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Basking In Sin: Some Initial Thoughts On Kendrick Lamar's 'DAMN.'

Kendrick Lamar at Music Hall of Williamsburg on December 16, 2016, in Brooklyn, New York.
Bryan Bedder
Getty Images for American Express
Kendrick Lamar at Music Hall of Williamsburg on December 16, 2016, in Brooklyn, New York.

The period of anticipation preceding the release of Kendrick Lamar's fourth album,DAMN., was intense, brief but methodically built. Three weeks ago, Lamar gave us the non-album track "The Heart Part 4," a warning shot to the rest of the game and an announcement of ambition; the following Friday saw the release of its single "HUMBLE." One week ago he announced the album's title and its release date. WhenDAMN. arrived last night, we were ready to dive in. This is an album that will take time to digest, but it's also one that offers pleasures and themes without delay. Here are our first thoughts. (And if you haven't listened to the album yet, it's available for streaming here.)

"Ain't nobody prayin' for me," muses Kendrick Lamar on "FEEL.," the track that jumped out during my first pass through DAMN.He fashions the line into a refrain — a cry of isolation that anchors an unfurling scroll of insecurities. This is King Kendrick in Book of Lamentations mode, exhausted and exasperated, stacking intricate rhymes in a way that conveys both lyrical mastery and mounting anxiety. Sounwave is the producer of the track, which features Thundercat on electric bass, extending a sonic tether to Lamar's masterpiece, To Pimp a Butterfly. There's also a lyrical tether: "I feel like this gotta be the feelin' what 'Pac was / The feelin' of an apocalypse happenin.'"

/ TDE/Interscope

Lamar seems to be recalling his beyond-the-grave conversation with Tupac on "Mortal Man," the closing track of Butterfly —specifically a chilling section that augurs "bloodshed, for real." Or maybe that's not precisely what he's saying here. A quick pass can only get you so far with a new album by Kendrick Lamar, and especially dense with signs and symbols, as if made for our annotative age. What to make of the fact that "HUMBLE.," the album's first single, comes juxtaposed here with "PRIDE."? What's the implication of the cover illustration, which frames the word "DAMN." like the logo for TIME magazine? (How about the fact that the points of the "M" form devil's horns over Lamar's head,just as they did for a certain president-elect named Person of the Year?) Then there's the recursive elegance of the album's two bookends, and the way that the closing track ("DUCKWORTH.") loops back to the prelude ("BLOOD.").

As always, Lamar is obsessed with human consequences — systemic and individual, global and hyperlocal. When he puts a name to that new president in "XXX.," and also names his predecessor, Lamar doesn't let anyone off the hook: "But is America honest or do we bask in sin?" he asks, setting up one of the crucial dualities on this album. Even when he's exulting in his own prowess, crowing "This is what God feel like," Lamar seems painfully aware that there's no position more isolating than deity, and that the higher you fly, the harder you fall. Ain't nobody prayin' for that. --Nate Chinen, WBGO

"This what God feel like." Kendrick Lamar may be the greatest rapper alive and the most celebrated male musician on the planet, but K-Dot's not confusing praise with worship. He's imagining omnipotence, not claiming it. After three masterpieces (plus a damn fine debut), that humility inside his DNA hasn't gone anywhere. I may have to eat these words if he rises from his Good Samaritan death in "BLOOD." and releases a second album on Easter Sunday, but those internet rumors say more about us than they do about Kendrick. Humans have a checkered history of finding salvation in God complexes. But if DAMN.'s atavistic tracklist and impeccably crafted wordplay is any sort of indicator, Kendrick will be reflecting on his mortality on Sunday morning, not courting genuflection like another certain rapper we live to analyze. Frankly, it's hard to listen to Kendrick's heartfelt hand-wringing and not think about Kanye West on "I Am A God" or even "Ultralight Beam," where he donned the garbs of gospel with all the subtlety of his friend in the White House. The dilemmas on DAMN. seem less concerned with channeling the Holy Spirit and more with the reasons we invented it in the first place. --Otis Hart, NPR Music

Kendrick Lamar's faith is front and center on <em>DAMN</em>.
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Kendrick Lamar's faith is front and center on DAMN.

It's certainly no coincidence that Kendrick Lamar dropped DAMN. at 12:00 midnight to kick off Good Friday. (I refuse to entertain the rumors — conspiracy theories, really — of a potential second LP to be released by K.Dot on Easter Sunday. As if we don't have enough red-lettered scripture from this man to decipher already.) It's almost what you don't hear that tells the story here. No desperate attempts at radio hits. Not even Rihanna or U2 sound like themselves. He uses other artists like instruments — of his peace? his pain? his purpose? Whatever it is, we can relate. And that's what matters. When he bares his soul, it's an invitation to join him on the journey. Somewhere between his exploration of sin and virtue, he's hitting on something. It's not as simple or dismissible as a morality tale, thank God. I haven't been to church in years and I hate gospel music. But a narrative steeped in the ironies of the living gospel, that's something wholly different. Kendrick's on one. --Rodney Carmichael, NPR Music

