“So, I was takin’ a walk the other day…”
On Tuesday, April 11th, Kendrick Lamar released the artwork and track list for his forthcoming album, DAMN. A somewhat inebriated gaze forces Kendrick’s eyes to fight the suppressing weight of his brow, which conceals his heavy emotions. This weary yet fixated stare reflects a man’s accustomed disposition to life’s inevitable negativities, while retaining hope for life’s positive potential. It shows a man, off-balanced and woozy, going 12-rounds with life’s duality—the weakness and the wickedness; the good and the evil.
DAMN. is a powerful 14-track, 55-minute thematic balancing act. Multiple opposing forces cyclically clash and give way to one another, forming Lamar’s intriguing narrative of using differing energies to structure human existence. Throughout DAMN., we witness Lamar’s journey of asserting himself as the game’s best rapper, while struggling to transcend conventional human shortcomings. It displays Kendrick as a blossomed, poised rose, but reminds us of the thorns dispersed throughout his stem.
Continuing his critically-acclaimed, groundbreaking album, To Pimp A Butterfly, DAMN.’s motifs manifest this inner struggle through religion, personal trials and tribulations, and serendipity. We witness a man sauntering life’s battlefield, looking to his left, to his right. His aperture is wide. Kendrick looks down as he walks his fruitful path, which resembles the unevenness of an old European city’s cobblestone road whose beauty lies as much in the pleasing aesthetics as it does in its imperfections, leading towards the glistening horizon of his potential. The distance to the horizon isn’t linear, but the path is worth walking.
DAMN. is strategically bookended by tracks that collaborate to structure the album’s continuity, representing life’s cyclical nature, and the album’s interchanging energy. Their Ying Yang pattern exemplifies the album’s conceptual dynamism.
On the first track, “BLOOD.”, eery instrumentals cautiously invite us into this uneven landscape that resembles a limbo, unconscious state of mind. Kendrick’s spoken-word statement, “So I was takin’ a walk the other day…” positions the story that foreshadows the album’s intertwining narrative of balance. Lamar’s offer to help a seemingly nonthreatening blind, elderly woman backfires when she tells him, "Oh yes, you have lost something. You've lost... your life.” [Gunshot.] This menacing opening represents an unjust death, or end—an unfortunate American theme plaguing minorities that frequents Kendrick’s content.
The expository final track, “DUCKWORTH.” (verified by its producer 9th Wonder) counters the opener’s dark nature through Kendrick’s masterfully told origin story. The serendipitous tale details how Top Dawg’s coincidental interaction with Kendrick’s father at a KFC 20-something-years ago saved both their lives, and Kendrick’s. Kenny contextualizes this, and closes the album’s loop, by rapping, “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.” [Gunshot].” A rewound excerpt of the album follows, ending with Kendrick’s opening line, “So I was takin’ a walk the other day…”.
We begin with an unjust murder, we end with divine intervention—one man, two outcomes. This connection demonstrates opposing forces interacting to impart balance. It shines a light on what could have been, celebrates what is, all while framing the razor thin margin between life and death, between dreams and dirt naps.
Life is a dynamic, abstract concept. We all search for answers to support our theories, knowing that definitive evidence doesn’t exist. However, consistencies arise that validate certain notions. For instance, clarity is derived once we’ve gained perspective on a given situation—we can’t truly appreciate something’s beauty without experiencing something’s pain; we can’t try and be good without identifying our faults. Understanding and accepting this equity allows us to exchange our rose-colored glasses for 20/20 vision, in search of some version of the “truth”.
Kenny uses DAMN. to illuminate humanity, thorns and all. He speaks on the human struggle to moderate negative intentions, while understanding that those negatives inform the positives—we try to be virtuous in fear of acting devilish. But those devilish intentions exist within all of us to some degree. On the cover art, notice how the “M” is placed above Kendrick’s head—he sees evil inside himself. Identifying that wickedness, and supplementing it with goodness yields righteousness. Regardless of religious beliefs, we strive to achieve virtuosity by balancing some form of life’s Seven Deadly Sins with its counterpart, the Seven Virtues—the devil and the angel. 14 opposing life guidelines whose intersection dictates one’s essence. 14 guidelines, 14 tracks on DAMN. Coincidence? With Kendrick, it’s always deliberate.
