absolute savagery of the bars here. I’ve come to see Damn. as a kind of homecoming to rap after the neo-soul departure of TPAB (and much of untitled, unmastered), where he was playing around with different sounds, singing on tracks, and really testing the limits of his vocal range. Damn. is a straight-up rap album, and although Kendrick does use a lot of that range here as well, every element seems very deliberately and precisely placed, the voices all arranged to undercut and accentuate one another in the service of the project.

The project itself is an enormous one, societal in scope, but in many ways I think it could be conceived of as an inversion of the concerns of TPAB, whose spoken refrain: “I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence. Sometimes I did the same,” betrays a self-conscious uncertainty, a fear of power and its corrosive tendencies on the individual. Damn. has Kendrick unapologetically wielding that power, no longer afraid to use his platform to speak exactly what’s on his mind. It’s not a far stretch to see this as in part a reaction to the Trumpian identity politics of the last year or so, a refusal to mince words any longer, and a willingness to fight fire with rhetorical fire.

Micah: You’re absolutely right. Damn. is a reaction to the political uncertainty of the times and way for Kendrick to use the platform he gained with his last album. A lot of TPAB addressed black culture, encouraging self-love and giving a voice of hope for the future. You can see the jubilation of Kendrick and company on the cover of the album as they stand in front of the White House and on top of an incapacitated judge. Now that The White House is occupied by the most backwards administration in the post-Jim Crow era Kendrick isn’t attacking those who seek to oppress him, he’s attacking the wickedness inside himself and his community.

On “Duckworth” he says, “It was always me vs. the world / Until I found it’s me vs. me”. Kendrick is leading by example, encouraging his audience to examine their own actions and motivations instead of fixating only on the crazy shit happening around them. I like the way Zane Lowe put it. He described TPAB as “state of times” and Damn. as “state of mind”. TPAB is the kind of album you would expect to see in the Smithsonian, framed on the wall with a plaque next to it describing his artistic and historical significance, while Damn. is a gritty wake up call, a reminder of the dangers of indulgence, and a challenge for the listener to be righteous.
I think the challenging message of the album is a big part of why this album had to be accessible. The mainstream sound is the sugar to facilitate the medicine, because this album doesn’t say “we gon’ be alright” or “I love myself,” it says that the morality in America’s DNA has been twisted and needs to be straightened out again.

While it is important for this album to be easy on the ears in order for it’s message to resonate, the overt reach for the mainstream doesn’t always hit its mark for me. There are songs like “Love” which is beautifully written, catchy and euphoric, where Kendrick does Drake better than Drake does Drake, but there are other songs like “Loyalty”, where I love Rihanna’s rapping, but find myself skipping it the more I replay the album as a whole. And there’s the disjointed U2 collaboration that I’m still on the fence about. How are these songs working for you, HB?

Henry: I would say that the whole album seems, at least from a production standpoint, to be more solidly within the mainstream umbrella, and those three in particular do stand out as the obvious “radio” tracks from the album. I think “Love” is, as you said, the one that’s grown on me the most. I’m a fan of Zacari’s vocals, although it kinda feels like the track shoulda had Frank Ocean, or at least that Zacari is channelling his inner Frankie. I do love the beat on “Loyalty” as well, the way that glitched-out sample lands, and although I think it’s one of the least complex songs on the album, I’m still down.

“XXX”, I would also agree, is probably the strangest track on the album, but a really interesting one, hinging on several beat switches and examining the tensions between spirituality and individual pain. The opening vocals get at this idea: “America, god bless you if it’s good to you. America, please take my hand. Can you help me underst–” The song is in many ways a microcosm of the entire album–a contemporary examination of some of the central themes found in the bible–centered around an individual grappling with the undeserved misery in the world, and the tension between the spiritual leader’s status as an icon for good, and his or her own human failings. There’s a similar tension in the refrain from TPAB, the idea of misusing influence, but on “XXX” Kendrick does just that, though he is conscious of what he’s doing, as he says to a friend whose son has been killed:

“my spirit do know better but I told him I can’t sugar coat the answer for you, this is how I feel, if somebody kill my son, that mean somebody getting killed.”

The real turn in the song, however, is when U2 comes in, at which point the sound changes dramatically as a voice, presumably Bono, sings: “It’s not a place, this country is to me a sound, all drum and bass, you close your eyes to look around.” There’s a lot to unpack here as far as how American culture is experienced largely musically, but the bottom line is that both the song and the album are very much focused around the relationship between the artist and society, and much of the conflict comes from Kendrick wrestling with his own cynicism, struggling to maintain the positivity and selflessness we’ve come to expect from him. Long story short, while it’s not the most immediately listenable song, “XXX” is an interesting track, and one that’s worth digging into.

