DAMN.: On The Absolute Mastery Of Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick’s obsession with the conceptually abstract allows him to reach beyond the limitations of a bland, social media induced pop culture to an artistic domain of true self expression

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DAMN.: On The Absolute Mastery Of Kendrick Lamar

Shak Saidjanov, Editor

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The following review discusses and contains links to music and music videos with explicit content.

As 2017 marks the year that hip-hop officially overtakes rock as the most popular music genre in America, it is hard to argue against the fact that rap music is now mostly unparalleled in terms of artistic diversity and entertainment value (CNN calls it the most important genre since 1960). Rap is, after all, essentially poetry spoken over a melting pot of other musical elements; jazz, funk, soul, EDM, country, and even rock itself can be identified in rap music.

Consequently, a genre that so heavily depends on its ability to consistently outsound any other music has, over the years, conceived some of pop culture’s greatest music artists, unmatched in their understanding of the music production process and cultural climate; artists such as Kanye West, Travis Scott, Tyler the Creator, and Action Bronson are frequently responsible for dictating and guiding the direction that pop culture (and the soundtrack of pop culture) goes.

There are no artists in the history of Western culture quite like rappers. And of those rappers, there are none that even come close to the lyrical mastery and conceptual vision of Kendrick Lamar.

According to a Metacritic analysis of the average score of best rated albums since 2000, Kendrick Lamar is the most critically lauded artist of the 21st century with an artist rating of 94/100. How is a humble rapper from Compton, California outperforming Leonard Cohen and Sufjan Stevens regarding critical reception? What separates Kendrick’s music from the rest of pop culture? What separates Kendrick from even other culturally aware rap artists such as J. Cole or Killer Mike? What makes Kendrick the greatest artist of our generation, a shining light in a dimming pop music landscape?

Kendrick’s most recent album, DAMN., may hold a partial answer.

With the use of abstract themes to portray himself and his critiques of society, Kendrick embraces a previously unvisited territory within pop culture: music that rejects the ultra transparent and objectively straightforward tendencies of an iconographic and materialistic society and instead offers open space for interpretation, exploration, and continued dialogue. Kendrick leaves gaps in his music, and trusts the listener to complete the puzzle.

Confused? Don’t worry, as this philosophy is easier to understand than it might at first seem. But to truly understand how Kendrick managed to arrive at the type of mastery as he did with the release of DAMN. we must first examine the success of his career leading to 2017, because Kendrick was an exceptional artist even before his artistic epiphany.

Being born and raised in Compton, California during the peak of Dr. Dre’s profound influence on West Coast hip-hop, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth (as is his full name) developed a persona that fed off rap culture and its effects on the people around him. While only an adolescent, Kendrick featured as an extra in Tupac’s “California Love” music video and at just 16 years old recorded his first mixtape.

Kendrick released his first independent album titled Section.80 in 2011, in which he rose above the simple rhymes and cheap themes that defined rap at the time and instead released a thought-provoking album with dialogues on race relations and the struggles of disenfranchised people while simultaneously commenting on his adjustment to his own rise to fame. It earned an astounding 8/10 on Pitchfork, the iconic music review site.

Thus we witnessed the beginning of who Kendrick would become.

Kendrick followed Section.80 with 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City (an album that to this day is considered one of the greatest lyrical achievements in the history of rap music) and eventually To Pimp a Butterfly. These albums took the rap game by storm; college courses began using the albums in curriculum, stating that Kendrick’s music was “a starting point to explore literary masterpieces.” The politically blunt avant-garde hip-hop statements that Kendrick made over deep-rooted jazz and funk instrumentals with soul vocalists and melodies stirred what music scholars called the ‘To Pimp a Butterfly effect,’ a new urge in the hip-hop community to match Kendrick’s bravado.

And Kendrick’s influence reached beyond the radio waves. Black Lives Matter protesters took to the streets chanting lines from To Pimp a Butterfly and the album’s addition to the Harvard Library’s archives earned him a visit to the White House with President Obama, who named “How Much a Dollar Cost,” a song off the album, as his favorite of the year.

Not to mention his unprecedented success at award ceremonies — To Pimp a Butterfly collected 11 Grammy nominations on its own.

The refreshing sound of Section.80, the mainstream megahit that was Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, and the cultural phenomenon embedded in To Pimp a Butterfly only worked to prove that Kendrick was a master of identity reinvention. In Section.80 he was the boy overwhelmed by success navigating through a new world. In Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City he was the eccentric rapper reminiscing about his home and the lessons he learned there. In To Pimp a Butterfly he was a lost soul looking for a way to change the world. This all (in part) prepared his audience for DAMN.

In DAMN., Kendrick comes across as an angry, confused, and a purposefully vague figure, realizing he cannot change the world before he changes himself. In previous albums, Kendrick was articulate, contemplative, and decisive. Lines like “Why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street/When gangbangin’ make me kill a [brother] blacker than me?” highlighted Kendrick’s understanding of himself and the world he was in.

