Spoiler alert: DAMN. opens with Kendrick Lamar narrating his own shooting death at the hands of a blind assailant. This seems to be a tradition amongst Los Angeles rappers: Lamar’s most obvious predecessor, Ice Cube, rapped about dying at least three times on his first two albums. The shared message from both artists is that violent ends can arrive unexpectedly, especially if you’re young, black and male.
It’s no coincidence that Lamar decided to release DAMN. on Good Friday, a day meant to mark the death of the righteous at the hands of tyrants. Lamar isn’t a Christian rapper in the conventional sense — his songs aren’t in explicit exaltation of His glory — and though DAMN. is redolent with Biblical references, the temperament is decidedly Old Testament, filled with cold wrath and righteous punishments owing to the wages of sin and the blood of innocents. The tone on DAMN. is a stark contrast to the funky exuberance on Lamar’s much-lauded To Pimp a Butterfly from 2015: There, he seemed to revel in a torrent of creative intensity that some found exhilarating, others indulgent. If that album was like billiard balls scattering after the break, then DAMN. wraps its focus inward, tight and layered, like a bundle of rubber bands.
Its 14 songs, all titled with brief concepts such as “FEEL.”, “LOYALTY.”, and “DNA.”, explore dualities within both the soul and American society. In some cases, the fractures are made obvious between songs — “LUST.” and “LOVE.” or “PRIDE.” and “HUMBLE.,” for example — but even within a track, Lamar is constantly exploring conflicts and contradictions. On “DNA.,” the album’s first fully fleshed-out song, he raps back-to-back: “I got millions, I got riches, buildin’ in my DNA / I got dark, I got evil, that rot inside my DNA.” Likewise, on the nearly eight-minute marathon “FEAR.,” he invites us into his anxious mindset, where there’s a thin line between confidence and venality, and any hint of success also carries with it the threat of loss.
This introspection is also reflected in the mostly somber production, which departs from the meaty P-Funk influences of Butterfly in favor of more minimalist moods. At times, there’s perhaps too little there; I’ve had the album on nonstop since the minute it came out and I still can’t remember what “GOD.” or “LOYALTY.” sound like. But in other places, especially on “FEAR.” and “PRIDE.”, the soulful spareness works well with the song’s themes and Lamar’s understated performance. To put it a different way, Butterfly felt very music-forward, whereas DAMN. is built out of bars.
On the pre-album single “The Heart Part 4,” he boldly proclaimed himself to be this era’s “greatest rapper alive,” and DAMN. aims to secure his hold on that title belt. Lamar’s wordplay has always been intricate, but he’s finding new ways to push its limits: The way he super-stacks rhyming couplets rivals Eminem in his prime, while his constant modulation of voice and pacing allows him to play different characters within a single song. The stunning closer, “DUCKWORTH,.,” also burnishes his reputation as one of hip-hop’s most vivid storytellers, as he tells the supposedly true tale of how his label boss, Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, once came close to killing Lamar’s own father 20 years ago.
Perhaps nothing suggests his position atop hip-hop’s leaderboard more than the fact that, almost as soon as DAMN. came out, there was an internet-fueled rumor that since he “died” on Good Friday, it followed that he’d be resurrected on Easter Sunday via a surprise second album. (That’s less outlandish a thought than it would have been a year ago, before Frank Ocean dropped Endless and Blonde on consecutive days and Future went No. 1 with two albums released a week apart — but Easter came and went with no follow-up LP.) The collective desire, if not greed, for another full-length LP right after DAMN. captures how much Lamar has electrified the music community. There’s a real yearning for artists of his stature to speak truth to power, especially at a time when the powerful seem to brazenly revel in untruths.
There’s a danger in putting too much weight on any entertainer to serve as a proxy for collective action. Indeed, Lamar’s own fans sometimes feel moved to keep him in check — most recently in response to “HUMBLE.,” in which he rolls out a lazy cliché about wanting women to be less “Photoshop.” But though he can be preachy at times, he doesn’t suggest he’s above reproach. Rather, his songs constantly offer him up as a sacrifice to a vengeful God: never an innocent lamb, always a conflicted sinner. That’s the feeling his work asks us to confront within ourselves. He’s not here to provide relief or distraction. His anxieties and unease around his own foibles are meant to mirror our own — and likewise, his struggles towards salvation and redemption are lead-by-example exhortations for us to do the same work, lest we risk perishing in a damnation of our own making.