On April 14, Kendrick Lamar’s sixth release, Damn, made its debut.
The album is a follow-up to 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly and its 2016 companion Untitled Unmastered. Damn touches on topics like religion, politics, racism, and love, just to name a few. All in all, you’re going to need more than just one listen in order to process all the layers of meaning in the album.
In 14 songs, Lamar challenges right-wing news networks, puts cops on blast, and weaves intense narratives of racial oppression and reflections of society. As soon as I browsed the track list of Damn, which includes collaborations with names like Rihanna and U2, I knew I’d be in for a real treat.
In the song “DNA”, Lamar highlights the struggles, but also the victories of his own heritage and way of life. He speaks of being proud to be African American, as well as his realness as a rapper with lyrics like, “I got power, poison, pain, and joy inside my DNA.” In the bridge of the song, Lamar samples a Fox News clip, where commentator Geraldo Rivera criticizes lyrics from the 2015 song “Alright” saying, “This is why I say that hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years.” Lamar himself stated his intention for the song was to preach hope in the face of adversity, not violence.
In “Element,” Lamar raps about the sacrifices he’s willing to make in order to get his message out. A key message from this song is that instead of preaching about making a difference, we need to take action. Lamar raps about the difference between his competition and himself, saying, “Y’all don’t fade, most of y’all been advised / Last LP I tried to lift the black artists / But it’s a difference between black artists and wack artists.”
Lamar repeats, “Ain’t nobody prayin’ for me” in the song “Feel,” expressing his vulnerability with a pessimistic outlook. In the song, Lamar explores a wide range of feelings (particularly the negative ones) that have resulted from his stardom with lyrics like, “I feel like friends been overrated / I feel like family been fakin’ / I feel like the feelings are changin’.”
“Love” is the slow jam of the album, and features the velvety vocals of Zacari. The song is calming with Zacari’s falsetto when he sings, “Give me a run for my money / There is nobody, no one to outrun me / Sippin’ bubbly, feelin’ lovely, livin’ lovely / just love me”. Kendrick’s verses ask the question if his girl’s love is unconditional with lyrics like, “If I didn’t blade the curb, would you still love me? / If I minimize my net worth, would you still love me? / Keep it a hundred, I’d rather you trust me than to love me.”
The stand-out track in the album undoubtedly is “XXX”, which features Bono from U2. In the song, Bono sings, “It’s not a place / This country is to be a sound of drum and bass / You close your eyes to look around.” I definitely get the vibe of the post-election blues with this song, with lyrics like “The great American flag is wrapped and dragged with explosives / Compulsive disorder, sons and daughters / Barricaded blocks and borders / Look what you taught us!” In the song, Lamar calls out the hypocrisy of powerful American politicians, explaining how they portray minorities as violent gang members or terrorists in his lyrics, “You overnight the big rifles, then tell Fox to be scared of us / Gang members or terrorists, et cetera, et cetera / America’s reflections of me, that’s what a mirror does.”
In a country where black life continues to be under persistent attack, Lamar tells us “what happens on Earth stays on Earth” and fearlessly questions the realities of society. Damn has already earned its spot as the best album of 2017 in my book because I love that Lamar is unafraid to rap about religion, suffering, politics, and racism. I think that the album is exactly what our country, and people of color especially, need right now. Regardless of what Fox News says about him and rap music, in general, Lamar is proof that rap music can cover meaningful and relevant topics. Plus, he collaborated with U2…name a rapper who’s crossed genres like that.
Needless to say, I think that Damn is pure genius and is changing the norms of rap music in the best way possible.