In this brave new world of corrosive alterna-facts and neo-nuclear heebie-jeebies, let us give thanks for Kendrick Lamar, a rapper brave enough to mop up America’s most pungent funk and blast it back in verbal laser light, sea to shining sea. On his extrasensory new album, “DAMN. ,” our hero outlines the ills of the nation — “It’s murder on my street, your street, back streets, Wall Street, corporate offices, banks, employees and bosses with homicidal thoughts” — then points his finger at a really bad dude: “Donald Trump is in office.” He’s spraying red-hot invective, but his voice is a minty cool spritz. As the world grows more disordered, his vision clears.
And who better to trust than a California dreamer who can see beyond the madness of the moment while his Reeboks are still planted in it? For all of the introspection and self-doubt that makes Lamar’s body of work feel so exceptional, “DAMN.” radiates certitude from the track list outward. The album’s song titles are one word apiece, rendered in capital letters and stamped with a period. So yes, he’s still expressing the complexity of his humanity — “Watch my soul speak,” he instructs during the staccato chest-puffs of “HUMBLE.” — but, this time, with machinelike mettle.
Also new: The music surrounding his voice feels uncluttered, giving Lamar the opportunity to clear a few things up, including the fact that his politics — which earned him a reputation as one of popular music’s premier zeitgeist-wranglers — were never a pose. “Last LP, I tried to lift the black artists,” he raps during the climax of “ELEMENT.,” citing “To Pimp a Butterfly,” his 2015 opus which became the unofficial soundtrack of the Black Lives Matter movement, “but it’s a difference between black artists and wack artists.” Damn.
Lyrically, the album establishes an old-school, shuffle-resistant continuity that connects one song to the next. Early in the proceedings, a sample of Geraldo Rivera interrupts the propulsion of “DNA.,” during which the somehow-still-talking head scolds Lamar for protesting police brutality: “This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years.” On the next track, “YAH.,” Lamar calmly bites back, accusing Rivera’s network of attacking him to goose ratings: “Fox News wanna use my name for percentage.” On the very next cut, “ELEMENT.,” Lamar rues the fact that “all my grandmas dead, so ain’t nobody praying for me,” then repeatedly reminds us that “ain’t nobody praying” for him on the following track, “FEEL.” And so on and so forth, until “DAMN.” begins to feel like one continuous gush of rhythmic-rhyming thought, connected to the world, but ultimately connected to itself.
As a lyricist, Lamar’s gift remains extraordinary. You know it, I know it, and he knows it, too. “I don’t love people enough to put my faith in men,” he confesses on “PRIDE.,” a song addressing morality, mortality, God and craft. “I put my faith in these lyrics.” To believe in his words is to be dazzled by them.
And if you really want to make your cranium spin, cue up “FEEL.” and hold on tight during the five seconds it takes for Lamar to shuffle the following 18 words: “Look, I feel heartless, often off this, feeling of falling, of falling apart with darkest hours, lost it.” Looks clunky on paper, but it’ll make your eardrums dizzy. And that’s the funny thing: He’s rhyming about what it feels like to go flying off the rails with a virtuosity that suggests he’s incapable of losing control.
So yeah, sure, Kendrick is the GOAT, blah-blah-blah, who cares. The perpetual conversation about whether this man is the Greatest Rapper Who Ever Walked God’s Green Earth only threatens to monopolize our attention and limit our listening. And there’s always more to listen for in Lamar’s music —especially in his voice, which often expresses his humanity as vividly as his verses do.
He deploys different tones across “DAMN.,” establishing varying degrees of intimacy along the way, but Lamar’s default timbre remains that raspy half-shout, where his throat sounds dry and his mouth sounds wet. You can hear wisdom and desire in that voice, regardless of the words he’s forming. He’s hoarse from rebuking the universe, but still salivating, eager to tell you more.
Lamar knows his instrument, because he knows his body, because he knows himself. The closer we listen to that soul speak, the better we can each understand our own.