One of the most famous, sincere and aware boys of Compton told The New York Style Magazine as regards his newly-arrived album DAMN.:
“To Pimp a Butterfly was addressing the problem. I’m in a space now where I’m not addressing the problem anymore.”
For the first part: It is hard to object his claim that TPAB was addressing the problem. It is probably one of the most problem-addressing albums of all time. Hard to know whether it was intended or not, but the album came to be seen as the milestone of 2015 music scene, but more importantly as the much sought-after unofficial soundtrack of the black uprising and protest against inequality, repression, repression-induced depression and discrimination. I am sure that everyone has their 10-reason list why TPAB is the best album of 2015, yet I have only one reason: among other albums which can perhaps unfairly be treated as essays on various themes, TPAB was a revolutionary holy book to Black Lives Matter movement along with D’Angelo’s Black Messiah. It would not be unfair to say that what TPAB was to Black Lives Matter movement was what the Communist Manifesto was to the Marxists. TPAB was consumable, witty, quick and on-point. It caught on the tongues of thousands who were on the street pursuing their cause. Furthermore, it was professional, yet sincere; so from-the-inside, but panoptically conceived. With the achievement of this size, Kendrick Lamar was naturally hailed not only as a musician, but also as one of the representatives of Black Lives Matter movement.
Lamar exercised story-telling in Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, but the story told was not fiction. From the ingeniously chosen cover art (the only one with the eyes not barred is the one who is telling the story; put another way, you are seeing the story from the view of the one whose vision is not blocked) to deeply descriptive scenes of his life, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was probably the best bildungsalbum ever conceived. Good Kid was not only descriptive of the crime-laden domestic scene in which boys like Lamar have lived hard, but still learned to strive; but also reflective of the psyche of a soul who experienced what was later narrativized into cinematic experiences first-hand. Coupled with the high-quality production and indisputably good arrangements, Good Kid turned into the hallmark of an conscientious up-and-coming “musician and writer.”
I am digressing here, but in a somewhat relevant way. Lamar says he is not addressing the problem. It is hard to believe this for someone who has always been engaged in addressing the problem in some form, so the skepticism for the second remark above inevitably surfaces. He is obviously still addressing the problem, but the question is: In what form is he addressing the problem? It is not as obvious what form it is in DAMN. as it was in TPAB, though we still hear the marks of resistance against police brutality, black pride, racial empowerment, diatribe against a Republican madman and hardships burdened on the other/black America (“BLOOD.”). However, these marks are not decisive, because Lamar sounds like someone from the neighborhood again—the brutal, proactive, streetwise homie who has—perhaps—not been seen since Section.80. Accordingly, DAMN. does not sound a neatly collected dissertation, exercise in sociology and politics through the sheer means of music or a well-edited book of manifesto like TPAB. In some parts, it feels in part like a rushed, messy, streetwise anthology of thoughts and afterthoughts, but in others, it still feels like the controlled chaos of someone in charge and who knows what he is doing. But now, the follow-up question is more pressing: Why is the form of engagement different now?
It is a question to which a satisfactory answer is hard to pin down. Perhaps Lamar called off the hope, when an unashamed, crude and curt whitelash was cracked upon the back of the black America? Perhaps trying to negotiate with someone who is, at best, beating around the bush and, at worst, is downright racist is equal to not addressing the problem? Unlike the mediator and middle-ground Lamar of TPAB who was confessing and self-criticizing evermore as he confesses, Lamar of DAMN. is aggressive and ready to raise trouble, but he does so, because going out on the offensive seems to be the only way to address the problem at this stage. Battling the uncompromising aggressor is a form of addressing the problem, after all.
There is this general vibe of spite written all over the album, starting from the title and making its way into the lyrics and rapping style. Lamar sounds like he is fed-up and ready to confront the powers-that-be he has been trying to negotiate with. His embracing nature in TPAB seems to have turned into that of a street soldier who is ready to batter the one who does not yield and shoot the one who’s gotta get got. Perhaps the times call for a proactive approach, perhaps Lamar felt like going back to the neighborhood and re-breathe the air which filled albums like Section.80 and Good Kid—whichever the case, the end product is not bad.
I am spouting random thoughts which are evoked by a quick overlook on the discography of Lamar, but only so, because it is hard to talk about the music itself. In one sense, it is easy, since the commercial rapping side of Lamar resurfaced in DAMN.—stomping beats are packing the punches and knotty rhymes are raising the stakes, but in another, it is hard, because TPAB’s lush orchestration of jazz can be felt to be sprinkled over the album. The back-and-forth nature of the album between TPAB and Section.80 induces a dizzying effect on the listener. The structure of the album is denser and more complicated than TPAB or anything Lamar has ever done so far, when considered with both smooth patches of avant-jazz which lie over the noise, static and chaotic electronic arrangements. The ever-shifting and volatile texture endows the album with a darker and unpredictable atmosphere. It feels like the confrontational, streetwise Lamar of Section.80 and conscientious, pensive Lamar of TPAB transmuted into one Lamar to produce DAMN.
“BLOOD.” opens up with a soothing stream of consciousness which projects slices of memoirs from Lamar’s discography, but “DNA.” queues up aggressively with a confrontational and assertive rapping with bellicose beats. Just as one preps herself up to this kicking-down-doors tempo, “YAH.” lays itself out with silky smooth beats and mellowed-out singing. The album turns out to be quite the roller coaster, but every up and down is a joy to experience. Every commercial piece such as “LOYALTY.” or a more avant piece “FEAR.” is pushing the limits of quality in their respective lanes.
Sometimes one wonders if he is the victim of a reverse-ad hominem where the music Lamar produces is just good, but sounds impeccable, because Lamar is so good; but shaking off and listening to the album again and again proves beyond doubt that the music itself is good independently of the knowledge that its musician is a genius. DAMN. stands in an idiosyncratic place in Lamar’s discography; it bears elements to Section.80, little bit of Good Kid, lot of TPAB. Lamar manages to be commercial, while keeping a tight grip on the vibe he caught in TPAB. He can be proud that he is still the same lil’ boy hailing from Compton, who both managed to provide the words for a generation’s justified uprising and produce aesthetically pleasing material independent of the social significance it bears.