In hip-hop, a field whose adherents constantly argue about which artist is truly the greatest, one could, with little controversy, call Kendrick Lamar the greatest living rapper. Many are needlessly deified in this hyperbolic age, but few are so deserving.
Yet on his latest album, Lamar is deeply confused, suspicious, angry, and sad.
The album, Damn, follows up on the Compton artist’s 2015 masterwork, To Pimp a Butterfly, which distilled more than a century of African-American music and culture into a dense, literary, 78-minute exploration of identity, success, and survivor’s guilt. For the new album, Lamar jettisoned the jazz and funk influences of Butterfly in favor of a dirty, scorched-earth sound that taps into more contemporary production techniques: 808 drums, trap rhythms, processed vocals. After Butterfly's quiet introspection, no one expected the new record to open with the brash, guttural “DNA.” It’s the hardest song Kendrick has ever done, a lion’s roar that begins with expressions of power — “I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA” — and descends into rapid-fire, bass-boosted filth with a weaponized Rick James sample and the most ferocious bars the rapper has ever spit. Here, Lamar wants to prove he can deliver the same messages as his earlier work within and beyond a more mainstream style, and he absolutely succeeds.
Despite this early show of strength, for the rest of the record Kendrick is not so confident. This isn’t to say the album is bad, not by any stretch; in fact, it’s probably the best hip-hop LP of the year by virtue of the rapper’s talent, the production’s excellence, and, above all, its perfect evocation of the Zeitgeist. But what is the Zeitgeist, the spirit of our time? Regression, repression, Nazis, and white supremacists emerging into the open, the feelings of nothing getting better compounded by the ravings of an uncaring, monstrous government hoisted into power by electoral technicality and manipulation.
No wonder Lamar sounds shaken.
On Damn, just as on Butterfly and the b-sides collected on Untitled Unmastered, Lamar remains unable to enjoy his success, preoccupied by guilt, disillusionment with fame, and the suffering of others. On “Element,” he decries the glamorization of black-on-black violence, ironically commenting on the gangster image: “If I gotta slap a pussy-ass nigga, I’m a make it look sexy.” On “Lust,” he worries that daily concerns will destroy the impulse to rebel needed for society to change for the better, that we will soon be “revertin’ back to our daily programs, stuck in our ways,” and become accustomed to repression.
The 12th track, “Fear,” is the record’s emotional centerpiece, where Lamar airs all of his anxieties about success, denial, the legacy he might or might not leave behind, and the worry that his accumulated wealth will disappear and he will return to poverty. He discusses doing “30 shows a month and still won’t buy me no Lexus,” bringing up the crooked accountant who allegedly took advantage of Rihanna. “At 27, my biggest fear was losing it all/Scared to spend money, sleeping from hall to hall,” he writes. Yet the most profound fear is that of senseless death, by police, by another black person, or, in the album’s sensational intro “Blood,” by an old woman searching for something on the sidewalk.
If Damn Is anything, it is Kendrick Lamar realizing that, for all of his success, for all of his fame and fortune, he can't do a thing to change the world the way that is needed. He can't write a single song that will demilitarize the police or destroy the Klan or take Trump out of office. He could die tomorrow, his wealth and status rendered null, and the world would be in the same sorry state. The only solace he has is that on September 2, thousands of fans will take over the AAA and sing along with the words he wrote.
Kendrick Lamar. With YG and D.R.A.M. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, September 2, at American Airlines Arena, 601 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 786-777-1000; aaarena.com. Tickets cost $45 to $125.50 via ticketmaster.com.