“Hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years,” declares Geraldo Rivera on the second track of Lamar’s fourth LP, bolstered by the sneering of his colleagues. The sample, extracted from a predictably naive Fox News segment, sets the tone for the following 50 minutes — damn, are we really still here?
On one level, DAMN. espouses simplicity. The evocative, teasing mystique of Lamar’s last album’s title, To Pimp a Butterfly, is replaced with a blunt curse, fortified with capital letters and punctuation. Gone are the anarchic free jazz instrumentals, dense album art and extensive list of collaborators. This stripped-down aesthetic underpins the central theme of the album. The literal fanfare of a nationwide address is absent because, rather than draw attention to the problem, DAMN. is a stark reminder — this is still happening. The furnishings may be absent, but rap’s saviour makes no concessions in his lyrical sermons.
On ‘DNA’, Lamar fires back at his Fox detractors, celebrating his “hustle and ambition” by contrasting a childhood of motel rooms with his current riches. The ensuing verbal onslaught pierces with a new kind of ferocity, one which, perhaps bridled by optimism on past records, is let loose in a burst of indulgent anger.
Despite the unrestrained aggression of ‘DNA’, DAMN. never descends into pure belligerence in its assessment of race in 2017. Lamar, ever the master storyteller, seamlessly shifts focus from interracial conflict towards the more personal, everyday struggles of being young, male, and black. In ‘XXX’, Lamar revives Johnny, his established and potentially self-referential shorthand for black youth, mourning his fate: ditching school, aspiring to rap, hustling and finally being killed due to “insufficient funds”. The verse concludes with cyclical allusion, as his father pledges to avenge his death. Perhaps the most potent depiction of intra-racial tension arrives in the track ‘FEAR’, as each verse describes the paranoia sown into Lamar throughout his life; having his ass beat as a child, dying anonymous at 17, having his money pilfered by accountants — snapshots of fear interspersed by the promise that, if only he could smoke it away, he’d roll that motherfucker up.
On his last album, Lamar ‘s refrain that “we gon’ be alright” became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement. TPAB was very much a product of the late-Obama years, with its underlying message that with togetherness, faith and pride, Black America could transcend the oppressive barriers of racism, poverty, and gang violence. But the strands of defiant optimism which pervade DAMN. seem uncertain and muddied, buoyed by the potential for success, but perhaps not the likelihood. Lamar repeatedly pays testament to his faith — the notion that salvation awaits those who follow the path of God. Compared to previous albums however, Kendrick retains a degree of ambiguity, perhaps unsure where he stands, desperately pleading for forgiveness after a lifetime of transgressions during the confessional ‘GOD’. On the album’s closing track, ‘DUCKWORTH’, Lamar provides a final reminder of the precariousness of the black male experience, spinning a tale of how his father was nearly killed by a, hustler Anthony ‘Top Dawg’ Tiffith. Years later, Top Dawg, now the head of a record label, would start recording albums with a teenage Kendrick. Lamar’s meteoric rise out of the Ghetto is as much a result of “coincidence” and good fortune than his faith.
DAMN. encapsulates post-Obama America. A country bereft of direction, of leadership and of coherence. A country capable of electing such incongruous presidents, of elevating a Compton gangbanger to millionaire status, of blaming a rapper’s performance for institutionalised inequality. It’s these contradictions which punctuate the album and construct a distinctly 2017 type of question: damn, what the hell is going on right now?