If the chief criterion for entry into the hip-hop canon were a high ratio of instantly memorable one-liners, then Kendrick Lamar’s Damn would be shut out of that topmost tier where his first two major-label masterpieces so comfortably sit. Having long ago proven his gift for diamond-cut epigrams (from the schoolboy wisecrack “It go Halle Berry or hallelujah” to the defiantly optimistic Black Lives Matter rallying cry “We gon’ be all right”), the most urgent rapper in the game seems ever more emboldened to let his words overflow in spiraling digressions, quotability be damned.
It’s fitting that the album’s most haunting refrain first issues not from K-dot’s own lips, but from the voice of a hype man, Kid Capri, who intones with cosmic foreboding: “Whatever happens on Earth stays on Earth.” The sentiment seems clear enough: Trapped on this planet with no assurance of immortality or transcendence, Lamar is left to shoulder our fucked-up reality like some dirty family secret, one he’s free to share only among his self-selecting public.
Such intense privacy belies the fact that this public has never been broader. Despite raising the ire of Fox News pundits who scolded him for protesting police brutality in a Grammy performance (a cringe-inducing morsel of conservative horseshit that makes its way onto the album’s opening track, “Blood”), Lamar has attained a degree of mainstream acceptability that was never accorded to his gangsta-rap idols. While some of this can be attributed to the increasing ubiquity of black militancy in pop culture, it also speaks to Lamar’s uncanny knack for appealing to multiple constituencies. On the one hand, he delights rap traditionalists by having the chops to go toe to toe with Pac and Biggie, and on the other, he comforts white moralists by eschewing the hedonistic, gun-packing personas of these forebears.
There’s nothing particularly insular about the music on Damn, an eminently listenable album more intent on feeding pop appetites than 2015’s sprawling, jazz-infused odyssey To Pimp a Butterfly. Clocking in at under an hour, the new album maintains its predecessor’s varied sonic palette with a mishmash of stark trap flourishes and woozy, impressionistic melodies but also distills these sounds to an ear-wormy directness primed for your car speakers.
The specter of violent death becomes a narrative device that wraps its arms around the whole album.
Certain tracks here have a slick, approachable sheen that would have felt out of place on Lamar’s more resolutely concept-driven previous albums: “Love” is a catchy ride-or-die ballad with singer Zacari on the chorus, lulling the rapper into a state of lyrical slackness, while “Loyalty” is a dance of seduction in which Lamar and Rihanna circle around each other in syncopated singsong, their abrasively nasal timbres turning flirty in combination. When Lamar released To Pimp a Butterfly’s lead single, “I,” back in 2014, hip-hop aficionados initially derided the song for its sunniness, but within the unrelenting intensity of his albums, seemingly fluffy material can serve not just as a necessary relief valve, but also as fine-grained characterization.
Rappers often share with stand-up comedians a susceptibility to caricature, partly because their reliance on boldly declarative first-person narration encourages them to act as their own coherent protagonists. Alone among his generation of hip-hop superstars, Lamar has remained remarkably untethered from any one agenda or temperament, which is why his albums have a multidimensional vividness we had not thought was missing from the genre.
“Love” and “Loyalty” aren’t just the radio-ready sugar that makes Lamar’s hard-hitting perennial themes go down. The seamlessness with which these moments of levity are integrated into his overriding vision of self-doubt and racial dread gives the album its sense of dense, teeming, irreducible life. On the rap boast “Element,” intimations of pleasure and pain intertwine, with casual self-affirmations like “I’mma make it look sexy” nestling in between apocalyptic images of dead grandmothers and dope-selling family members.
In the past, Lamar’s most ambitious songwriting (“The Blacker the Berry,” “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”) has tended to hinge on unexpected brushes with mortality. On Damn, the specter of violent death becomes a narrative device that wraps its arms around the whole album. In an echo of the beggar in “How Much a Dollar Cost” who turns out to be Jesus, the album’s first few minutes depict the rapper offering to help an old lady, only to discover she’s the grim reaper snuffing out his life. Mortal despair is threaded throughout Damn, shifting from the sharply escalating litany of “Feel” (“Fill up the banks with dollars/Fill up the graves with fathers”) to the post-election blues of “Lust” and “XXX” (“America/God bless you if it’s good to ya”) to the seven-minute gospel cry of “Fear” (“I don’t think I can find a way to make it on this Earth”). At times, Lamar’s anxieties and grievances pour out in a fusillade of language, but just as often he’s traipsing across a languid beat, mumbling or reversing his lines so it sounds like he’s speaking in tongues.
In “Duckworth,” the album’s closing song and its most bracing piece of storytelling, the memory of death comes lurching out of the blue with a sudden clarity that contrasts with the album’s hectic, often muffled lyricism. Lamar matter-of-factly recounts how Anthony Tiffith, his industry mentor and Top Dawg co-founder, nearly shot the rapper’s father decades ago—a revelation that leads Lamar to contemplate the hairpin plot twists that have constituted his own stardom. Few of our great MCs have ever looked death as squarely in the eye, without first trying to build a myth out of their proximity to it. On this desperately sad opus, Lamar tells us that in a land where black life continues to be under persistent attack, where “what happens on Earth stays on Earth,” even the transcendent capacities of genius are subject to the whims of fate. That the fact of that genius has scarcely been in question during his now half-decade run of extraordinary music only makes it harder to fathom the narrowly averted possibility that we might never have known him.