This is not so in DAMN. Throughout the album Kendrick grapples with himself, relaying his own confusion and frustration. Lines like “It was always me versus the world/Until I found it’s me versus me” follow boastful lines of “I got royalty inside my DNA.” Kendrick tells us “I can’t fake humble just because you’re insecure” immediately after reminding himself to “Sit down/Be humble.” Even the tracklisting itself is at a crossroads: “PRIDE.” is followed by “HUMBLE.”, “LOVE.” precedes “LUST.” and “FEAR.” comes right before “GOD.”

Though the tracks themselves relay an important narrative that cannot be understated (for a full review of DAMN., look here), what’s more interesting is how the confusion relayed in the narrative lays the foundation for Kendrick to embrace the abstract. Rather than exposing himself in a straightforward manner like all other artists, Kendrick offers us a sliver – if that – of his true self, never allowing us to listen long enough to receive a full picture.

The actor Jack Nicholson once stated that for effective filmmaking, “you don’t try and photograph the reality; you try and photograph the photograph of the reality.” Great artists thrive in abstract elements and concepts, and essentially, Kendrick works to utilize the same techniques in his lyricism. On DAMN., we aren’t showcased Kendrick Lamar. We aren’t even showcased an interpretation of Kendrick Lamar. Rather, we are showcased Kendrick’s interpretation of an interpretation of Kendrick Lamar. We aren’t presented with social critique or an interpretation of society, we are presented with Kendrick’s interpretation of his interpretation of society.

One would think that such precise ambiguity would subject the listener to limitations; after all, the more abstract the deliverance the less an artist reveals about themselves and their topics, and vagueness can lead to lost translation and understanding on the part of the listener.

In fact, the opposite is true.

Take the “ELEMENT.” music video (which is explicit, and can be viewed here). Most music videos in popular culture are a catastrophe, to the point in which the already shallow pop songs are better off without them — the visuals limit the songs, narrowing our view of what a song means or represents and blatantly commercializing the intended feeling the artist wanted to evoke, ending any individuality in the experience of the music. But as stated, Kendrick lives in an artistic singularity.

The “ELEMENT.” music video, through abstract visuals, expands our view of the song. New questions arise, new feelings and thoughts are suggested in the themes that play out across the screen. The video follows no timeline; it’s not a glamorous commercial for Kendrick’s lifestyle, or Kendrick’s lyrics. It’s not even an interpretation of Kendrick’s lifestyle and lyrics. The videography we witness is truly complex, a photograph of a photograph of Kendrick’s environment. Ironically, Kendrick even tells his audience, “[You] thought [Kendrick] real life was the same [Kendrick] they see on TV, huh?”

And so it is with his music. Kendrick’s mastery of the abstract and his ability to deliver this with the caliber and quality that he does is what separates him from every other rapper that has ever lived. Kendrick gives us a glimpse of a tiny sliver of his mind — and yet we continue to indulge over that sliver, analyzing it extensively (to the point of conspiracy). While most of popular culture limits us with their uninteresting regurgitation of club anthems and pop singles, Kendrick gives us content to contemplate and complete with our own thought processes, effectively expanding our view of him and the music without having it shoved down our throats.

Ultimately, through the music we are only ever exposed to what Kendrick Lamar is, never who Kendrick Lamar is: an absolute anomaly in a social media induced culture, a culture obsessed with self expression and self acknowledgement. It’s an anomaly, a breath of fresh air, and a shining light.

Unlike pop artists, Kendrick is separate from his craft, as if no matter how deep the listener peers into Kendrick’s songs, we’ll never be able to really know who Kendrick is, only the sliver that he allows us to examine. This is what brings us back to an album like DAMN. over and over again — no matter how many times we listen to it, we will always find something that seemingly wasn’t there before, even while the music constantly broadens our worldview and perception of art.

This artistic singularity is what makes Kendrick great.

And furthermore, Kendrick understands the gravity of being one of the best rappers (if not the best rapper) to ever live, and takes that responsibility seriously.

“[Rap] is culture,” he says in an interview with Apple Music. “This is not something you just play with, get some dollars, and get out. People live their lives to this music. I have partners in the hood right now that listen to rap every day ’cause it’s the only thing that can relate to their stories and their tribulations; they live and breathe it. You can’t play with this, you have to take into consideration what you write down on that paper.”

Kendrick understands the listener. Unlike how many pop artists seem to force feed the same dance anthems and trap singles to a sheepish audience ready for some easy listening repeatedly, Kendrick doesn’t go to the studio with the sole intention of making a catchy song — rather he makes songs that are so intense and so dense in thought that they are nearly difficult to listen to.

Recognizing this difficulty, Kendrick shoves it in your face, exploits your desires and your frustrations with formulaic music, challenges your mind, seizes your spirit with music that punches your gut, and dares you to enjoy it from beginning to end.

Perhaps Metacritic was onto something after all: listening to his music, Kendrick sure sounds like the greatest artist of our time to me.

Creative Commons photo source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/wallyg/36962747736/