It’s Good Friday and the Good Kid returns.
As might be anticipated from a rapper widely regarded as the most trailblazing of our generation, there’s a lot to scrutinise on Lamar’s latest full-length. Described by Lamar as his most ‘urgent’ record to date in an interview with T Magazine, DAMN. represents a departure from the plush orchestral density of his recent works. However, while the production may have altered, the accustomed themes of race, gun violence, love and religion remain the nucleus of Kendrick’s lyricism.
We will be running a full review of the album next week but until then, here’s some early takeaways from one of the most hotly anticipated albums of the year.
K Dot publicly derides Fox News for misrepresenting his lyrical content
The closing moments of opener BLOOD. samples a clip from a Fox News segment, which references Kendrick’s performance of Alright at the 2015 BET awards. Reporter, Geraldo Rivera flippantly chastises Lamar and openly refuses to comprehend the lyrical intent of the song. Reacting to the clip, Kendrick asked TMZ Live, “How can you take a song that’s about hope and turn it into hatred?”
Rivera continues to skew his audience’s understanding of Kendrick by claiming “This is why I say hip-hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years.” Lamar responds directly to these comments in the bridge for D.N.A. and publicly outs Rivera’s warped bigotry during the song YAH:
“Fox News wanna use my name for percentage / My latest muse is my niece she’s worth livin’ / See me on TV and scream “That’s Uncle Kendrick” / Yeah, that’s the business / Somebody tell Geraldo this nigga got some ambition.”
Cornrow Kenny is no more
On the release of last year’s untitled. unmastered. Lamar frequently referred to himself as Cornrow Kenny. “Born with a vision,” as he preaches on untitled 02, the pseudonym was a figurative personification of the rapper’s notably meditative state of mind, enabling Kendrick to muse over topics of race and gang violence.
Kung Fu Kenny.
— Kendrick Lamar (@kendricklamar) March 31, 2017
Here, the Cornrow Kenny moniker is put on hiatus as Kendrick assumes a new, intensely gladiatorial character. Kid Capri cites new material from Kung-Fu Kenny frequently throughout the record. It’s a suitably confrontational alias, which was originally heard on Mike WiLL Made-It’s Perfect Pint and was recently referred to in a tweet by Lamar on March of this year. It could be argued Kung-Fu Kenny is Kendrick’s own Slim Shady; darker, angrier, more contentious than his other known characters.
He both embraces and challenges his dedication to God
It wouldn’t be a Kendrick Lamar record without some conflicted pondering on his relationship to God. But dissimilar to To Pimp a Butterfly era Kendrick, here his pious talk is far more literal and direct. “I’m a Israelite, don’t call me black no mo'” he requests on YAH, identifying his struggle with that posited in The Book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Hebrew Torah or Christian Old Testament. Reflections and comments on these teachings are peppered between most verses. The title YAH itself seems to be a reference to Yahweh, the Hebrew word for God.
“Deuteronomy say that we all been cursed” – YAH.
“Lately in James 4:4 says / Friend of the world is enemy of the Lord” – LUST.
Lamar’s cousin Carl Duckworth continues on this theme in the intro for FEAR. as a voicemail message is played outlining passage 28:28 from the Book of Deuteronomy, “The Lord shall smite thee with madness…” seemingly addressing Kendrick’s negative disposition on life. Yet despite this, Lamar openly questions his God on FEAR. “Why God, why God do I gotta suffer? Pain in my heart carry burdens full of struggle.” And while Lamar’s faith is evidently unwavering, the rapper is finally seeking answers to justify the world’s suffering.
Kendrick's afraid of losing his wealth
“This what God feel like, yeah / Laughing to the bank like aha, yeah,” Kenny maniacally raps on GOD. But while boasting about feeling pretty swole, is he comfortable with his universal success? Arguably not.
DAMN. is clustered with talk about Lamar’s financial consternation. On FEAR. he breaks each verse down to a decade of his life finishing with age 27 where his biggest fear, he claims, is ‘Losin’ it all’. “Scared to spend money / Had me sleepin’ from hall to hall.” He references Section 8 of the Housing Act of 1937 and returning to the Compton projects of his childhood if he fails to succeed. He speaks of Rihanna’s troubles in 2015 after her accountant was declared missing (ultimately leading to her releasing the track Bitch Better Have My Money). He even admits to overworking in order to accumulate income, which ‘Still won’t buy me no Lexus’. Considering Kendrick’s international acclaim, it’s a, well, humble mindset to find him in.
