A lot has been said about Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. since it’s surprising release last month. It must be said that it’s a move that is proving to be an incredibly polarising one, especially at such a pivotal point in his career. Some have praised the new album for its ingenuity in bringing Kendrick’s music into a more pop-oriented arena, while others have criticised it for the very same reasons. Likewise, some have praised Kendrick for his stripped-back approach to the album, with DAMN. proving to be a much less superficially conceptual and grandiose album than its predecessors (2012’s flawless breakthrough Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, and 2015’s career-defining release To Pimp A Butterfly). At the same time, others have outright panned this approach, accusing Kendrick of dumbing down his message and distilling his art to its most simplest form, attempting to cater to the masses that only know K-Dot for the big singles – or worse, for that awful Taylor Swift collab (pop sympathetic groupthink be damned: Taylor Swift is still garbage to me. Except for ’22’).
What I’m finding more and more is that the public opinion on DAMN. falls into two camps – either you’re impressed that the music has taken a lean towards the more pop-oriented side of hip hop and thereby impressed with the tunes, or you’re disgusted that the new King of Hip Hop has taken his artistry to a base level, dismissing the whole thing as one big money-grab. Both of these camps have some valid points, but I think most of them are missing the biggest point of all: why? Why would Kendrick make a decision like this, at this juncture in his career? Why would a man we know to be a very measured, meticulous individual with a deep, deep passion for his art form suddenly go all basic on us? It’s all too easy to point to the obvious and say he’s reaching for that almighty pop dollar, but the fact is that he’s been dominating the market regardless of the style of his output ever since the release of To Pimp a Butterfly – just look at how heavily anticipated DAMN.was prior to its release for proof of his relevance in the industry today (not just from hip-hop heads, but industry-wide).
So to say that Kendrick has been motivated by money or fame here is just basic – it’s ignoring the obvious response to that very obvious speculation: why would he need to reach for anything? He already has all the money and fame and respect and notoriety that any man could ever desire, so why? Why would a man so revered, a man considered by many to be the new Saviour of Hip Hop take such a big left turn and deliver an album like DAMN.? I think the answer is being laid out plain and clear for all to see, so much so that it may as well be spelt out in neon-red capital letters right above his head: KENDRICK LAMAR IS NOT YOUR DAMN. SAVIOUR. Kendrick Lamar is not some transcendental being descended from the heavens to save Hip Hop. In fact, if DAMN. proves anything, it’s that Kendrick Lamar has come here to destroy Hip Hop – or more accurately, to rule over hip-hop with an iron fist.
Let’s examine the evidence.
Exhibit #1: Big Sean – Control (2013):
Way back in 2013 after the release of Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, Kendrick guested on a then-unreleased Big Sean song that in Sean’s words “didn’t make the album cuz of the sample BUT IT IS NOT no radio shit.. Straight rap… I’m talking 7min shit… Grimey shit.” He wasn’t lying – this 7-minute bar-fest ruffled some serious feathers, featuring Big Sean, Jay Electronica and Kendrick going back-to-back-to-back on some serious no-hook beast-mode type business. Sean and Jay delivered some solid performances, but nobody remembers that track for anything but Kendrick’s verse; in a year that Kendrick didn’t even have a release of his own to offer, he hopped in on Big Sean‘s B-side and delivered the verse of the year, wherein he called out almost the entire current hip-hop game by name, including both of his gracious guests, stating:
I’m usually homeboys with the same niggas I’m rhyming with
But this is hip-hop and them niggas should know what time it is
And that goes forJermaine Cole, Big K.R.I.T., Wale, Pusha T, Meek Millz, A$AP Rocky, Drake, Big Sean, Jay Electron’, Tyler, Mac Miller
I got love for you all, but I’m tryin’ to murder you niggas
Tryin’ to make sure your core fans ain’t never heard of you niggas
They don’t wanna hear not one more noun or verb from you niggas
What is competition? I’m tryIn’ to raise the bar high
Who tryin’ to jump and get it? You’re better off tryin’ to skydive
A lot of people saw this as Kendrick taking a shot at Big Sean specifically, despite Sean having put the song out in the first place. It really makes no sense to see this verse as an attack towards one person at all, as it directly names almost everybody relevant to hip-hop at that point in time, not just Sean or Jay. It was pretty obviously a swing at his entire rap peer-group and is intended to be taken both in jest and competitively – in the spirit of hip-hop, as it should be. Kendrick wasn’t trying to bruise egos, he was trying to bring a lost spirit of competition back to hip-hop, and with this verse, he boldly stated: I will be the king of rap and I am coming for the crown, who’s gonna slow me down? It was an important statement for Kendrick at the time, as he had just released an album that defined him as an artist and cemented his name in the hip-hop world, but he clearly still felt hungry. Not for fame, or for money, but for notoriety – he wanted to be the undisputed G.O.A.T. and if you don’t count Good Kid…, his ‘Control’ verse has to be Kendrick’s first big push towards the crown.