Preach Kendrick, preach! Some of the song titles alone — "ELEMENT.," "LUST.," "LOVE.," "GOD." - evoke a honest spirituality that add a weighty layer to the musical experience. Religious themes weave through all 14 songs including a reference to the bible's Deuteronomy in "YAH." and "FEAR." What makes this work so great is not just the meaningful lyricism we've come to expect from Kendrick, but also the clean and simplistic arrangements make this album supreme — no heavy layered sound, just commanding vocals, intentional bass lines (shout out to Thundercat on "FEEL.") and sparse keyboard effects that perfectly complement the melodic narrative. Power beats anchor every single song. "LOYALTY." will actually bust your speakers if you play it too loud. Musicality aside, the verses suggest a nostalgic take on the past. A reminder of the constant struggle and conflict in every stage of life. That life is a journey filled with both reflection and hope, and that God is leading the way. In "FEEL.," Kendrick raps, "Ain't nobody prayin' for me." Oh, but Kendrick, we are. We appreciate you, and the musical blessings you continue to bestow on us. --Suraya Mohamed, NPR Music

That shouted introduction to "LOVE." — "Another woooorld premiere!" — is funnier every time I hear it. Just when Lamar and his producers are doing all they can to soften the mood, that goofythrowback toast comes screaming across the stereo field, as though Forrest Gump wandered into the studio and tripped over a sample-loaded MPC at just the right, history-making moment.

Kendrick Lamar performs in Brooklyn in December 2016.
Bryan Bedder / Getty Images for American Express
Getty Images for American Express
Kendrick Lamar performs in Brooklyn in December 2016.

"LOVE." is a lot of things. Functionally, it's a B-side to "LUST.," the neighboring track that plays like Curtis Mayfield reworking "Tired of Sex." Contextually, it's a sensory respite in the final act of a bracing work of art; DAMN.may not be as depleting as To Pimp a Butterfly's jazz-funk marathon, but it is bone-rattling in its precision. And referentially, it feels like best Drake song Drake never wrote, with Zacari filling the space normally reserved for The Weeknd or The-Dream on a gorgeous, gliding hook. Really, it's just stunning to hear Lamar sound this earnest and unguarded, his voice this smooth and taut, weaving around synth swells and gated snares that bloom and fade without irony.

There's a lot more to explore (and to interrogate) on this album, but "LOVE." is the revelation I keep coming back to. The best hip-hop ballads tend to hit their targets at an angle, their message couched in body worship or outlaw fantasy or wry insecurity. Here, a generation's most uncompromising voice keeps his message simple for once: "Don't got you, I got nothing." --Daoud Tyler-Ameen, NPR Music

Like To Pimp A Butterfly and good kid, m.A.A.d. City before it, the first listen is overwhelming. The second too. Like pressing on closed eyelids then snapping them open, a whole begins to slowly fizzle in from the edges. Kendrick has already proven he's a renaissance cosmonaut, pushing the sound of hip-hop out towards the same moon where Sun Ra summered. Now he illustrates that a floor-tipped banger can do the same. How?Every passage here that furrows the brow in limbic pleasure takes a left turn, as the last minute of hyper-single and song of the summer "DNA" demonstrates. His handwriting is everywhere here. We know that every note of the Butterfly sessions was guided by his hand. That he's done the same with the modern palette of rap proves his point. "My resume is real enough for two millenniums." --Andrew Flanagan, NPR Music

Kendrick is an album artist. We know that. But man oh man, the payoff on listening to DAMN. start to finish is colossal. Album opener "BLOOD." frames some heavy questions: "Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide. Are we gonna live or die?". Then Kendrick drops us into one small moment — "So I was taking a walk the other day." Our narrator tries to help a blind woman find something she's lost. And (spoiler alert) she shoots him. Snap out of that moment and into an existential trip rife with paranoia, pulse and compact cadence. Kendrick questions everything — from the patriotic on "XXX." ("Is America honest or do we bask in sin?") to the profound on "FEAR." ("Why God, why God do I gotta suffer?") to the profane on "LUST." ("I just need you to want me, Am I askin' too much? Let me put the head in."). He grapples with the state of his identity on "YEAH." ("I'm a Israelite, don't call me black no more. That word is only a color it ain't fact no more.") and the trappings of newfound fame and money ("The shock value of my success put bolts in me"). Musically, DAMN. is just as far-reaching: There's the acid jazz and paranoid distortion on "XXX." (featuring an appropriately disorienting cameo by U2), the rattlesnake R&B of "FEAR.," the Curtis Mayfield falsetto feel of "LUST." and the sheer beauty of "LOVE.," featuring Zacari.