His family are the most important people in his life
From cousin Carl giving him a dress down in FEAR., to showering his niece with adoration, via sporadic references to his mother and father, Kendrick uses DAMN. to address his family’s overriding significance in his life. Similar to that of Trip on The Kendrick Lamar EP, he refers to himself as the oldest son of his mother, Paula Oliver, on DNA.
On ELEMENT. he explains how his “Auntie on my telegram like “Be cautious,” referring to the FBI’s apparent targeting of rich young black males. On YAH. he agrees to “Keep the family close” before admitting, “My mama told me that I’ma work myself to death.” It’s a sentiment mirrored in FEAR. when Kendrick accepts that his mother stresses over his son’s wellbeing.
And then there’s DUCKWORTH. (See below).
Kendrick is adamant he's the greatest, but at what cost?
Prior to DAMN.’s release, Kendrick spoke of being ‘the greatest rapper alive’ on The Heart Part 4. However, he not only believes to himself to be in pole position, but also the greatest rapper from first to fifth place, which is a pointed stab at the creative idleness of his peers. On ELEMENT. he returns to this motif, referring to himself as “Mr One through Five”. However, in line with his adulation towards Tupac Shakur’s philosophies, Kendrick concedes that his natural born talent overwhelms him.
So while being Mr One through Five, Lamar also laments that his next logical step would be to ‘Fake my death, go to Cuba, that’s the only option,’ (a falsified myth relating to 2Pac faking his own death to escape fame). It’s a mindset Kendrick revisits in FEEL. as he meditates over how Tupac may have felt if he were alive in 2017; a politically and socially opposing landscape to that of Tupac’s generation.
What if Kendrick brings out a secretly-alive Tupac at his Coachella performance on Sunday and that's the resurrection
— Royce (@ThomsonRoyce) April 14, 2017
Potential shots are fired at Drake, Big Sean, Jay Electronica and most notably Donald Trump
Discussions over Kendrick’s icy relationship with Big Sean and Drake have been heavily reported over the past couple of weeks but DAMN. seemingly reaffirms these conflicts. Returning to the Mr One through Five moniker, ELEMENT. could be perceived as a response to Drake’s track Gyalchester. In this song, Drake spits ‘I know I said top five, but I’m top two / And I’m not two and I got one / Though you had one but it’s not one, nigga, nah.’
Furthermore, Kung-Fu Kenny’s phrasing of “I don’t give a fuck,” in ELEMENT. is yet another subtle insult to Big Sean’s commercially successful single, I Don’t Fuck With You.
But it’s the retort to Jay Electronica that’s a little more perceptive. In ELEMENT. Kendrick refers to himself as the “Candyman,” a name Jay Electronica has referred to himself as in the past. However, in this context, Lamar is arguably using Electronica’s name against him, claiming that if you call for Kendrick Lamar five times, he will murder your career.
“Just say his name and I promise that you’ll see candyman”. Kendrick not playing with y’all rappers
— AmourJay✨👑 (@BossChicJ) April 14, 2017
And then there are verses such as this that requires no annotation:
“Donald Trump’s in office, we lost Barack Obama and never to doubt him again / But is America honest or do we bask in sin?’ – XXX (featuring U2, for some reason).
The final twist during the closing verse of DUCKWORTH.
The narrative arc of closing track DUCKWORTH. is potentially one of Kendrick Lamar’s most candid of his career. Over four harrowing minutes produced by 9th Wonder, Lamar chronicles the chance meeting of Top Dawg Entertainment owner Anthony Tiffith and Kendrick’s father, referred to here as Ducky. The track expounds upon Tiffith robbing a KFC where Duckworth worked in the 80s. Lamar details the incident – in which his father is not hurt – before wondering what could have happened, and how their lives could have been very, very different.
“Twenty years later then strangers might make a meet again / Inside recording studios where they reaping the benefits / Then they start reminding ’bout that chicken incident / 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 gun fight.”