Exhibit #2: The Heart, Part IV (2017)
We’ll just skip to here because we all know what happened with the real Exhibit #2: To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick stole the crown, took the throne, pulled the sword from the stone; choose your own analogy.
On To Pimp A Butterfly and its follow-up, 2016’s untitled. unmastered., Kendrick amazed the world with his intensely intricate and considered approach to hip-hop, and to the album as an artform in itself (a bit of a lost art in the digital age). In many circles, it was being argued that Kendrick had indeed proven himself as a king amongst kings in his arena, and due to his downright stunning work on To Pimp A Butterfly, whether it was fair to start openly considering the man the king; the current Greatest Of All Time.
Fast-forward to 2017, and Kendrick issues a new statement in the form of his ever-evolving series of promo tracks evocatively titled ‘The Heart’, and immediately you know where he stands on the debate. In ‘The Heart, Part 4’, Kendrick introduces us to a way more intense, aggressive version of himself than we’re used to, once again calling out hip-hop’s current roster – not naming names this time around but taking shots at anybody in the firing line. He struts like a peacock, stating that he outright dominated the hip-hop game with TPAB, but that people still can’t keep his name out of their mouths so everybody’s “got ‘til April the 7th to get y’all shit together” (which turned out to be the date he announced his album release date). He quite obviously states his intentions again here; that he isn’t simply satisfied with the massive successes of TPAB, and now he was coming for everybody left. The beats for ‘The Heart, Part 4’ move from slick and syrupy-sweet to straight up grimy, for the most part offering a very stark and stripped back production value in comparison to the usual lush, meticulous production we expect from him, signalling the transition he was about to make musically.
NOTE: Again, for some reason here everybody seemed to think that these lyrics were targeted directly at Big Sean. This is easily the weirdest media beef ever – it was borne from the Control verse which wasn’t directed at Sean, and years later people still have to bring it up like it’s somehow still simmering away below either artists’ surface. For the record, nothing has ever officially been said by either party regarding their supposed now 5-year long beef.
Exhibit #3: HUMBLE.
Kendrick comes out dressed as the motherfucking POPE. One spotlight, centred solely on him. The beat drops like a long-lost cut from KanYe’s …Dark Twisted Fantasy album – could it be any more obvious? It wasn’t enough for him to come for the kings of hip-hop on TPAB, on DAMN. Kendrick‘s coming for the kings of hip-pop culture – your KanYes, your Drakes, your Waynes, even down to your Futures -and he’s biting their style as he does it and straight up burying them at their own game. What stronger way could exist to solidify the fact that you are without a doubt the undisputed king of everything hip-hop today? If it wasn’t clear enough by now, the hook bombs in to make sure to clarify for anybody confused – BITCH, SIT DOWN. BE HUMBLE. KanYendrick swaggers in like the Tony Montana, demanding his competitors take a step back and make way for the true king. The delivery is so assured you don’t even feel you have a right to question the authority of his statement – Kendrick is King.
Exhibit #4: DNA.
If that weren’t enough, the next single ‘DNA.’ is a hard-backed Trap banger that calls out Kendrick‘s competitors right down to their very core – it’s the ultimate diss-track; he isn’t just shitting on them, he’s shitting on their entire genetic make-up. He’s saying that down to their very cells, his competitors are not genetically built to stand toe-to-toe with him. Could you get any more brutal? After ‘HUMBLE.’, a song like this only solidifies the obvious to anybody paying attention – Kendrick isn’t here to make some grand statement, and he isn’t making any of these decisions to please anybody. He’s here to dominate, plain and simple – to lay waste to any and all competition in the game and since he’d already done that on his own playing field with To Pimp A Butterfly, now he’s started moving into other territories to cut heads wherever he finds them. And who knows? Maybe next time around he’ll come for the future-soul movement, or the neo-gospel movement, or move into more abstract alt. hip-hop territory. At this point, I’d say Kendrick Lamar can do everything and anything he damn well pleases and he won’t hear one complaint. Certainly not from me.
Exhibit #5: DAMN.
If you need any more proof, the only place to find it is in this album. There is honestly a million things to talk about regarding this release – some people have, for instance, accused it of being a fake album. Others have speculated that it’s half of a double-album release (and there are a couple of strange theories on how that works as well, one being that it already is two albums – it’s a worthy click hole if you’ve got a free Saturday night alone). For whatever reason, it seems that a lot of people simply can’t understand, or can’t appreciate simply on its merits alone why Kendrick would release an album like DAMN.
In short – it’s a reaction. It’s a volatile snapshot of an artist trying to dominate every aspect of his artistry, while simultaneously shatter every expectation thrust upon him, doing his best to come out as a king while shaking off the shackles of musical martyrdom, and if the buzz behind this album is anything to go by, I’d say he’s succeeding on all fronts.