Kendrick ‘Kung Fu Kenny‘ Lamar should need no introduction at this point. But for those of you who have been living under a rock for the past seven years, Kendrick Lamar (born Kendrick Duckworth) is a Compton-born rapper with a repertoire that covers everything from gangsta rap, jazz (in the broadest sense of the word), and commercial hip hop.
After the critical acclaim of his sophomore LP good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012) and his Grammy-Award winning latest album To Pimp A Butterfly (2015), Kendrick fans were expecting greatness from his next project. The king did not disappoint and released his fourth studio album entitled DAMN. on April 14.
Audiences were teased when “The Heart Part 4” was dropped as a promotional track for the album in order to hype fans for the 2017 LP. Although many say that the single has no connection to DAMN, the fact that this LP (part four of his studio collection) is Kendrick spilling his heart out makes “The Heart Part 4” a logical title.
The bulk of the 14-track project was produced by Sounwave, whom Kendrick particularly enjoys featuring as he is a fellow West Coaster, and Anthony Tiffith, who is the CEO of Top Dawg Entertainment. Resident mixer at TDE Derek ‘Mixedeyali Ali was responsible for mixing the album.
The two full vocal features on the record come from Rihanna and U2, with LeBron James – Kendrick’s friend and now apparent PR frontman – previewing a couple of tracks from the album on his Instagram account, and inadvertently playing a part in creating hype around the LP.
THE DEATH OF KENDRICK LAMAR
Each track title on the LP is titled as a single ‘concept’ word written in capital lettering, with a full stop at the end. The titles deal with dense concepts such as God, love, pride, and loyalty, and luckily Kendrick does not attempt to philosophise over the answer or meaning behind said concepts.
Instead, he tells stories that are encapsulated by these categories. The track titles are a summary to what his lyrics entail, posing questions as opposed to answering them. The recurring themes in the album may be thought of as the milestones of life, existentialism, and faith/religion (non denominational Christianity).
The first track is “BLOOD“. Although melodically dull, the story that is told becomes an essential part of what the LP represents and its lyrical structure. Kendrick tells the story of a blind woman who appears to have dropped something on the ground and becomes frustrated by this. Kendrick approaches her and offers to assist. In doing so, he is shot and loses his life.
The opening harmonies sound angelic and because Kendrick’s vocals are mixed to sound as if distant, the track sounds like an out-of-body audio, or as if Kendrick were telling tales from the conceptualised version western society has of heaven. Kendrick dies at the end of this track and it makes the release date being Good Friday all the more emphatic of his being a divine rapper fulfilling his musical duties on earth.
Track two is “DNA” whose music video was released on April 18 and features Don Cheadle for the first half, mocking Kendrick and then embodying his character as he mime-raps the track back to him, creating a battle between the two men.
This was an intelligent decision in terms of representing how some social groups merely regurgitate what they think they are supposed to believe. Additionally, it presents the idea of having someone speak for you, or using your own words against you, forcing you to reflect retrospectively.
The second half of the music video consists of Kendrick (dressed in generically oriental garments #KungFuKenny) walking down the street with a group of young men acting ‘hard’ and what not. A little bit too commercialised, this track is bound to dominate charts. Produced by MIKE WILL MADE IT, it would seem as if the track was always predicted to have commercial success and to cross over into pop charts.
The lyricism in this track is weak, sounding more like Kendrick reading his pop-psychology horoscope from a teen magazine as opposed to being introspective about who he is as a person and how he identifies within society.
A LESS OBVIOUS JAZZ INFLUENCE
Although To Pimp A Butterfly is Kendrick’s most jazz-aligned work released as of yet, DAMN has a few production collaborations which may surprise listeners. One of the producers on the track “ELEMENT” is James Blake, whose influence can be heard due to characteristic chord progressions and a haunting upper octave piano tinkering away in that haunting fashion we know and love Blake for.
The lyrics for “ELEMENT”, albeit simple, are the perfect hybrid of wit and sass. In particular, the chorus which spits “If I gotta slap a pussy-ass n***a, imma make it look sexy/If I gotta go hard on a b***h, imma make it look sexy/I pull up, hop out, air out, made it look sexy/they won’t take me out my element”.
Jazz pioneers and friends of Kendrick’s Kamasi Washington, Terrance Martin, and Thundercat all appear on the LP either in production or playing their instruments on the album. Although they take a more passive stance in DAMN than they did in King Kendrick’s last album, their presence is still subtly felt.
