Written by Silas Valentino
The story begins in Compton, sometime during the 1980s, inside a Kentucky Fried Chicken of all places. Two men meet–a thief known for pulling the trigger and an employee with a good sense of how to protect his neck. Their brief interaction causes a split into the space-time continuum: one path the wicked, while the other the weak. Aware of this customer’s reputation for robbery, the employee holds his pride and bows by offering free biscuits. The robber accepts and chooses not to stick up the joint. Both men live; one eventually starts a record label named after his alter-ego (Top Dawg Entertainment) while the other would go on to father a son.
Three decades later that son would rehash this street tale and use it as the basis for his fourth studio album. Kendrick Lamar uses his latest LP Damn. to make a declarative statement on the duality of choice. His father chose against the wicked and a gunshot was sparred. Lamar will spend the next 55 minutes using carefully-crafted hip-hop to express the reflexive nature of decision.
Damn. picks up nowhere near where Kendrick left off with his previous two releases, 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly and last year’s Untitled Unmastered. Whereas those albums were expansive explorations of jazz fusion, hip-hop and social activism, Damn. is the result of the pendulum swinging hard to the other side. It’s abrasive and to the point–hence the single worded song titles which all end with a period.
We’re immediately introduced to the wicked/weak dichotomy through opening track “Blood.” Backup singers ask: “Is it wickedness?/Is it weakness?/You decide/Are we gonna live or die?” and the listener begins the audio journey. Following a brief replay of two Fox News hosts dissing on Lamar’s track “Alright”, the conversation starts with the banger “DNA.” The beat is bold and the rhymes match its rigor with Kendrick proclaiming the loyalty and royalty that flow within his genetic makeup.
In an album full of clever wordplays and biting narratives, the greatest moment arrives in the mid-album track “Pride.” The track is structured around a wirily guitar riff, calling to mind Kendrick’s earlier hit “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” but strummed with more intensity, and the greatest MC in the game proves his merit with a spellbinding vocal delivery where he manipulates his voice in real time to reflect his various octaves and tones. If charted on a graph, he does to his vocals what the Grand Tetons have done to the Rocky Mountains with epic peaks and smooth valleys connected in a cursive flow. It’s a mesmerizing display of vocal control that’s as impressive as it is utterly engaging.
“Humble” was the album’s lead-up single and an early notice to fans that K.Dot was revved up. Using a trap beat created by none other than the genre’s guru Mike Will Made It, “Humble” is a raucous display of bravado with a piano-based beat that would have been suited for Gucci Mane (who was reportedly the man Mike Will Made It had in mind when crafting the beat but gave it to Kendrick instead).
Damn. concludes with the song that started it all. “Duckworth” takes listeners back to that fateful K.F.C. and lets us hear how Top Dawg was on the verge of robbing the place and potential offing Kendrick’s father, leading to a likely fatal destiny for the hip-hop visionary. Kendrick ends with the chin scratcher: “Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence?/Because if Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg could be servin’ life/While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight.”
Established as the top MC of his time, Kendrick Lamar uses his fourth album Damn. to illustrate the consequence of choice.
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