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On ‘DAMN.,’ Lamar sidesteps expectations, spews self-doubt

December 8, 2017

Kendrick Lamar’s first mistake was releasing “DAMN.” on Good Friday. Fan theories blew up. The first about Easter Sunday, predicting a “second coming” and a second album on Easter Sunday. Then Lamar’s producer Sounwave tweeted “But what if I told you … that’s not the official version …” with a picture of Morpheus from “The Matrix.” A new theory, this one involving red pills and blue pills emerged, again predicting a second album. There were articles, analyses and Reddit discussions pages long discussing the legitimacy of these theories.

This isn’t one of those articles. However, if we can learn anything from these hysterical hopes for a second album, it’s probably that the first album was pretty good to begin with. On “DAMN.,” Lamar sidesteps our expectations, set by 2015’s classic “To Pimp a Butterfly,” taking a sharp turn from experimental jazz rap towards hard-hitting trap, solidifying his place at the top while resisting the urge to do anything that resembles what got him there.

“DAMN.” is an album for the end of the world the way “To Pimp a Butterfly” was an album for saving it. At 29, Lamar seems heavily occupied with the things that he thinks might kill him: pride, love, lust, fear. In other words, all parts of himself. The album isn’t hopeless, but Lamar’s super-saturated mindstate leaves little room for bright spots on “DAMN.,” which spews frustration, self-doubt and outrage at every turn, and flexes while doing it.

That sounds messy, but Lamar delivers that mess with brutal efficiency. “DNA.” puts it all out on the table, ridiculing Fox News by flaunting what they hate most about him: his success. Soon after a sample of Fox News commentator Geraldo Rivera saying, “This is why I say hip hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years,” Lamar spits rapid-fire lines about drinking from a Grammy in his mansion over a pounding Mike WiLL beat. But there’s still a self-consciousness behind that confidence, as if Lamar knows that success will silence every critic except himself: “You ain’t rich enough to hit the lot and skate / Tell me when destruction gonna be my fate.” Most of the time on “DAMN.,” Lamar’s mind seems as full with self-criticism as it is with disdain for his critics. More than anything, his mind is just full.

The same mindstate is displayed on more subdued tracks like “FEEL.,” where Lamar tackles the world’s problems from an entirely internal standpoint. Lamar follows the repetition of “I feel …” with lines as detached as, “Feel like removin’ myself, no feelings involved,” to as incendiary as, “I feel like this gotta be the feelin’ what ’Pac was / The feelin’ of an apocalypse happening / but nothing is awkward.” Lamar describes a struggle surprisingly relatable in 2017, one that simultaneously pushes for action and reclusion. It all boils over into desperation: “I feel like the whole world want me to pray for ‘em / but who the fuck prayin’ for me?” “DAMN.” doesn’t wear its politics on its sleeve throughout like “To Pimp a Butterfly” did, but Lamar’s struggle between apathy and action is as relevant now as “Butterfly” was two years ago.

As relevant to the world as it might be, “DAMN.” contains some of Lamar’s most essentially personal songwriting to date. “FEAR.,” an eight-minute epic of murky boom bap, sounds like it could fit on “Butterfly” or “untitled unmastered.” But its lyrics find Lamar at a new position in life, reassessing his position at rap’s peak with all the anxiety that comes with sudden success: “My newfound life made all of me magnified / How many accolades do I need to block denial?” It’s a sentiment that Kanye West expressed in “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” but Lamar seems even more self-aware here, cutting the instrumental flair and letting his voice take center when needed.

“Is it wickedness? Is it weakness?” It’s fitting that the end of “DAMN.” circles back to the questions that opened the album, because Lamar hasn’t come close to answering them. But in attempting, Lamar has given an uncompromising look at himself and the world in a way that defies the expectations that automatically come with his music. For Kendrick Lamar, there’s little left to answer.

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