At some point I need to admit to myself that there are so many articles about music I can get published before people start getting annoyed at me. I’m no music critic; I’m not even an upstart music industry/related field major – I’m just an upstart politics student whose entire conception of life is framed by art.
Within 12 hours of To Pimp a Butterfly being released, I had the skeleton of an article ready. Who didn’t? There was so much to analyze, so much to deconstruct, so much to contextualize. With Kendrick Lamar’s latest release, DAMN., it’s different. It’s the kind of album you mull over for hours, listening and re-listening – and that’s not to say TPAB wasn’t that way. I still realize new things about it every time I do a full-album re-listen. But with DAMN., I don’t even know where to begin.
Actually, I do: we’ve been blessed.
Kendrick Lamar is the kind of artist who has every right to disappear after one album, let alone after (give or take – but, well, mostly give) four absolutely stellar pieces of art. He could have been a one-hit wonder and we still wouldn’t have been worthy. And that’s not out of some weird celebrity-worship; he is the absolute cream of the introspective-music crop. With each album, we are given a window into the mind of an artist, watching an author write their treatise, their magnum opus right in front of us.
Every time I go to a museum, I try to stop by the conservation galleries so I can catch a glimpse of conservators working on restoring art. I have yet to be successful in catching a restoration in progress. Still, I like to read every thing; I like to look at the tools, touch all the interactive aspects of the exhibit, try to envision what it must be like to be a conservator entrusted with handling – fixing – works of art. What an absolute honor – and what an honor to be able to witness that, right?
With DAMN., I feel like I’ve finally been able to catch a conservator in action. Hell, I feel like I’m watching Langston Hughes whisper the words of a nascent poem aloud to himself to see if it sounds right. And maybe that’s dramatic, but as a poet that uses her medium to strip herself completely raw, regarding DAMN. is both somber and exhilarating. But what is it about DAMN. that makes it the prime artistry that it is?
It was hard to anticipate how Kendrick would follow up TPAB, an album so intensely political that it leaves you feeling exhausted when you’re done with it; an album so intensely political that one of its singles became the anthem for an entire anti-oppression movement. That was the power of TPAB. But DAMN. didn’t need to be a manifesto – frankly, it didn’t need to be anything. But what it became was the breathless musing of a man coming down from a protest high: slumping down into your favorite couch, the feeling of taking your shoes off after a long day, the – well – depression and malaise after you’ve emptied every reserve of your adrenaline.
Introspection. That’s what follows. As a friend noted, DAMN. is a return to Section.80, a contemplation of self, and the role of self. Kendrick positioned himself to be a messiah of sorts in To Pimp a Butterfly, but in the life of every prophet, there is a moment of doubt; a falter, a question of “Is god actually there? Do I matter? Will anyone ever stand with me?”
We caught glimpses of that in TPAB, and certainly in good kid, m.A.A.d. city, but DAMN. tackles these questions in renderings not unlike “u” or “Swimming Pools” – especially the latter with its misleadingly party-friendly vibe. I firmly believe that if you go into a Kendrick Lamar song without heavily considering that he might be talking to himself, about himself, then you have no business having an opinion about his music. Damning (hah)? Sure. But this is a rapper that means so much in today’s politically charged climate that to access him is a privilege, and we at least owe him, and ourselves, the ability to understand where he’s coming from.
“Ain’t nobody praying for me,” he declares repeatedly, and the bravado gives way to anxiety as a motif throughout the album. Kendrick Lamar has struggled with depression throughout his life, not unlike Chance the Rapper, and both young stars have been extremely public with this fact, using music as a conduit for introspection and even extrospection. The songs in this album are so raw, pained, desperately hopeful and desperately despondent at the same time. He tries to hold the world accountable, but invariably turns back at least some accountability onto himself. There are specific times in the album (the bridge in ELEMENT., the entirety of FEEL. – especially 2:50 – the intro to PRIDE., the tail-end of FEAR.) where I want to drop every thing and cry because it hits home so hard that I need it to bruise, to be sore, so that it can linger and I can remember how I felt when I first listened to DAMN. for the rest of my life.
For an otherwise not very good class, I read literary giant Chinua Achebe’s novel Anthills of the Savannah. I had read Things Fall Apart quite a few years ago, so I knew the kind of author Achebe was and I was rightfully excited about this one. It was situated in a much more contemporary context, and unfortunately, the novel ages pretty damn well. For the corresponding essay, we had to pick our favorite passage, and mine was the following:
“Do I contradict myself?” asked Walt Whitman. “Very well, I contradict myself,” he sang defiantly. “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Every artist contains multitudes. Graham Greene is a Roman Catholic, a partisan of Rome, if you like. Why then does he write so compulsively about bad, doubtful and doubting priests? Because a genuine artist, no matter what he says he believes, must feel in his blood the ultimate enmity between art and orthodoxy […] Those who would see no blot of villainy in the beloved oppressed nor grant the faintest glimmer of humanity to the hated oppressor are partisans, patriots and party-liners.
Every artist contains multitudes. It felt incredibly timely that right after reading this novel, DAMN. dropped in all of its glory, in all of its contradictions: in all of its multitudes. Kendrick Lamar is that partisan of Rome; he is that genuine artist; he is myriad and beyond. I aim to memorize that quote so I can remember the lesson inherent in it: not only is to err to be human, but to contradict oneself is to be human; to be multitudinous is to be human. What other species could carry such capacity for horror, and such unmatched capacity for beauty?
And maybe that’s a funny thing to say when Kendrick Lamar struggles with the concept of being blessed, or not, but regardless of whether he feels like he is god-sent, god-sped, he is for me.
There are not enough words in the world to discuss all the facets of this album that I want to. I have a feeling I will be coming back to this a lot.
Until then – I’m waiting for Sunday.