Wackiness, lamentation, the gnashing of teeth have become the spiritual condition of America, regardless of whether your candidate won or lost the last presidential election. The man sitting atop the throne seems possessed by dementia or mania or both, and it seems communicable to his most rabid detractors and dissipated supporters. Never has reactionary victory been so bereft of giddy triumphalism or trickle-down whoo-ha.
Amiri Baraka once said that rhythm and blues would always be the accurate reflection of the emotional condition of Black America. Hiphop is but the latest streaking comet in the metamorphic and meteoric continuum of rhythm and blues, the latest measuring stick and black mirror for all of America’s entropy. The truths spoken by hiphop’s prophets are thus democratically applicable to all living under the reign of Mein Trumpf.
Rap has long had a messianic streak running through its ministry’s veins, at least as far back as the days of Melle Mel. Who can the more-woke-than-napping masses call on but a rap-Jesus like Kendrick Lamar when the truth they see marching upon them is that cast with four horsemen? As for those more napping than woke, here on the steep downside of American Exceptionalism (and its long-gone tape measure, the American Century), what other soundtrack but that of a Compton-born rapper suits the moment, since hella white working-class America has become an exurb of Compton, when not a jobless zombie mall pit?
Historically, Black music has always sounded like the charged change in the air and a call to arms. Never had much choice but to do so. Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly — released in March of 2015, when Obama was counting down months, not seconds, in office — was instantaneously embraced by the front line of the Black Lives Matter crew, those dark and toothful platoons of Generation Activist feeling the first rush of pushing back against the Empire and winning some minor victories (via citizen reporting), like body-cam requirements, as well as much love in the court of graytoothed left-of-center public opinion.
Two years later, here in the first 100 Days of That Fool Orange Julius and his Wall Street royalist court of saber-rattling robber barons, many of those same BLM frontrunners are living under the gun, at the mercy and the fury of alt-right death threats and spiritual exhaustion with no diminishment of reported incidents of state-sponsored murder of unarmed Black civilians by duly deputized (and duly unprosecuted and unpunished) psychopaths.
The post-Obama wilderness of the citizenry’s prospects for liberty and justice has generated a frenzy of trenchant, meditative writing beyond rap from academically ensconced poets, novelists, essayists, filmmakers, and songwriters of African descent. But only rappers like Lamar, J. Cole, Chance the Rapper, and Run the Jewels work within a form capable of capturing the soul-fracturing and pervasive paranoia of this American moment in the moment. Welcome to the terrordome.
Let’s be perfectly clear: We don’t really go to rappers for political coherence, clarity, direction, or instruction — rather, for the essence of the psychic pressures creating visible schizophrenic fissures on the bland bubbly surface of everyday American life across the color line. In times like these, even the entertainment stage must occasionally bleed with the passions and roundedness of its best versifying patriots.
Not much sunshine bleeds through the cracks of the house of pain Lamar builds on DAMN. It may be the most manically morose rap album in the genre’s history, a masterful and commanding testament to the nation’s downward spiral in vortexical rhyme. Super heavy is the well-paid, well-pleasured, well-attended, and well-pissed-off head under the crown on DAMN, one equally beset by the fickle flea-buzzing of fans and Fox News apparatchiks alike.
As Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Gil Scott-Heron, Chuck D, Ice Cube, KRS-One, Nas, and 2Pac learned before Kendrick, being anointed the lyrical conscience of your generation ain’t no crystal stair. Staying on your A-game and staying true to the path requires shape-shifting, guile, and soul-plumbing wit. A dip into the wellspring of James Joyce’s version of a spa day — “silence, exile, and cunning” — doesn’t hurt either. Commercially successful rappers with revolutionary political heart and instincts are still makers of hip and trending consumer products for the masses. DAMN is an album full of depressing reveries and memorable self-recriminations that can only come when the radical-within rapper realizes his Ellisonian invisibility and isolation within plain sight of multitudes. Or as Kendrick puts it on “FEAR” (comes before “GOD”), “Within fourteen tracks, carried out over wax/Wonderin’ if I’m livin’ through fear or livin’ through rap.”
DAMN is pluripotent. It contains multitudes of thick, convulsive, complicated lyrical gambits to parse. Hot, young, horny, and full of intentionally overblown hubris, DAMN nimbly, if rageaholically, rides the emotional seesaw that comes as the booby prize when one has become famous, radical, and neurotic in American entertainment.
The mercurial rise and fall of Kendrick’s emotional teeter-totter gets warped and woofered with appropriate degrees of eloquence, grace, angst, and megalomania. “Ain’t nobody praying for me,” he rants on “FEEL,” reminding us that “I been in the field for you” — though like any nascent, wealthy savior of humanity, he’s still unsure as to whether “it’s real for you, right?” Like all our favorite super-charismatic narcissistic-genius Geminis — Miles, Prince, Ms. Hill, to name but three relevant predecessors — Lamar’s powers of self-dramatization are the true source of his superpowers. Because that war going on in the chat room between his ears is far more distracting and consequential for his multiple role playing muse than anything the clamorous and blank world, virtual or real, could provide. Hey, when your favorite person to listen to is yourself, playa, then run with it — especially if you’re your generation’s musical Second Coming.