By the time you've reached DAMN.'s end, Kendrick has packed in so much thought and sound that the deadly encounter from the opening track is nearly knocked out of your memory. And then the last track "DUCKWORTH." drops and we meet two more strangers, Ducky and Anthony. No spoilers here, suffice it to say Kendrick echoes the imminent danger he set up on the opening track with the line, "You take two strangers and put 'em in random predicaments, give 'em a soul so they can make their own decisions and live with it." When it was over, I found myself going back to the start of "BLOOD." to listen to Kendrick 's opening question again: "Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide. Are we gonna live or die?" The conclusion? If the result is the same, the intent is irrelevant. Danger is imminent from without and within. But that's just how I feel after the first couple listens. This is an album so thick, so stacked, that it begs many, many more. --Talia Schlanger, World Cafe

Rapper Kendrick Lamar performs onstage during the 58th Grammy Awards.
Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images for NARAS
Getty Images for NARAS
Rapper Kendrick Lamar performs onstage during the 58th Grammy Awards.

When Kendrick Lamar's DAMN.leaked last night and everyone else was busy making GIFS of heads bursting into flames, I was listening to Jermaine Dupri at a Recording Academy-sponsored panel discussion in Nashville. Dupri talks with his whole body, even while sitting in an uncomfortable studio chair; he moves musically, as if listening back to the myriad hit tracks he made, swaying, raising his arms, leaning into imagined beats. Of course he does. He was made by music – a dancer in aWhodini video at twelve, a mogul crafting a new sound in rap at nineteen, an artiste who had the audacity to sing the parts he wanted to Mariah Carey to emulate when he was 23. As he told stories, his energy filled the whole room, as if the unforgettable music he's made emanated from him even when the handy playlist the moderator had created was off.

Coming home, I started streaming DAMN., and a similar sense of the self overflowing its limits overwhelmed me. The album begins with a choir of voices provided by producer Bekon. Kendrick Lamar's cuts through effortlessly, telling a story that seems to end in his death at the hands of a blind woman he encounters in the street. Overinterpreters could read the rest of the last gasp of Kendrick's soul as it leaves his body – a lyrical take on someone's life passing before his eyes (or really, our ears). That swirl of memories, boasts and questions presents a version of what bell hooks has called "radical black subjectivity," a person confronting his essence, which itself emerges in fragments. Listening to overwhelming because Kendrick allows, needs, listeners to pick up and seriously confront every piece he scatters.

DAMN.ripples with stories, of family love and violence, deprivation and excess. But it's the voice, inseparable from the music, that startles, cajoles, alienates, suprises. Lamar's elastic tenor becomes Silly Putty, stretching into singsong, wrapping around patois, merging with synths and vocoders and then pulling away from them as if to reassert an essence that came before pop's mechanisms made him famous. At times he sounds like Andre 3000, his drawl psychedelicized. Elsewhere he spits bullets the way Tupac did. On the track he shares with Rihanna, "Loyalty," their voices almost merge. (The same fluidity characterizes the album's two other featured collaborations, with U2 and the young bedroom auteur Zacari) Always, though, Kendrick returns to his vocal essence, light-toned and limber, an urgency matched with playfulness.

The stories he tells also surface at the boundaries of the self. Lamar consistently presents himself as inhabiting contradictions: the violent shooter and the innocent victim; the sensation junkie who tells his girl "just let me put the head in" and the constant lover whose main concern is earning trust; the winner who becomes a God when he goes to the bank and the child who had to eat syrup sandwiches, who never leaves the grown man alone. Kendrick injects these tales with fragments penned by other rappers, from ODB to Jay Z to Juvenile. He's not simply quoting, he's showing how those other rappers' sensibilities rest within his DNA.

The elemental titles on DAMN.– "BLOOD.," "DNA.," "LOVE." – tell us that, despite the album's lush feeling of experimentation, this is a kind of stripping away: of the present moment and of the pressure to stand for anything but oneself. Kendrick stands alone in all his complexity here. "Opposition is not enough," bell hooks writes of the need for radical black subjectivity. "In that vacant space after one has resisted there is still the necessity to become – to make oneself anew." Kendrick Lamar showing us how to do that. --Ann Powers, NPR Music

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Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.
Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.
Talia Schlanger hosts World Cafe, which is distributed by NPR and produced by WXPN, the public radio service of the University of Pennsylvania. She got her start in broadcasting at the CBC, Canada's national public broadcaster. She hosted CBC Radio 2 Weekend Mornings on radio and was the on-camera host for two seasons of the television series CBC Music: Backstage, as well as several prime-time music TV specials for CBC, including the Quietest Concert Ever: On Fundy's Ocean Floor. Schlanger also guest hosted various flagship shows on CBC Radio One, including As It Happens, Day 6 and Because News. Schlanger also won a Canadian Screen Award as a producer for CBC Music Presents: The Beetle Roadtrip Sessions, a cross-country rock 'n' roll road trip.
Suraya Mohamed is a three-time Peabody Award-winning producer, sound designer and editor. She currently serves as the project manager for Jazz Night In America and is a contributing producer on the Alt.Latino podcast. She also produces NPR's holiday specials package, including Tinsel Tales, Hanukkah Lights, Toast Of The Nation, Pink Martini's Joy To The World: A Holiday Spectacular and most recently Hamilton: A Story Of US. You'll also find her work on the Tiny Desk series as either a producer or engineer.