When Compton-raised rapper Kendrick Lamar dropped To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015, the music world experienced a collective euphoria of hope and awe. The album cast harsh lighting directly on the racism and unjust killings seen through police brutality and politics. TPAB was an album for the people, inspiring hope in a dark time, and composed by a spiritual leader in hip hop, a prophet – if you will.
The only piece missing of the prophet analogy being there was no sign of Kendrick teaching about God on TPAB, but on his new release, DAMN, this is precisely what the audience gets.
On Kendrick Lamar’s fourth full-length album DAMN we see our spiritual leader return yet again and this time in full realization that he is indeed our prophet.
Much like how Jesus in the book of Mark was unaware of his purpose on earth until he was baptized by John the baptist, it wasn’t until his TPAB release that Kendrick realized his purpose on earth- to inspire hope and teach us all through his life experiences what we can do to be better people and how faith is important for survival.
In “Blood,” the opening track of DAMN, the listener is immediately induced into Kendrick’s world as a music prophet and his messages of human struggle are spoken throughout the entire record. We are told a story of Kendrick taking a walk and running into a blind woman and feels the need to help her look for something she must have lost given her frustrated state, yet when he speaks to her, she tells him it is not her that has lost something, but him.
This parallel of Kendrick Lamar and Jesus is stronger since Jesus dealt with the blind.
In “DNA” we are taken inside the body of our music prophet and are exposed to his weaknesses, his humanness. This is expressed best in the lyrics, “I got dark, I got evil, that rot inside my DNA.” Also found in the track is another reference to prophecy found within him: “The reason my power’s here on earth, salute the truth, when the prophet say.”
We hear two references to the Old Testament book Deuteronomy in DAMN, the first being in third track, “YAH.” The dreamy choruses and atmosphere of this song encapsulate the possibility Kendrick himself having dreams or visions about his purpose (as prophets have been known to have) when composing this record. The mentioning of Deuteronomy in this track highlight two major themes of DAMN: that we are all cursed by sin and damned (hence the title of the album) and that Kendrick is a parallel of Jesus since the New Testament is never mentioned in the album.
“Element” holds one of the catchiest choruses found on DAMN and the following track “Feel” expresses the feeling a lot of us share on earth today. Kendrick shares his belief that most of the world is fake and also coming to an end, that we must find faith in something in order to make meaning in our lives. We are told here that Kendrick finds his faith through his music.
The next track which features Rihanna is a slump on DAMN.
My problem with “Loyalty” is its lack of purpose. It feels like a filler track with cross-over pop appeal that takes away from the perfect flow the album had up until this point. Another annoying aspect of the track is its repetitive high-pitched electronic mixing, reminding me of the time I had a fly in my ear.
Thankfully “Loyalty” dissolves and we are given “Pride,” a powerful track that brings back much more of the message-filled guide DAMN has to offer us. Kendrick lays out the inclination we all have to steer away from faith to seek out pleasure instead, being the innate nature within us all. “Flesh-making, spirit-breaking. which would you lessen?”
Following is the single to DAMN, “Humble” which as an explosive single showed Kendrick bragging on his talent in the hip hop world, yet within the record takes on a new meaning. It is paired with “Pride” for a reason, being as the previous track references pride being something we all fall victim to and must overcome, “Humble” shows the need to humble ourselves, even if we are clearly the best at our game.
“Lust” captures the sense of mundanity our lives carry, the blase bemusement of every day life. Kendrick teaches us that for those moments that diverge from the norm, we need to make them count, for their worth is priceless.
Sadly we are hit with another album slump in the tenth track. “Love” is another cross-over anomaly that seems fit for a pop fan who only wants a small taste of rapping dripping beneath semi-generic beats. For an otherwise outstanding record oozing with incredible rhythm and lyrics, “Love” is weak in comparison.
As in life there are surprises and strange directions, so is the same for DAMN.
In “XXX” we are treated to a track filled with fun mixing, made apparent with police sirens incorporated into the beats, and more surprisingly an appearance from the rock band U2. The political track is also one that shows the tear America now has from its Christian roots, and Bono’s melodies on “XXX” are great.
Does this mean its cool to like U2 again?
Next we are hit with the longest track on the album “Fear,” running close to eight minutes. The listener also hears another Deuteronomy reference, symbolizing the prophet metaphor once more. Kendrick uses different moments in his life where he was faced with true fear to express the nonsense suffering we all are forced to experience. Even though we are faced with terror and suffering from time to time, we gain wisdom from these experiences and take away their power if we face them head on.
The last two tracks on DAMN are perhaps the most powerful message wise.
In “GOD” Kendrick puts on his prophet hat yet again and bounces between the cockiness felt from his power and the realization that he is not the higher power that dwells above and what has left an imprint of itself within us all. My only beef with this track is the lackluster sound, it feels relatively empty behind such powerful lyricism.
The closing track, “Duckworth” tackles the concept of Fate through a personal story of Kendrick’s father’s life and music producer Anthony Tiffith. We are also given a sweet-tasting sampling of the 1978 track “Be Ever Wonderful” from Ted Taylor, a gunshot, further referencing to Kendrick being the music prophet he is and lastly a looping back into the story told in opening song “Blood.”
DAMN is a fantastic concept album from Kendrick Lamar.
It has flawless flow for the majority of its run-time, with the exceptions of “Loyalty” and “Love,” and expresses the hardships we all face within ourselves and the inner struggle of faith. Being age 29, Kendrick is at the pivotal time of life where all prophets and spiritual leaders soared. Jesus was in his early 30’s when he taught the masses, Buddha was 29 when he left his prince life of richness to become an ascetic, and there are plenty of other examples of this seen throughout history. With DAMN being released on Good Friday, it shows the parallel of Kendrick’s relation to spiritual leader and prophet Jesus, inspiring hope during trying times; Kendrick is indeed the savior in hip hop music for us all.