The track “FEEL” hears rim-shot percussion and an amplified bass guitar played by Thundercat. The track “LOYALTY“, although famed for featuring Rihanna, was produced by Terrance Martin and samples Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic” opening hook.
On the track “LUST“, Canadian electronic singer KAYTRANADA contributes additional vocals, whilst strings are played by Washington and Sounwave, with the latter also producing the track.
AMEN TO IRONIC HYPOCRISY
The most iconic track so far from the LP has been “HUMBLE“, with sensational visuals taking the track viral. Not only does the music video exploit digital creativity but listeners are left wondering if Kendrick himself is humble or not. With the death of humble K.Dot and the birth of Kung Fu Kenny, is this new persona prouder than the last?
It is difficult to decipher whether or not he is telling other rappers on the hip hop scene to be humble and to allow him to shine, or whether he has had a reality check and is telling himself to simmer down. It would appear as if it is the former, considering his references to himself as “Mr One Through Five” (stylised as Mr I-V) stating that not only does he think he is the best rapper of all time, but that positions two through to five are also occupied by him simultaneously.
Formerly, Kendrick had identified Tupac, Biggie, Nas, Eminem, and Jay Z as his top five rappers… but it now seems as if they have been replaced.
In the music video, Kendrick presents himself as a holy figure and has said on many occasions that he thinks his music is a gift from God… that his music is him doing a service to humanity – delivering rhymes to the less divine, I suppose. In the same way that King Kendrick embodies all five positions in the top five best rappers of all time (in his opinion), he also seems to want to embody all three aspects of the Holy Trinity.
The religious visuals in “HUMBLE” only emphasise Kendrick as a deity. Representing God, he is adorned in religious garments (of the Christian faith), sitting in the position of Christ at the re-enactment of The Last Supper (an elongated table where he and a handful of other young men impractically sit down one side of said table, eating bread, and drinking wine), and finally, representing the Holy Spirit (which can be depicted as either fire or a dove) when his head is set alight.
The track may be about people who see themselves as gods and/or goddesses (be it in the rap game or otherwise) and Kendrick is reminding them to sit down and be humble. Hiphop is characterised by being braggadocios and exerting confidence, power, and dominance.
Is Kendrick poking fun at himself, or at other rappers, or at the entire movement of hip hop? Kendrick dies on this LP, but is he a representation of hip hop itself and is he therefore saying that hip hop, as we currently know it, is dead? Is he calling for a reinvention of the genre, or more precisely a rebirth of the culture?
THE DEATH OF DUCKWORTH
The final track of the LP is “DUCKWORTH” which not only is Kendrick’s surname, but explains the story of how different his life may have been, had circumstances had been different for him. TDE’s CEO Anthony Tiffith almost killed Kenneth “Ducky” Duckworth (Kendrick’s father) when he was working in a chicken shop.
His decision not to kill him meant that Kendrick “lived to see another twenty-five” (lived a life away from crime and escaped an early death) as a young black man growing up in Compton.
“DUCKWORTH” ends with a gunshot, and then the outro is heard consisting of extracts of the album being played in reverse sounding like a turntable scratch (or several), before the final lyric of the LP is heard. Kendrick ends the LP with the same lyric he commenced it with: “so I was taking a walk the other day…”.
Track one “BLOOD” is now put into context and that crucial line has not only looped the album full cycle, but has introduced the paradox of birth-versus-death and how as humans, we metaphorically die to become reborn – something that Kendrick has undoubtedly done with DAMN.
In a post-Obama America, it would be redundant to hone in on the same political message that To Pimp A Butterfly presented – the Fox News audio clips featured throughout DAMN sufficed in this department. Considering the political climate, it was more effective to appeal emotively than politically to listeners.
The trouble is not that fans are unaware of social issues, but more so a case of them not having a voice in the argument and/or not knowing how to create change. What this album has done is explore the sentiments that come as a by-product of social injustice as opposed to preaching said injustices.
After my first listen of DAMN, I had concluded that the LP would not be classed as a defining album for hip hop, but that it would most likely be a defining album for Kendrick as an artist. However, after a few more listens, I have been persuaded to interpret Kendrick’s LP death as potentially representing the death of hip hop at present and the way in which enthusiasts perceive and react to it.
Only time will tell how influential DAMN will become for the genre – we might have a classic album on our hands and not even know it yet.
Words by Olga Maher