Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN.
The 2017 album DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize, and as a result many older listeners such as myself have listened more closely to this album and previous work by the artist from Compton, Los Angeles.
The award is particularly notable when one considers the history of the committee and its attitude to African-American artists, and in general any music not of the European classical tradition. Its refusal in 1965 to give an award to American jazz artist Duke Ellington that the jury had recommended is the most embarrassing event in Pulitzer history. Over the years since then three jazz artists have been recognized. This year’s award therefore represents something of a breakthrough, with the committee describing the album as “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life”.
DAMN. is the fourth major album from the artist born Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, recorded and released in his 29th year. His first tapes had been released as a teen under the pseudonym “K-Dot” and close friends still know him as Dot. Possibly the period that punctuates each title of this album is a form of graphic signature.
From early in his career he was noticed and nurtured by hip-hop luminaries like Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre, and he showed a confidence that only the young and gifted can show in the speed with which his career developed. His third album, 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, was a major critical and commercial success.
The album DAMN. has been released in two versions, with the second “Special Edition” running the track list in reverse sequence. The fact that the artist is equally happy with either sequence is indicative of a symmetry that is built into this work. Here we will discuss the first edition of the album.
Opening track “BLOOD.” begins with an incantation that gives an idea of the nature of the album’s symmetry:
Is it wickedness?
Is it weakness?
Are we gonna live or die?
A dreamlike story ensues in which the narrator approaches a blind woman seemingly in need of help, having evidently lost something:
So after watchin’ her struggle for a while
I decided to go over and lend a helping hand, you know?
He tells the woman he has the impression she has lost something, and she replies that it is he who has lost his life. There is a gunshot and the introduction refrain is repeated. The track ends with an audio clip of TV host Geraldo Rivera, who is criticizing an earlier Lamar song “Alright” that describes fear of police brutality.
The scene is set, a landscape in which death can come quickly and unexpectedly. How one copes with the environment sets the course of life... if one is allowed to survive.
Second song “DNA.” has all of the “swag” one might expect of a rapper from Compton. Beneath the booming beat is a complex lyric that also introduces the album’s strong spiritual dimension.
I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA
I got hustle though, ambition flow inside my DNA
I was born with this, since one like this, immaculate conception
I perform like this, transform like this, was Yeshua new weapon
He’s a spiritual man, a successful man, but like all of us, “I got troublesome heart inside my DNA”.
Geraldo Rivera returns in the bridge to opine that hip-hop itself has been responsible for the deaths of many young black men. On the third track “YAH.” Lamar addresses Rivera more directly:
Fox News wanna use my name for percentage
I’m not a politician, I’m not ’bout a religion
He can address God, as he does in the song’s refrain, but he questions the determinism of religious belief:
And Deuteronomy say that we all been cursed
I know he walks the Earth
But it’s money to get...
In “ELEMENT.” the introduction states, “what happens on Earth stays on Earth”... a phrase that was an early title for the album. There’s more swagger on display as the narrator asserts his dominance. He does what he has to do but is always sure to “make it look sexy”. The Debussy-esque piano chords behind the refrain seem to illustrate the narrator’s cool detachment.
The song “FEEL.” examines depression and its ability to plague anyone no matter what their fame and fortune might be. Over a laid-back beat and a plaintive, echoing vocoder figure a torrent of words in triplet time, examining the ups and downs of his journey, but always returning to the sad conclusion, “Ain’t nobody prayin’ for me.”
“LOYALTY.” is a duet with singer Rihanna that examines the main requirement for friendship:
Tell me who you loyal to
Is it money? Is it fame? Is it weed? Is it drink?
Is it comin’ down with the loud pipes and the rain?
“PRIDE.” is an internal dialogue, the narrator alternating between low and high vocals to emphasize his internal divisions.
Now, in a perfect world, I probably won’t be insensitive
Cold as December but never remember what Winter did
Ultimately he ruminates, “Maybe I wasn’t there”.
“HUMBLE.” continues the alternating pattern of swagger and introspection. He instructs his competition to sit down and be humble.
This that Grey Poupon, that Evian, that TED Talk, ayy
Watch my soul speak, you let the meds talk, ayy
“LUST.” examines lust for fame and fortune as well as for flesh. The narrator also describes his dismay at the ascendancy of Trump to the presidency: “None of us married to his proposal, make us feel cheap”.
“LOVE.” is a simple ode to his fiancée, who has
Bad attitude from yo’ nanny,
Curves and your hips from yo’ mammy
“XXX.” looks at the American political landscape and includes a pleasingly successful collaboration with Irish rock band U2. It begins with a beautiful refrain: “America, God bless you if it’s good to you”.
The narrator then describes, over a driving rhythm, the revenge he would take if a loved one was harmed. The song breaks down to a slower tempo as Bono sings his chorus, and the narrator steps back to look at the American political landscape as a whole:
Hail Mary, Jesus and Joseph
The great American flag is wrapped in drag with explosives
“FEAR.” examines three different stages in the life of the narrator when he felt fear. At age seven the fear was of his mother and school:
I beat yo ass if you jump on my couch
I beat yo ass if you walk in this house
With tears in your eyes, runnin’ from Poo Poo and Prentice
At seventeen fear and death are all around him:
I’ll prolly die from thinkin’ that me and your hood was cool
I’ll prolly die ’cause that’s what you do when you’re 17
At twenty-seven, having found success, his biggest fears are losing it and being judged by others:
How they look at me reflect on myself, my family, my city
What they say ’bout me reveal if my reputation would miss me
With “GOD.” Lamar speculates on the thrill of success:
This what God feel like...
Laughin’ to the bank like, “A-Ha!”...
Final track “DUCKWORTH.” is a true story about the time his father was working in a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant and used his charm to avoid being killed by a young man bent on robbery. The young man, “Top Dawg”, later became Lamar’s record label boss and one of the producers of this album. The track ends with a gunshot, mirroring the imaginary gunshot of the album’s opening song, and reminding us how instantly things can change. If Lamar’s father had been killed, Lamar himself would not be born and Top Dawg would be in jail.
So ends a body of songs that does indeed have many levels of symmetry, and it’s instructive to play the songs in reverse order. The artist himself has stated that he may even prefer the song cycle that begins with the alternative-destiny scenario of “DUCKWORTH.”
I must conclude by concurring with the Pulitzer committee’s expressed opinion of this album. It is an impressive work on every level, with deft wordplay and musical content that mixes an enticing ear for melody with the propulsive and infectious grooves one expects from this genre of music. Combine this with the willingness of the artist to adopt different personas and observe multiple views of a given situation, and the resulting work not only rewards repeated listens but brings the world of the artist to life with unusually vivid intensity.
Song lyrics: https://genius.com/albums/Kendrick-lamar/Damn