Micah: One of the most perplexing things about the album is the statements Kendrick makes about his race and ethnicity. On “Yah” he says, “I’m an Israelite, don’t call me Black no mo’ / That word is only a color, it ain’t facts no mo’ / My cousin called, my cousin Carl Duckworth”. At first I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. After TPAB’s message of black pride and self-worth, it seems strange for Kendrick to seemingly reject his blackness, but he whole thing starts to make sense after listening to the phone call from Carl placed at the end of “Fear”.

There is an interesting duality in Kendrick’s mentality throughout the album. He is both confident and braggadocious, but also feels vulnerable and alone. At a time when Kendrick is undoubtedly one of the most influential rappers alive, people seem to be praying to him instead of praying for him. Under these kinds of circumstances, who can Kendrick turn to for advice when everyone is turning to him? I think the reason Kendrick is listening to his cousin Carl is because he is the only one who says he is praying for Kendrick. Carl is providing clarity to Kendrick, who is using Damn. to try to disseminate that message to his audience by both weaving it throughout the album and giving it to the listener straight from Carl.

The recordings of Carl on “Fear” bookend three stories of times in Kendrick’s life when he felt terrorized. The kind of anguish Kendrick expresses in these stories is universal and at one time or another is felt by his audience, and to help Kendrick and his listeners, Carl offers some advice: “Until you come back to these commandments [Deuteronomy 28:28-29], we’re gonna feel this way, we’re gonna be under this curse”. It seems to me that the message here is that the culture that Kendrick represents has lost its way by giving into its vices and not obeying the way of God/Yahweh. In an effort to return to obedience and virtue, Carl and Kendrick want to cast away the label of “black” they’ve been given by American culture, and reclaim the title and ways of the “children of Israel”.

This is the message of Damn. it is a plea for the children of Israel to rediscover their spirituality, which has been replaced by the sins of lust and pride and has brought them into a state of fear. It is by replacing lust with love and pride with humility that Kendrick and the listener can become free and enlightened. It is not a coincidence that right after Carl lays all this out in his phone call the next track, “God” begins, which has some of the most spacious and uplifting, production with a little help from Sounwave, Cardo, DJ Dahi and a host of others.

After finally bringing the message home, Kendrick ends the album with the 9th Wonder produced “Duckworth” (Kendrick’s given name) doing what he does best, storytelling. “Duckworth” is a story about how Kendrick’s father met Top Dawg, who would later become Kendrick’s manager, after moving to Compton. While Kendrick’s father was working to support his young son and wife, Top Dawg was known for violently robbing the restaurant where he worked. Because Kendrick’s father lived in the streets in Chicago and was still hustling on the side, he knew well enough to get on the good side of those who might do him harm. By foreseeing conflict and using his virtues to de-escalate a dangerous situation, Kendrick’s father was able avoid a possibly deadly confrontation and kept Top Dawg from being convicted of murder. It was virtue that saved the two men who would be the most important in Kendrick’s life and career. As Kendrick says, “Whoever though the greatest rapper would be from coincidence?”

Henry: This brings us to the new thinkpiecer theory that Kendrick’s much-anticipated but never released secret 2nd album, Nation, is in fact just Damn. played from back-to-front. The argument, found in detail in this Ambrosia for Heads piece, has certain strands that might be a stretch, but overall it’s fairly plausible, and the fact remains that the entire project is constructed in such a way that such a reading is not only possible, but works to dramatically change the mood and message of the entire project. The albums is deliberately designed to hold the most disparate elements together, tying their strands into the great knotted tangle that is life and Americanness in 2017.

There’s a definite bifurcation that takes place on Damn., a schism that’s opened up between the two sides Kendrick presents. On the one hand, he’s pretty much undeniably the king of rap right now, and when he decides to own the mantle he’s as unstoppable as he wants to be. On the other hand, he’s all-too-conscious of the ways in which fame and fortune exercise their corrosive powers on people, and much of his project throughout his career has been to vocally reject the demands of our late capitalist cultural death machine. The kicker, though, is that the two seemingly opposing sides end up actually feeding off one another: the truest king is always the one who refuses the crown.

Henry Whittier-Ferguson & Micah Roehlkepartain