Has there ever been a mainstream rapper more difficult to parse than Kendrick Lamar? More complicated; obfuscatory; excoriatingly honest; conflicted?
Kendrick’s mainstream success continues to amaze. Not because it’s not deserved, but precisely because it’s so very deserving. It gives art-house snobs hope for society. To Pimp A Butterfly going platinum is like À Bout de Souffle doing $100 million on opening weekend. Lamar’s are the only major label records that could qualify for a Fulbright grant; that could be used as experiential theses for a Masters in Postmodern Western Civ.
He trades in sun-dappled cinema verité. A California awash in palm trees, soaked with the blood of best intentions. And it’s not exactly easy-listening. Most hip-hop heads will acknowledge loving and respecting him, while admitting that they don’t exactly play him on the reg.
The man has more in common with Langston Hughes than with Lil Wayne. He’s a beat poet with a mic. You’d have to pause for a second if someone told you that ‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked’ was, in fact, a Kendrick lyric. ‘Cause it could be.
Good Kid M.A.A.D City was a G-funk bildungsroman. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince sitting on chrome, looking towards the heavens. To Pimp A Butterfly was a million syllable march, folding a century of black culture in on itself with the dyspeptic verve and naked ambition of a rose growing through cracks in the concrete.
And, now, there’s Damn.
On first glance, it’s the ‘easiest’ Kendrick album since Section 80, maybe even since Overly Dedicated. The cypher pyrotechnics of “DNA” and “Humble” destined to tear up the clubs. The ‘Nestea and electro-trap r&b’ of Element and Loyalty already cued up on every summer BBQ playlist of the summer.
But let’s not get it twisted. This shit is dense. Like all the way dense.
The work of a man searching for salvation, without actually being sure he deserves it. Lonely and lethal. Hypocritical and hopeful.
It feels like a record made specifically for Saint Peter. Standing at the pearly gates, laying his soul bare, still knowing that there’s enough there that if his final elevator only travels subterraneously he’ll still be welcomed with open arms.
Hell-raising, wheel-chasing, new worldly possessions
Flesh-making, spirit-breaking, which one would you lessen?
You love ’em or dissect ’em
Happiness or flashiness? How do you serve the question?
See, in the perfect world, I would be perfect, world
I don’t trust people enough beyond they surface, world
I don’t love people enough to put my faith in men
I put my faith in these lyrics, hoping I make amends
I understand I ain’t perfect
I probably won’t come around
This album is overwhelmed by these questions. Themes are captured in opposing couplets. Pride feeds into Humble. Lust feeds into Love. Fear into God.
If it’s not already clear, Kendrick is a deeply religious man, doing his level best to acknowledge his mortal flaws. Rousseau exploring the nature of Original Sin with a backbeat. Themes transcendent and superficial side-by-side. He’s said that TPAB was written for God. That it was his repentance album. And this one is the Book of Deuteronomy; hoping to break the curse of damnation.
The album was released on Good Friday. And its thematic implications sent the internet down a Davinci Code-esque rabbit-hole of symbological conspiracy theories. If Damn. is his crucifixion, where’s the resurrection.
Of course, thematic aspiration is nothing without inspiration. And inspiration is his in spades. The kid can rhyme. The conversation is, at this point, over. He’s the greatest rapper of all time. Sorry Aesop Rock. Sorry Rakim. Sorry Nas.
Kendrick runs through rhyme schemes with the precision of a guided missile. Stacking and interlaying. Switching between iambic and trochaic metres like a hood Pushkin. At one point, I spotted a cinquain. A fucking cinquain! What is he, Verlaine? Langueur monotone for real.
But there’s nothing dainty in this poetry. He references Jammer and Wiley’s Destruction VIP, surely the grimiest diss in hip-hop history. ‘I know burners, boosters, burglars, ballers, dead, redemption’. But his essential duality can’t be quelled. Unlike his Top Boy counterpart, he ends with ‘scholars, fathers dead with kids, and I wish I was fed forgiveness’. There’s two sides to every thought, in a world too fractured to be compressed down to letterpress ideologies.
He embraces the hypocriticality inherent in his humanity. Threatening to murder anyone who messes with his sister, mother, nephew, brother, then ending the verse speaking at a convention, with him saying ‘Alright, kids, we’re gonna talk about gun control’ to an audience way down tempo in the mix.
Lamar is also, it must be said, vitriolic in the extreme. For someone so woke, he’s surprisingly petty. We all remember the Control verse. That Kendrick is here in droves. Bitchslapping Fox News, sure, but also Justin Timberlake and Big Sean. Leaning in on OVO’s signature codeine soul aesthetic, softly crooning ‘If I gotta slap a pussy-ass ***** I’ma make it look sexy’ with evident joy in his overwhelming gifts. Aping Drake’s Houston-by-way-of-Forest Hill drawl and stutter syllables.
There’s no resurrection album coming. The resurrection is here; enclosed; rewinding itself back to the beginning; Kendrick dying and being reborn ad nauseam. Embroiling us in his spiritual civil war.
When he says that this is ‘that put-the-kids-to-bed’ he means it. Time to marinate. Grownups too. Night night.
photo by Greg Noire