Kendrick Lamar occupied a rarified airspace in rap even before he unveiled his latest album DAMN. His 2011 debut Section .80 was fantastic, but he entered the upper echelons of rap the following year with Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, an infectious, cinematic portrayal of his life growing up in Compton. The project after that, To Pimp A Butterfly, a densely-packed, jazz-informed, social justice testimonial, is considered by many to be the crowning artistic achievement of the current decade. With DAMN. Kendrick turns his two-album run of awe-inducing excellence into a trilogy and follows through on the boast he made in the pre-drop teaser “The Heart Part 4,” that he’s the greatest rapper alive.
The idea that Kendrick is the greatest rap artist right now is almost a foregone conclusion. When asked about it recently, another of the modern era’s best MCs, Vince Staples, echoed the opinion of many, asserting that not only does Kenny reign supreme, but that, “It’s not even close.” Maybe Eminem could come out of seclusion, hook up with Dr. Dre and match him on purely lyrical grounds -– though it’s hard to imagine that the content wouldn’t be disqualifyingly problematic. Maybe Kanye West can put the pieces of his life back together, hit the studio and re-emerge with a stunning masterpiece of epic production. More likely than not, Drake will continue to best him on a wholly commercial level. When you put all the elements together though, no one is creating anything as sonically interesting, as lyrically precise, as culturally impactful or as thematically deep as Kendrick Lamar Duckworth in 2017.
You know what the mark of real greatness is? When it becomes expected. From the moment I personally heard rumblings that Kendrick was going to release a new album this year, there wasn’t a single part of me that thought it would be bad. I, and many other people, loudly wondered whether it could measure up to the quality of either m.a.a.d. city or Butterfly, or even his Cold War nemesis Drake’s most recent work More Life, but I was never worried that it wouldn’t be good. My blasé attitude was ultimately rewarded. DAMN. isn’t just good. DAMN. is great. In fact, DAMN. is capital “G” Great. I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that it’s the best thing he’s ever done, but the fact that it’s a worthy topic of discussion says a lot.
DAMN. opens with the chilling vignette “BLOOD.” Kendrick is walking down the street when he notices a blind woman, pacing, frustrated on the sidewalk, appearing as if she dropped something and can’t find it. An eerie, Spaghetti-Western string arrangement floats around over the top. He approaches the woman. “Hello ma’am, can I be of assistance? It seems to me that you have lost something. I would like to help you find it.” She replies, “Oh yes, you have lost something. You’ve lost your life.” The sounds of a gunshot ends the tense scene. A Fox News anchor swoops in to excoriate Kendrick for his “police-denigrating” lyrics. Then the beat drops on “DNA.” Your jaw remains on the floor.
There’s a theory rolling around that the bullet fired from that blind woman’s gun killed Kendrick, and the ensuing 50 minutes of music is his life flashing before his eyes before he meets his maker. There’s a lot of holes in that concept, but he certainly uses DAMN. as an outlet to publicly analyze his own character and motivations while relieving some of the most consequential moments of his life. On the last track “Duckworth,” he wonders at how different things might have gone if his TDE label boss Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith had gone through with a planned armed robbery at the KFC his father was working at decades earlier. “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 gunfight.”
The honesty is harrowing. His anxiety is tangible. On “Fear,” he recalls three of the most terrifying episodes of his life, like when he was seven –- domestic violence -– 17 -– dying young before he could make his mark on the world, and 27 -– losing everything he’d built. The song “Love,” isn’t about love, so much as it about the fear of losing the most important person in his life: “Keep it a hundred, I’d rather you trust me than (love me).” On “Feel,” he laments the world that fame has trapped him in: “I feel like friends been overrated / I feel like the family’s been fakin’ / I feel like the feelings are changin’.”
Kendrick’s biggest sin is pride and he knows it. This is a guy who openly and continuously refers to himself as the greatest MC alive. This is a guy who blew the rap world apart back in 2013 with his verse on “Control,” where he laid the gauntlet down to all the biggest names of his generation and stood back and waited, and waited, and waited for them to come back at him knowing full well they couldn’t. “Love’s gonna get you killed,” he raps on the namesake track of his biggest personal flaw. “But pride’s gonna be the death of you and me and you and me.” Despite being aware enough about himself to recognize his deepest sin, he seems powerless to do anything about it. Six songs later, Kendrick openly boasts that “This is what God feels like,” when considering his own success. In that context, the first single “Humble” feels less like a challenge to the listener and more like a personal reminder to himself.
Of course, rapping isn’t just about what you say, it’s also about how you say it. More than anyone this side of Young Thug, Kendrick uses his voice like an instrument. He adopts different cadences, different tones, and different timbres to suggest conflicting personalities and set distinct moods in his music. In the U2-featuring track “XXX,” alone he opens with a flat, matter-of-fact delivery, before cranking things up an octave or two when the song shifts into its next, alarm-riddled phase. Things die down moments later, and Kendrick adopts the guise of a high-pitched authority figure who wants to educate some kids about gun control. His matter-of-fact inner monologue asks the listener to “pray for me,” and a God-like voice, with a comet’s tail of pinging reverb exclaims “Damn.” He returns to his normal register in the coda to mourn the ascension of Donald Trump while Bono croons away about America underneath.