Kendrick Lamar’s such a filter for the world around him. He hears and feels abrasiveness so he evokes it right from the start, all the way to the album’s first single, HUMBLE. Each song is spelled in capitals and marked with a period, making even writing a review about it difficult if I’m concerned with keeping the integrity of his art intact.
I’m on the last song, and maybe it’s the fact that I’m running my daily 5K and lifting some weights, but this album is already almost over. Damn, Kendrick’s feeling a lot of anxiety since To Pimp a Butterfly (what a clever play on To Kill a Mockingbird, and I’m sure lovers of that album are confused by this new album). I’m hearing similar sound effects from God Is Gangsta and a few other songs, just little sound effects here and there that remind me of moments from his previous records. It has to be intentional.
He’s a self-referential rapper who still manages to appear modest or genuine, even if his lyrics are called out for being politically incorrect. HUMBLE. received a lot of backlash, and after listening to it within the context of the album I’m thinking Kendrick did that on purpose. He must enjoy being misunderstood just as much as he enjoys knowing someone out there who he’ll never meet actually understands him. And at the same time he seems to detest himself for wanting recognition and fame. It’s that paradox of growing into riches from poverty; where a person comes from, and who they remain loyal to. Who is Kendrick Lamar? Is he the rapper in HUMBLE.? Or is he the rapper in These Walls? If Kendrick is anything, he’s less a rapper or a poet and more of an actor. Each song is another character to play, and each of one of those characters is a messy pool of personalities. At this point, he’s a bottomless well of ego and anxiety.
The track listing features two of the Seven Deadly Sins from Christian mythology (PRIDE. and LUST.), but one could argue that all seven sins are present. BLOOD. is wrath, and as for envy, sloth, gluttony, or greed, well, they’re sort of peppered all throughout the album. But that’s difficult to avoid when you’re coming off a Grammy, a platinum-selling record, and overwhelming adoration from fans and critics.
While America was biting its nails over the 2016 Presidential Election, and the outside world was fixated and bewildered over what was happening in the states, Kendrick was recording and mixing DAMN. He had released a modest collection out of thin air, titled Untitled Unmastered, experimenting with the jazz and funk styles from To Pimp a Butterfly, and introducing Cornrow Kenny, an alter-ego he introduced through live television performances (see The Tonight Show) where he spit out new verses in songs mirroring the album people had just praised him for. Soon as people hitch a ride on the train he’s engineering, Kendrick bails for the train headed in the other direction. Are we keeping up?
Just as with good kid, M.A.A.D City and To Pimp a Butterfly and Section.80, a second playthrough is needed to comprehend exactly what Kendrick’s been going through this past year. A third playthrough, even, and more. But for anyone who hasn’t listened to him before, or for those who have and don’t understand what he’s all about: first listen to the world around you and remember that that’s what he’s interpreting. Do you remember 2016? DAMN. So does Kendrick Lamar.