Kendrick Lamar’s new album, DAMN., isn’t concerned with whether or not America wants to listen to him. It makes clear that we need to listen to him.
Section 80, Lamar’s 2011 studio debut, was a sort of cosmic glue, bringing experimental jazz sounds together with personal and political messages about Lamar’s experience as an American black man. On 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, Lamar found new potency, stitching his songs with interludes in the form of voicemail messages from his mom. “Real” features the line, “What does love got to do with it when you don’t love yourself?”—a simple idea for people who are groomed to feel their self-worth; a revolutionary one for people who are targets of white supremacy’s racial, class, and gender hierarchies.
Then came the album that parted the seas and asked us to look at which side we were on: To Pimp a Butterfly. The album’s cover art will perhaps be on a form of U.S. currency one day as reparations for the current presidential administration: Kendrick Lamar used a photo of a squad of men of color taking over the White(st) House. This directness was matched by lyrics like, “We gon’ be alright,” which chorused across the country in the form of a chant by Black Lives Matter protesters.
So what happens now in 2017, after the inauguration of the 45th president? After Lemonade featured Beyoncé sinking a cop car and a young child dancing in front of a line of armed police officers with graffiti reading, “STOP SHOOTIN US,” and after millions of people marched on Washington—what happens?
What happened is that Kendrick Lamar released a soundtrack that will feel familiar to many who have felt the non-contradictions of fear and love; anger and joy; pain and hope in their positions in the status quo. Over his previous three albums, Lamar asked listeners to consider race, class, mental health, and police brutality. Here, he invites us to dig deeper into how those forces affect power. On “HUMBLE.,” the line, “There’s levels to it. You and I know. Bitch, be humble,” is a reminder of the complexity of success when you’re a person that white America doesn’t like to see succeeding.
Lamar gets at white supremacy’s reliance on repressing messages like his overtly at the end of the album’s opener, “BLOOD.” Lamar sets up the questions, “Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide. Are we gonna live or die?” In the outro, correspondent is then heard quoting Lamar’s song “Alright,” saying, “We hate po-po when they kills us on the streets, for sure.” Another snidely responds, “I don’t like that.” Their apathy makes you cringe, especially after his ignition.
Preceding the album, the release of the fierce video for “HUMBLE.” introduced DAMN.’s illustrative religious imagery. Lamar is draped in a priest’s robe under a beam of sun. He sits, a Jesus-like figure, at a Last Supper for men of color. (It’s not a coincidence that the album was released on Good Friday, a Catholic holiday dedicated to the resurrection.) It feels like he has the power to wash away the world’s sins.
Similarly, DAMN.’s lyrics are very straight-up. Lamar is not concerned with micro-feelings about how or why you do what you do. (Forget about any subtweets on DAMN.) This album is about who and what you’re loyal to—and who and what you gotta let go of. “LOYALTY.” features Rihanna singing about trust and risk. Tonally, the track moves away from her collaborations with Drake, where she is often sexualized or is singing purely about romantic brokenheartedness. One lyric goes, “I said, tell me who you loyal to. Is it anybody that you would lie for? Anybody you would slide for? Anybody you would die for?” It raises new questions of agency, about people—not power or control in terms of money or politics, but more intimately, among each other.
The album’s song titles are both conceptual and fundamental to Lamar’s personal and political experience on this planet and in this country. “BLOOD. DNA. YAH. ELEMENT. FEEL. LOYALTY. PRIDE. HUMBLE. LUST. LOVE. XXX. FEAR. GOD. DUCKWORTH.” Read as a reflection on a past, present, and future world, they become a fourteen-point program for what must be navigated in order to live.
The line “what happens on Earth stays on Earth” is a theme on DAMN. This maxim is both a blessing and a curse: Perhaps there is something besides Earth to believe in, but there is only Earth on which it’s possible to make anything happen. Kendrick Lamar, thank you for using your agency on this Earth in this way. Everyone else, we better respect it.