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16th April 2017

First thoughts: Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

Ben Lomax takes a preliminary dip into the mindset and ideas of Kendrick Lamar’s latest project, which may hold the key to as yet unknown depths


At the end of the first track on his new album Kendrick Lamar is shot. The follow up ‘DNA.’ sees an animated Kendrick rap aggressively over dramatic vocal samples, reflecting on his life, past to present. It feels like a man spiralling into shock and over the course of the album, dreamy and sublime instrumentals give the impression of that life slipping away.

Trying to separate DAMN. from its predecessor is almost impossible. To Pimp a Butterfly wasn’t just an incredibly diverse and forward-thinking album — it received widespread acclaim almost to the point of instant classic status. According to Metacritic it’s still the best received rap album of recent times, having kicked Kanye West’s epic My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy off the top spot, no mean feat. Gone are the sprawling list of features, monologues and jazzy instrumentation, replaced by a punchier, more stripped-back sound. That’s not to say DAMN. lacks any of the ambition, from reversed hidden messages to left-field collaborations, there’s no sign of reeling too much in just yet.

To Pimp a Butterfly documented Kendrick’s struggles with depression, spurred on by systematic racism in America. Things since have hardly looked up since and he pulls no punches sampling Fox News and even mimicking Trump’s Time magazine cover, giving himself devil horns in the form of a red letter ‘M’ in the album’s cover artwork.

Far from the only nod to a devil, faith seeps into every part of this album, from titles like ‘PRIDE.’, ‘LUST.’ and ‘GOD.’ to a repeated motif of “Who’s gonna pray for me?” Lamar has recently said: “We’re in a time where we exclude one major component out of this whole thing called life: God. Nobody speaks on it because it’s almost in conflict with what’s going on in the world when you talk about politics and government and the system.”

Along with the near-endless references and likenings to Jesus on this album, it’s clear religion is something that’s been weighing heavily on his mind.

If it was hard to look at DAMN. without the context of its predecessor, it may be even harder to separate it from its successor. The video for lead single ‘HUMBLE.’ saw Kendrick sitting at the head of the table in a scene reminiscent of the last supper and with him dying on Good Friday (DAMN.’s release date), it seems more than plausible that he intends to rise again this Sunday. With questions posed like “Wicked or weakness? You decide”, and a closing rewind back to the start, there certainly seem to be a lot of unanswered questions for a complete project.

If the internet rumour-mill is to be believed, and it has a number of convincing arguments, we may hear more from K-Dot very soon. If so, then no doubt a lot more will unravel from this album, already so rich in layers of message and meaning.

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