Early in 2017 a story emerged reporting that Kendrick Lamar had purchased and gifted a wheelchair accessible van for a woman named Jennifer Phillips — a fan in need. At this point, I’d spent four of what became ten months relaying on a wheelchair for movement with severe nerve damage in both of my legs and my right arm; I could just about take four steps before collapsing onto the ground, and I couldn’t even sign my write my own name on a piece of paper. Yet, when I read this story I felt powerful. I felt Kendrick’s loyalty. Kendrick Lamar didn’t know me, but I knew he cared, and I knew that however way he could he would help me, and people like me, find a way to make it on this earth.
See, when Kendrick Lamar says “I don’t do it for the ‘gram I do it for Compton” he means it. The roots of his passion remain the same as the day he started making music, to uplift and to inspire his people. In a way it feels like Kendrick Lamar is the older brother a lot of us needed but didn’t have, a source of inspiration and a guru of self-belief. Kendrick Lamar makes music for the brown and black kids that are often spoken of as just statistics, whether as a percentage on some bullsh*t Fox News headline or as a voting block the Democratic party remembers every four years. Kendrick Lamar tells our stories (see: “FEAR.” a detailed account about the different anxieties a person of color goes through at different stages in life) while reminding us that we will be alright.
Television and film have gone through a slow but steady progress in regards to representation of minorities in the past few years with notable moments (shout out Moonlight winning Best Picture) as well as notable movements such as #OscarsSoWhite helping shine light on the fact that most awards shows look more like an episode of Mad Men (shout out Jon Hamm) and less like our schools, coffee shops and our timelines. However, the music world had been slower in its embrace of the current tide of progress.
Recent Grammy travesties come to mind (I’m going to let you finish but Lemonade is one of the best albums of all time), until it was announced in mid-2017 that sweeping changes, effective immediately, would be brought to the Grammy nominating system allowing Academy members to vote online in order to allow touring musicians to vote, prevent fraud, and bring in younger voters. The results of that shift bring us to the 2018 Grammys. 2018 marks the first time in history that there are no white men nominated for the Album Of The Year category. While at first glance this may seem as not that big of a deal to some, it actually, truly is.
See, people of color have been innovating and pushing the envelope in music since day one, but have only won 13 out of nearly 60 Album Of The Year awards. Out of those thirteen, only two albums — The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill by the legendary Ms. Lauryn Hill and Speakerboxx/TheLoveBelow by, courtesy of Outkast — have been hip-hop records. Yet, when you take a look pop culture as a whole, hip-hop has been the most important and influential musical genre in the past 20 to 25 years, whether it is in fashion, where collaborations with rappers and hip-hop influencers have been the top-selling and most critically-acclaimed in the past few years, to the way brands like Target, Nike, Adidas and Sprite all have turned to hip-hop artists for help when selling product. Hip-Hop sells because hip-hop matters.
This bring us to our 2018 nominees for Album OfTthe Year: Lorde, Bruno Mars, Jay-Z, Childish Gambino and Kendrick Lamar. When thinking about what the album of the year should signify, we should look at the impact the release of said records made, Lorde and Bruno Mars released phenomenal records that include some of the biggest singles of the year, “Green Light” and “24K Magic,” but stay within their comfort zone. While Childish Gambino kept on evolving in an increasingly interesting manner, the race for album of the year has to be between Jay-Z’s 4:44 and Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. Jay-Z is an all time great and 4:44 is a remarkable album that adds a complex chapter in an already illustrious career, but Jay-Z is yesterday and Kendrick Lamar is today and tomorrow. The musical risks and subject matter that Kendrick Lamar chooses to tackle in DAMN. are a clear image of what it is like to be alive in America in 2017. Reckless, afraid, but resilient.
“Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide. Are we gonna live or die?” These are Kendrick Lamar’s questions on the opening seconds of DAMN. The complexity and duality of Kendrick’s initial question sets the mood for what is to come, an inner struggle between wanting to help those in need and prioritizing self-care. See, the day after Donald Trump was elected president I, like many others, wondered what Kendrick Lamar would have to say about the shocking election results, what message and words he would give to us to carry close to our hearts in these uncertain times, instead, I should’ve been praying for Kendrick.
DAMN. is without a doubt Kendrick’s darkest and loneliest work. gone is the carefree joy of Good Kid,M.a.a.d City, gone is the sympathetic hope that shone brightest in To Pimp A Butterfly — instead he’s no longer worried about us, he’s worried about himself. “I feel like the world whole world want me to pray for ‘em,” he confesses in “Feel,” adding “But who the fuck is praying for me?” with a tone that almost sounds like Kendrick Lamar admitting defeat. It’s difficult to choose a standout track on DAMN. — it’s filled with astonishing storytelling on tracks like “Duckworth” & “Fear,” and stretches all the way to radio hits like “Humble,” “Loyalty,” and “DNA.” In fact the best quality of DAMN. is how it sticks with you, how you’ll find yourself humming along in the supermarket or whispering lyrics when out on a walk. Kendrick Lamar made an incredibly personal and dark record also one of the easiest to listen to.
Kendrick Lamar is a man of many monikers including King Kendrick, K.Dot, Cornrow Kenny and my personal favorite: Kung Fu Kenny. Kung Fu was popularized in the United States by the movies of Bruce Lee and the many mythological-esque stories that came with the man. Something that Bruce Lee often spoke about is “flowstate” or the idea of being “like water, shapeless,” meaning the ability to form and adjust to your surroundings and to your environment according to your needs. This is precisely what Kendrick — or Kung Fu Kenny — does best on DAMN. Like any good martial artist would, he takes elements of what made Good Kid, M.a.a.d City incredible and what made To Pimp A Butterfly unforgettable, and he morphs them into what we now know as DAMN. — his black belt level effort.
It was the surprisingly gloomy atmosphere of DAMN. that fueled online rumors and theories of a second record that would be released only days after DAMN. came out. However, Kendrick revealed that the second album does in fact exist: It is DAMN. itself, with a rearranged tracklist. He even went so far as to release a collectors edition of DAMN. with the tracklist reverse. While endless theories are still floating around on the internet one thing remains true, DAMN. is remarkable, a damn good record that deserves recognition — beyond endless praise from fans and critics alike — in the concrete shape of a trophy for Album of the Year at the 2018 Grammys. Because not only is it a timeless sonic masterpiece, a storytelling tour de force, and K. Dot’s magnum opus but it is also a close look inside the mind of the most important artist of today, Kendrick Lamar. And damn, I hope he can find a way to make it on this earth.