In 2006 hip-hop experienced an identity crisis of sorts. One of its most prolific stars declared the musical genre dead. Nas’ Hip-Hop is Dead was rap purists’ declaration that lyrical superiority and artistic expression were being squandered for success by any means. Being a newly self-proclaimed hip-hop head my freshman year at IU, I wholeheartedly agreed. Blogging by day and student-ing when I got the chance, I consumed every morsel of music and media. With my 13″ Dell laptop and textbooks in a Jansport backpack, I was a prescribed member to the music’s “Blog Years.”
This timeline saw anyone with WiFi access become an artist, fan or critic, at the speed of light overnight. In its infancy – pure brilliance – which beget classic moments. From Kanye’s “G.O.O.D. Friday’s” to The Weeknd’s House of Ballons, this shift of power somewhat eliminated the gatekeepers between artist and fan, allowing the undiscovered and unheard a way to reach the masses without a key to the industry. It was also the period Soulja Boy and The Pack rose to infamy, birthing copycats and replicas of what some viewed as sub-par.
In retrospect, hip-hop was not dead. It was very much alive. The once viewed fad was establishing its staying power and future growth. Nas’ sentiment, in many ways, acted as an accelerant, igniting fresh new voices to continue the tradition of storytelling through prose. The fire grew so large it lit a young match from Compton, California, a region that had not wielded it’s hip-hop MjÖlnir since Tupac’s passing. This young padawan of the force was none other than Kendrick Lamar.
His “Monster Freestyle” in 2010 was my introduction — and I was shook. The 5′-something lyricist erupted with so much fervor and passion, claiming the crown as “best rapper alive” before an official LP had dropped. A few projects later, his debut Good Kid Madd City was herald an instant classic. He then pushed a masterful project of blackness with To Pimp A Butterfly. The critical darling coveted the best Rap Album Grammy as well as (white) America’s wrath. His latest DAMN. arrived quickly after the surfacing of “The Hear Beat IV,” a read of his competitors in the game. If Drake is the Rihanna of rap — pushing out classic track after track; King Kendrick is the male hip-hop equivalent of Beyoncé — strategically crafting full, cohesive albums to be consumed at once.
The fourteen-track album is a narrative akin to Lamar’s aesthetic. Taking place in reverse, we hear Lamar examine self through the lenses of potent character traits in the wake of his death. Within these crevices he touches on everything from religious curses to America’s social climate. It’s constructed to be experienced as one stream, no skips — but each song can be digested and enjoyed solo dolo.
Track transitions are either a DJ drop or a vocal prelude, which prevents the urge to press “forward” before a song completes. The first single “HUMBLE.” is a traptastic anthem stating his existence as best rapper alive. It Debo’d it’s way up the Hot 100, being Lamar’s highest debuting single, and appropriately serves as the theme for the 2017-2018 NBA Playoffs. Following “Humble’s” frenzy is second single “DNA.,” the Mike-Will-Made-It-produced track that serves as the first full song. Synced with a Don Cheadle-starring visual and a pivotal beat change built on a throwback Rick James sample, it finds Kendrick at his forceful best, spraying lyrical ammunition at the speed of light.
Lamar has mastered the art of his voice. The dizzying, sometimes inaudible, inflections he takes on in his delivery have become a signature and they aid in the listening experience. They make the hook to “ELEMENT.” flu-symptom catchy; turn sensual on the sexual “LUST.;” and, damn near angelic during his crooning with Zacari on “LOVE.” But, it’s his bar trading with Rihanna in “LOYALTY.” that certifies Kendrick’s transition to top dog. Many a night the argument was Lamar made great songs, but struggled to turn them into star quality hits a la his Canadian counterpart. The Bruno Mars-borrowing track is one of his radio ready bests, and will no doubt become a comments section staple across pictures and memes this summer.
In addition to crafting hits, Lamar never strays from his narrative, consistently instilling content to be replayed again and again. “FEEL.” sees him taut with strife as “nobody’s praying for me” haunts his daily life. It revisits themes of depression and mental anxiety Lamar shared he has struggled with since his teenage years. Those feelings are only enlarged with the arrival of fame. His critical streak continues on “XXX.” with a pleasant cameo from U2. This examination of life in Trump’s America is followed by two extraordinary tracks, my favorite being the self-reflective and mirroring “FEAR.” before the closing “DUCKWORTH.” The magnum opus composed by 9th Wonder stretches three different beats detailing how Kendrick’s own namesake was almost cut short, like his character at the beginning of the album.
DAMN. is exactly that – a combustion of expressions that word can emote in any gvien context. Joy. Pain. Doubt. Truth. The human experience laced with Compton-bred perspective. And now as 2017’s highest selling record (beating Drake’s More Life and Ed Sheeran’s divide), KungFu Kenny awaits atop the winner’s circle for a worthy adversary. Hip hop is dead. Long live King Kendrick.