If To Pimp a Butterfly was Kendrick Lamar’s vitriolic response to the greater populace in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and all the violence and intolerance that led to its inception, DAMN. is the stark comedown as the reality of the situation settles in and those with a penchant for sloganeering have moved on. (“Parade the streets with your voice proudly/ Time pass and things change/ Reverting back to our daily programs, stuck in our ways.”) Think of it as his There’s a Riot Goin’ On with its hauntingly sparse arrangements, comparatively down and almost lethargic delivery and the touch of dejected resignation—just look at the album cover—that creeps around the edges of Lamar’s voice throughout. Where before it felt like a grand movement for social change was underway, here we are faced with a new morning, one in which the leader of our country is a racist, misogynistic xenophobe with a petty, vindictive streak and his tiny-fingered hands in innumerable coffers around the world. Add to this a raging, wholly unchecked id, a massive inferiority complex and an aversion to reality and the previous eight years now feel like a distant dream, the present having dissolved into a waking nightmare.
And while Lamar certainly addresses this apparent new world order throughout DAMN.—opening track “Blood” offers a particularly jarring conclusion—he, like a vast swath of modern society, has turned inward in the face of an advancing evil that seems to be penetrating each and every facet of our daily lives. “We all woke up, tried to tune to the daily news/ Looking for confirmation, hoping the election wasn’t true/ All of us worried, all of us buried in our feelings deep/ None of us married to his proposals, make us feel cheap,” he sighs on “Lust, ” one of the most politically-charged tracks here, despite his use of a bedroom falsetto. This introspection helps give a voice to the general sense of disaffection permeating not only the so-called left, but those who put their faith and hope in a country that now seems to have been broken well beyond repair. In other words, despite the often singular self-centric focus present throughout, it still feels as though it works on multiple levels, commenting on the nature of celebrity while continuing a keen social dialogue that began on Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City.
As he did on his breakthrough release, Lamar here turns the microscope back onto himself, examining just how much things have changed in the intervening years as his celebrity and cultural status has continued to rise exponentially. Whether being seen as an irrational voice of anti-cop rhetoric or as “Uncle Kendrick,” Lamar here shows more of the man behind the cultural (mis)appropriation by the likes of Geraldo Rivera and those white-bread, blathering puppets that pass for newscasters on Fox News than ever before. His barbs are pointed and directed with a laser-like focus, calling out directly not only Rivera, but Trump, false modesty, and cultural hypocrisy.
At 55 minutes, DAMN. is incredibly knotty and impregnable in terms of being able to fully process everything at work here. Indeed, subsequent listens continue to reveal more and more of the lyrical subtext, allusions and introspective nature of his lyrics. “I got so many theories and suspicions,” he informs us on “Yah” before going into a litany of concerns expressed by those closest to him in the face of his rising cultural profile. “Interviews wanna know my thoughts and opinions/ Fox News wanna use my name for percentage/ My latest news is my niece she’s worth living/ Seen me on the TV and scream, ‘There’s Uncle Kendrick’.”
It’s this last line that breaks down the misrepresentational cultural façade that has been built up around him in the wake of To Pimp a Butterfly and the Black Lives Matter movement. (“I’m not a politician/ I’m not about a religion/ I’m a Israelite/ Don’t call me black no more/ That word is only a color/ It ain’t facts no more.”) Similarly, on the woozy psych mantra of “Pride” he muses, “Now in a perfect world I probably won’t be insensitive/ Cold as December but never remember what winter did/ I wouldn’t blame you for mistakes I made or the bed I laid/ Seems like I point a finger just to make a point nowadays.” In this way, Lamar recognizes the contradictions inherent in all of us, the fallibility of even the best intentioned.
“XXX” begins with an optimistic sounding, “America/ God bless you if it’s good to you/ America, please take my hand/ Can you help me underst-” before being abruptly cut off by one of many interjects proclaiming “New Kung Fu Kenny,” ostensibly a reference to Lamar himself. Here, he shatters the illusion of the American dream, taking the listener into the harsh reality that finds him warning without the slightest hint of braggadocio, “I can’t sugarcoat the answer for you, this is how I feel/ If somebody killed my son that means somebody getting killed/ Tell me what you’d do for love, loyalty and passion of all the memories collected, moments you can never touch.” It’s a sobering admission that forces the listener into the role of grieving parent and how peaceful rhetoric is worth little in the face of true human emotion. “Ain’t no Black Power when your baby killed by a coward.”
The song breaks to allow the last line to sink in before the much-talked about collaboration with U2 unfurls atop a slow, stately piano line. Bono croons, “You close your eyes to look around” just before Lamar reenters with another scathing indictment: “Hail Mary, Jesus and Joseph/ The great American flag is wrapped in drag with explosives/ Compulsive disorder, sons and daughters/ Barricaded blocks and borders/ Look what you taught us/ It’s murder on my street, your street, back streets, Wall Street.” It’s this disenfranchisement that lies at the heart of DAMN. and informs its most searing moments. By making the personal universal, Lamar allows us into his world, but keeps each of us at a distance. After having been let down once before, the question of trust becomes all the more significant. “Whatever you’re doing just make it count,” he pleads on “Lust.”
Like our new day-to-day reality, DAMN. is full of fear, confusion and dismay at the world around us. Closing track “Duckworth,” a supposed real-life account of how Lamar’s father was spared his life thanks to an act of basic human decency, lays out the cause-and-effect of how we approach the coming years of not only the Trump administration, but also the precipitous decline of the America we once knew. Reaching its moralistic conclusion, “Duckworth” shows this one very human act of kindness (free chicken every time the potential gunman showed up in line) to have resulted in a surprisingly satisfying ending. “Pay attention, that one decision changed both of their lives,” he spits, leading to the reveal that the one-time gangbanger became Lamar’s manager and, his decision to spare the older Lamar’s life, led to a wildly positive outcome for all three. “Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence?/ Because if Anthony killed Ducky, top dog could be serving life while I grow up without a father and die in a gunfight.” As the tape rewinds back through the preceding 55 minutes, we’re returned to the album’s opening lines, the difference between life and death shown to be but a hair’s breadth. Damn, indeed.