Nestled in the album’s core lies “PRIDE.” and the album’s single, “HUMBLE.” Christianity dictates that humility is the serum to pride’s sinfulness, saying that pride formulated the devil, and waters all vices. Ironically, however, Kendrick acts humbly on “PRIDE.” by acknowledging his human errors: “See, in a perfect world, I'll choose faith over riches / I’ll choose work over bitches.” In a perfect world he would strictly act righteously, but Kendrick knows that perfection doesn’t exist, as he raps, “Sick venom in men and women overcome with pride / A perfect world is never perfect, only filled with lies.” Conversely, on “HUMBLE.”, Kendrick roars arrogance by yelling at the industry to “Sit down… be humble,” and acknowledge his sole ownership of rap’s thrown. Flames replace K. Dot’s pupils, his horns are sharp, his tail sways ominously. Lamar’s hubris radiates in the “HUMBLE.” music video by claiming Jesus’ seat at the last supper; there’s no room for interpretation here—Kendrick is at his cockiest. Characteristic of Compton’s protégé, Kenny enriches this conceptual reversal sonically by juxtaposing “PRIDE.’s” calm production with “HUMBLE.’s” defeating decibels.
His impiety and pride - humility inversion possibly reinforce Kendrick’s denial of organized religion—he only recognizes God. He believes that race and religion are arbitrary distinctions that muffle one’s true soul, causing more harm than benefit. On “YAH.”, Kendrick states, “I'm a Israelite, don't call me Black no mo’ / That word is only a color, it ain't facts no mo’”. In a 2012 interview he said, “Believe in God, it’s only one God. Fuck all that religion shit…Try your best to do right, we ain’t perfect.” The balancing act motif continues on “YAH.”, as his rhetoric deepens the inner conflict of harmonizing virtuosity with temptation. Ultimately, he concludes that indulging temptation isn’t indicative of wickedness or weakness; it is a sign of a human being. We are all imperfect—that’s the beauty of humanity. Doing our best to tilt the scales of justice towards virtuosity suppresses the wickedness inside all of us. But denying that wickedness exists is ignorant.
Kendrick’s tight rope walk of mankind is complemented by the album’s remarkably balanced sonics. “ELEMENT.” grows from a soft, melancholic instrumental to a booming, head-bumping production; “DUCKWORTH.” combines eclectic samples to narrate Kendrick’s serendipitous story. The other tracks mostly follow singular aesthetics, but interchange with each other throughout the album: “DNA.” resembles shooting up with Red Bull; “FEEL.” possesses a soft, jazzy soul; “FEAR.” pays homage to K. Dot’s California roots through G-Funk accents; “GOD.’s” eccentric production elicits pure euphoria; “HUMBLE.” will incite riots. These clashing sonics follow a sine graph trajectory that reinforce Kendrick’s clashing rhetoric. He reserves album pockets for his staple aggressive flow, like on “DNA.”, “XXX.”, and “HUMBLE.”; he softens this acuteness on “PRIDE.”, “LOVE.”, and “GOD.” No matter the album facet, balance is achieved.
This perpetual equilibrium operates at its highest level through Kendrick’s combination of commercialism and conceptualism, adequately channeling former versions of himself to formulate his best album to date. While every track is beautiful poetry conveyed by intricate, thought-provoking rhyming, “DNA.”, “HUMBLE.”, “LOYALTY.”, and “LOVE.” ooze radio potential. No song misses; every song provides utility.
Kendrick has seen a lot, and he has a lot to say. After achieving initial prominence through his 2009 mixtape, C4, he’s grown tremendously as a rapper and person. His novel excitement from a Lil Wayne co-sign has developed into a fearless tenacity that’s encouraged him to tackle ranging polarizing issues. He’s ascended to the top, brushing shoulders with his idols. And while he’s far from perfect, and still figuring out life’s seesaw of good and evil, he’s just thankful that the guy upstairs gave him the chance to talk about it.
“So, I was takin’ a walk the other day…”