It’s been five years since Kendrick Lamar released his fourth studio album, DAMN. To this day, it has been examined from start to finish and praised for its introspective lyrics, stellar production, and Lamar’s fearlessness in his approach to exploring the many flaws in a human being’s psyche.
To a certain extent, DAMN. is a reflection of us all. Each of the album’s 14 tracks represents an important emotion, and as a whole; it shows the duality of human nature, along with just how common a life of contradiction can be.
In the wake of April 14, 2017, much has transpired. It’s the last time we’ve seen Lamar drop a solo project, and the lines of what one considers “normal” continues to blur to a point that the definition of the word is questioned more often than not. DAMN. was released three months into the Trump Administration, and a few years removed from the senseless killings of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, and countless others. While the 2015 classic To Pimp a Butterfly addressed many of these social issues and exuded an optimism about the future, DAMN. touched upon the inner turmoil that we all experience, and its effect on the world around us.
At its core, DAMN. centers around struggle between good and evil. The album begins (or ends, for all you TDE enthusiasts) with the thought-provoking “BLOOD.” Lasting a little under two minutes, the song tells the story of a man who helps a blind woman find something that was lost. Upon assisting her, the woman shoots the man, thus ending the song. For many, the “blind woman” may have been a representation of Lady Justice, and how she never quite worked for Black people in this country the way she was supposed to. On a deeper level, the woman could have been America itself, building its strength on the practice of slavery before evoking violence on the very people that made this nation what it is today.
Throughout Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning project, we see him battle with several trains of thought. Songs like “LOVE.” and “LOYALTY.,” featuring Rihanna, speaks to a man’s need for the trust, compassion, and respect from another. While “LUST.” focuses on the emotion of greed, and a person requiring an unhealthy satisfaction from many. “DNA” encompasses the theme of DAMN. to perfection, as Lamar discusses the positive, negative, and indifferent traits that come within the makeup of a man.
“I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA/Cocaine quarter piece, got war and peace inside my DNA,” the Compton-raised musician rapped. “I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA/ I got hustle though, ambition, flow inside my DNA.”
Oddly, the album’s center has come to be its most prophetic. Songs such as “YAH.,” “FEEL.,” and “PRIDE.,” all have messages of distrust and the constant threat of negativity one faces as a celebrity. Throughout his career, Lamar has been scrutinized in the media, as well as being subject to an unfair perception from certain members of the public. It can be said that these experiences, along with the temptation of fame, has caused him to become cynical, and may have contributed to the Grammy Award-winning artist’s reclusive behavior.
In DAMN.’s final moments, Lamar talks about how large a part religion has in his life. “XXX.” – one of the album’s most powerful songs – is about the horrific state of America and how difficult it is for people of color, but so easy for other races. “America, God bless you if it’s good to you/ America, please take my hand; can you help me understand,” Lamar harmonized. “FEAR.” expounded on his feelings of injustice and uncertainty, as we hear Kendrick ask God why he has to suffer.
The songs “GOD.” and “DUCKWORTH.” make for a fitting conclusion to what many fans and critics alike feel is Kendrick’s magnum opus. In recent years, the latter has established itself as one the all-time great story tracks in hip-hop history. Lamar chronicles an ironic meeting between his father and Top Dawg Entertainment’s CEO Anthony Tiffith; that brought about a series of events that led to the creation of one of the greatest record labels in the music industry, along with success of the imprint’s marquee artist.
What makes Lamar’s fourth studio release most special is that many of its themes still resonate today. Some may see it as disheartening, with our world still plagued by racism, inequality, and the like, but it can still be beautiful to witness an individual go through the entire grid of emotions. As human beings, we are not one-dimensional, and as Black people, we are not monolithic. Sonically, DAMN. still hits as hard as it did in its debut, and its content will continue to withstand the test of time – for better or for worse.
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