In March 2015, Kendrick Lamar released a song called “How Much a Dollar Cost,” about ignoring a panhandler who turns out to be God. Throughout the sprawling crisis of faith that was his To Pimp a Butterfly album, this was one of the most overt pleas to not give up, a New Testament argument in favor of the basic decency of humanity.
Then, a year and a half later, Election Day came to prove him wrong. Lamar didn’t make any public statements after Donald Trump’s victory. I can’t imagine how it’s affected him. But this spring, with the release of his laser-focused fourth album, bluntly titled DAMN, it became clear that the effect on his art has been extraordinary. Determined instead of conflicted, realistic instead of religious, DAMN outlines a vital artist’s transformed approach to navigating a fucked-up world: Have faith in yourself.
It begins with a direct echo of “How Much A Dollar Cost,” a story about Lamar seeing a blind woman on the street who looks like she needs help. This time, he does the Christian thing and goes over to lend a hand. Then she pulls out a gun and kills him.
The sound of that bullet represents a call to action. Lamar is absolutely on fire for the ensuing 13 tracks, all tagged with curt, one-word titles. He raps about the power in his blood, the clarity of his emotions, the resilience of his mind. He takes on a new nickname to match this new ethos of strength through self control, “Kung Fu Kenny.” Never has he gone in with such disciplined energy and irresistible swagger.
“I don’t contemplate / I meditate / Then off your fucking head,” he flexes over the levitating sitar n’ bass rumble of “DNA,” a song that finds Lamar digging so deep inside for inspiration that he’s talking shit about his genetic makeup and ability to reach nirvana in yoga class.
On “FEEL,” Lamar’s voice dances over a light, subterranean R&B groove, belying the weight class of the lonely-at-the-top emotions he’s contending with: “The world is endin’, I’m done pretendin’ / And fuck you if you get offended.”
And then there’s “LOVE.” Over a dreamy P.M. Dawn-esque synthscape, Lamar duets with guest vocalist Zacari about the all-or-nothing thrill of finding your person. It’s as concerned with betrayal as the rest of the record, but with a sweetness and vulnerability that your average rap album wouldn’t touch with a 1,000-foot pole. “If I minimized my net worth, would you still love me?” Lamar sings on the refrain. “Keep it a hundred, I’d rather you trust me than to love me.”
It’s technically correct to refer to DAMN as a “back to basics” record. The jazz/spoken word/Tupac ghost interview experiments of the past are firmly in the rearview – DAMN‘s closest relative in Lamar’s discography is his soulful, tightly concentrated 2011 debut Section.80. But it’s more than that. He’s gone back to basics psychologically as well, stripping away everything that he couldn’t count on in the world and starting over from there. His music has reached a higher plane in the process. The shorter the titles, the more meaningful the songs.
That’s why DAMN is, to me, the best album in Kendrick Lamar’s absolutely bulletproof discography. It’s the purest representation of his katana-sharp storytelling gifts, is absolutely loaded with hooks, and is driven by the kind of visceral, personal feeling that will never stop being relevant.
“Ain’t nobody praying for me,” he shares, over and over again, throughout this album. The first time he says it, it’s a plea. Eventually it becomes a mantra. By the end, it’s a declaration of independence.
We may not be praying for you, Kendrick. But to our great benefit, we’re listening.