Four years ago Kendrick Lamar, with Big Sean and Jay Electronica, released a statement of purpose . The now infamous “Control” was a big deal when it came out. For one thing it was big news that an up and coming rapper called out so many established rappers as well as other up-and-comers. The other unprecedented aspect of the “diss” track was that Kendrick had no beef in particular. He wanted to make a diss track to revive the spirit of competition. It’s possible the reference was an homage to the early days of crews, B-boys and DJs battling for neighborhood supremacy in the Bronx. It’s possible Kendrick wanted nothing more than to revive hip-hop’s roots, but it didn’t feel that way. After the battles between Pac & Big, Nas & Jay and The Game & 50, Kendrick’s version of “Calling Out Names” felt like something different. In the new hip-hop landscape, unlike the Boogie Down Bronx, there isn’t a territory to lay claim too. Kendrick saw a world in which beef was nonexistent and territory unimportant. He decided that he would have to create an environment of competition. Since that moment four years ago he hasn’t stopped manufacturing adversity.
I listened to “Damn” four times all the way through before I discovered the through line. There are albums that I like that I haven’t listened to four times, but this is Kendrick Lamar. He has convinced us, whether it’s true or not, that he has something more going on with his music than your average rapper. This allows Kendrick to get away with nonsense lyrics or boring songs or run-of-the-mill songs, because we bow down to his vision. The fact is that searching for his vision among the randomness of his aesthetic can be tiring.
From the very first skit the album establishes its through line of confusion. In the first skit there is a story about Kendrick and a blind woman. The woman loses something and Kendrick offers to help her find it. He says, “It seems to me that you have lost something. I would like to help you find it [emphasis mine].” She replies, “Oh yes, you have lost something. You’ve lost…your life.” This doesn’t make any sense. Why couldn’t she say, “Oh no, I’ve not lost anything, but you have…”? Wouldn’t that make more sense?
Granted, the opening skit of the album is a small hair to split, but it sets the tone for the album. The album’s message, if it has one, is wrapped up in some kind of pseudo-theological theory about how Black people are really Israelites. Kendrick first introduces the theory on “Yah” when he says he doesn’t want to be called Black anymore because it’s just a color. I thought it was a throwaway line as there are several of those on the album. Later, however, on “Fear” there is an extended sample of a preacher purporting that minorities in America (Blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics) are actually Israelites who have been cursed (damned even?) for turning away from God. Throughout the album there are voice bites of right-wing pundits condemning hip-hop or the actions of young Black men. These samples seem to suggest that Black folks are still wandering through their own desert as the Israelites did thousands of years ago.
It’s not that the parallels between Black Americans and Israelites don’t exist. It’s that connecting the dots as Kendrick has requires a very liberal reading of scripture and modern events, the kind of liberal reading that ventures into Alex Jones territory. It becomes quite difficult to believe that Kendrick believes the things he’s saying. In fact it seems more than likely that Kendrick heard a theory that somewhat resonated with him and he decided it would be good to put on his album. In a way it’s no different than creating beef to make hip-hop more interesting. The only problem is that it’s meaningless.
Lest you should worry that Kendrick has gone complete Prodigy, there are other tracks that adhere to Kendrick’s preferred fantasy. On tracks like “Element” and “Humble”, Kendrick ignites beef with all those people who have been coming at him. We’ve not seen these people he’s talking about, but they are there and Kendrick is ready for them. On “Feel” Kendrick talks about how nobody is praying for him and yet he has all these people, presumably fans, who look to him for guidance. It doesn’t feel like an awful problem to have especially when he proclaims himself to be the best rapper alive; it seems like the problem that he wanted to have. Kendrick is not the first rapper or celebrity to complain about fame while enjoying its perks, but the tone of the complaint feels disingenuous.
For all the confusion on the album there are definitely several highlights. “Fear” is an okay song (skip the sample at the end); so is “D.N.A.” On “Duckworth”, the last track, Kendrick actually does some storytelling. Most of the album is filled with flashy embedded rhymes and slick analogies. It’s almost sad that the most straightforward song, the one with the clearest vision, comes last.
In the end the album has too many disparate parts. There’s Kendrick’s theory of Black suffering which he, hopefully, doesn’t believe. There is Kendrick’s Tupac-esque me-against-the-world suffering which feels invented, though part of this suffering is a very real problem with depression. There are also some songs that don’t match the motif of suffering at all. It’s these songs more than anything that make you wonder if Kendrick is being real with us. As a final hair-splitting exercise let’s look at the song and video “D.N.A.” The video makes use of Don Cheadle’s fame, Chinese characters, and Cheadle’s character Kung-Fu Kenny in “Rush Hour.” What does any of that have to do with Kendrick’s suffering? It’s easy to point out that the Wu-Tang Clan mixed martial arts films with stark portrayals of ghetto life, but there is a major difference: The Wu-Tang Clan did it without winking. They may have been as calculating as Kendrick, but we didn’t know it until they had already arrived. With Kendrick we’re never sure what’s real and what’s not. The whole thing could be make believe.
For Kendrick fans the album is great. It’ll work for the casual fan as well, as long they steer clear of looking for a deeper meaning.