So hear DAMN as K-Dot’s version of a full-cast Broadway drama about the party going at full rambunction in his mind between competing character traits. The tracks are as butt nekkid stark as modern trap, but with a twist, replacing the juicy jazz-funk fusion warp drives of TPAB with the kind of cerebral romanticism we revere in Frank Ocean. The holy gates and the lower depths duke it out for emotive dominance all over DAMN — a tension that finally finds tender resolution on the last song, “DUCKWORTH,” which reveals that Kendrick’s manager, Top Dawg, years before they met, once robbed the KFC where Lamar’s father worked and hence made possible the reversal of fortunes that followed for all three men. It could have as easily been called KARMA.
The puckish dramatist in Lamar shows he can still get real cute and aggro when he turns humility into a weapon on “HUMBLE,” a ditty directed at all the bitches of whatever gender who’ve somehow forgotten who the God standing before them is. As is the wont of ripe, rapping saviors, Lamar drops hints of having found salvation in the esoteric side of biblical Black Nationalism: “I’m a Israelite, don’t call me Black no mo’/That word is only a color, it ain’t facts no mo’/My cousin called, my cousin Carl Duckworth/Said know my worth/And Deuteronomy say that we all been cursed/I know he walks the Earth/But it’s money to get, bitches to hit, yah.”
Later, via a phone message, this same preachifying Cousin Carl gets his own chapter and verse to explain why the race will stay cursed until we return to following the ancient commandments. Cousin Carl’s presence reminds us of the Baraka poem that states how a certain breed of holyroller negroes will blame anybody but Capitalism and white supremacy for our woes, and also brings to mind that Frantz Fanon quote that goes, “The oppressed will always believe the worst about themselves.”
But Cousin Carl has a historical role to play. Back in the Sixties some of your favorite socially conscious rock stars got gurus when sitting on fat stacks troubled their cash-flushed sybaritic souls. Conscious rappers get Cousin Carl — in theory to assuage guilt, though (like those rock stars) don’t expect any divestment of cheddar or hedonism to follow. Lamar pretty much admits the good life is going to keep on winning the Faustian bargain, least long as, per the vernacular, he’s young dumb full of cum so Lawd know he gonna keep getting himself some. Cousin Carl be damned too.
As an artist who was revealed to most of us as an out-of-body rhyme-saying time traveler on good kid, m.A.A.d city (Lamar’s Off the Wall to TPAB‘s Thriller), he flashes back on “FEAR” to a childlike state with a litany and screed of the cray-cray rationales routinely used to administer and self-absolve the chronic (and epidemic) deployment of corporal punishment that still goes down in many of our homes, impoverished and middle-class alike:
I beat yo ass, you better not run to your
I beat yo ass, you know my patience
I got beaucoup payments to make
County building’s on my ass
Tryna take my food stamps away
I beat yo ass if you tell them social
workers he live here
I beat yo ass if I beat yo ass twice and you
Seven years old, think you run this house
Nigga, you gon’ fear me if you don’t fear
no one else.
How’d B.B. King put it? Nobody loves me but my mama and she might be jiving too.
All that said, we must of course apprehend (if not assail) DAMN as Kendrick’s extended take on “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” the hoary, classic blues that has probably been covered by more nervous multimillionaires than any jawnt in the neurotic gutbucket canon. Consider DAMN an assemblage of buoyant miserablism, K-Dot’s inevitable De La Soul Is Dead moment — the one any socially observant poet who hits it big will foist on his audience-base, family, and enemies list. Beats-wise and warbling-special-guest-wise, this trap-adept tunefest of slow-burning dirges reaches its emotive apex via the interstellar space provided by the moist and avian falsetto of Zacari on the vulnerably smitten “LOVE.” (Count this reporter as one awaiting this young Caruso’s full-length debut.) Rihanna aids and abets Kendrick in dissecting the condition of “LOYALTY” within, without, and beyond his self-obsessed circumference.
The navel-gazing cedes ground to the state of the nation on “XXX,” Lamar’s collab with U2. (Bono is as good a role model as Lamar is going to find in all of pop for sustaining messianic activism, true-to-the-game creative brinksmanship, and domestic sanity over the long haul.) “XXX” offers respite from personal lifestyle anguish and gives us these conspiratorial agitprop jewels:
Barricaded blocks and borders
Look what you taught us!…
Donald Trump’s in office
We lost Barack and promised to never
doubt him again
But is America honest, or do we bask
It’s nasty when you set us up
Then roll the dice, then bet us up
You overnight the big rifles, then tell Fox
to be scared of us
Gang members or terrorists, et cetera,
America’s reflections of me, that’s what a
Not so long ago, drive-time radio host Charlamagne Tha God famously chastised Kanye West for bringing rich people’s problems to the public airwaves. But as Jimi Hendrix once told Dick Cavett, “The more money you make, the more blues sometimes you can sing.” Given what happened next in that epic tale
(and epic fail) of Dionysian demiurge turned free-falling Icarus, the problems of gifted and troubled rich folks who earned their iconicity the old-fashioned way — through prolific production — are not so easily pooh-poohed or simply there to provide readymade snap-giggles for the peanut gallery. Lamar is certainly enough of a student of rap if not rock history to know no cocksure and prophetic MC’s bulging coffers have ever saved them from career suicide or the coffin nor from incurring actual frenemies hellbent on your actual annihilation. Midnight sweats this generative of poignant content are certainly worth the verbally dense exploration and exposure for the rest of us. Because end of the day, the fruits of such purgative passions are what boom-bap-driven poetic godheads like Lamar are best at satisfying: the insatiable greed and curiosity of the faithful — all us long-term invested hippity-hopping voyeurs and evangelical lyric-loving