Damned Are Those with Butterfly Wings
THE first time I encountered Kendrick Lamar…
was through the track, King Kunta. That song was one (of many) sensational moments from his career-defining masterpiece, To Pimp a Butterfly. Once you swim into the riptide of emotions, physicalities and fortitude of that song; Lamar’s incredible, deep lyrics and a hell of a score – you are compelled to take it in time again to get to the bottom of it. That song captures you on the first listen because of its addictive-ness and hypnotic swagger. It sways and scratches; one dances to the riffs and admires those fiery and commanding vocals. Take a listen to the album from where it is taken and one discovers a songwriter with a scope, talent and voice like no other. I will come back to that 2015 award-winning, end-of-year-list-topping epic later but, at the moment, there is plenty of heat and admiration for Kendrick Lamar Duckworth. His current album, DAMN., is a departure from his two-year-old landmark. Its cover is less iconic and more direct/personal; the song titles are one-worded and there is less of the Jazz infusion and compositional components of To Pimp a Butterfly. Many artists, following such a huge success, would be tempted to replicate that by repeating it. That is not how Lamar works and, as he has proven, he can continue that hot songwriting streak without re-cobbling previous work. DAMN’s songs are as direct and memorable as To Pimp a Butterfly’s but have a different skin. DNA. Is one of those tracks that remains in the memorable because of its direct simplicity and sense of purpose. It is not the only track on DAMN. that puts Fox News on the chopping block. Geraldo Rivera – claiming Hip-Hop has been more detrimental the plight of the black American than politics and violence – is given no sympathy by Lamar. The U.S. songwriter knows that is not the case and it is much more complex.
DNA. has been singled-out by critics and sees Lamar battling the beats and presenting one of his most virtuoso flows. Few tracks (on the album) are as commanding and vivid as this. Yah calls out Fox News’ Rivera again and brings religion into the melting pot. Throughout DAMN., Lamar shows what a lyrical talent he is and how broad he can be. Religion and race are mentioned – in addition to slams against Hip-Hop – but that is not the end of DNA’s wonder. On XXX, Lamar is joined by U2 (thankfully, their appearance is fleeting) and it (the song) contains some of the finest lyrics on the record:
“Hail Mary, Jesus and Joseph/The great American flag is wrapped and dragged with explosives/Compulsive disorders, sons and daughters/ Barricaded blocks and borders/Look what you taught us/It’s murder on my street, your street, back streets, Wall Street/Corporate offices, bank’s employees and bosses/with homicidal thoughts, Donald Trump’s in office …”
The song puts Lamar in the centre of the controversy. When he talks about gun violence and problems happening in his country, he is putting as much blame on himself as anyone. It is an honest and unexpected sense of responsibility and accountability – few of his peers are as open and confessional. Pride is the author at his most modesty and looks at the sins of self-pride (“The better part, the human heart, you love ‘em or dissect ‘em / Happiness or flashiness? How do you serve the question?”). HUMBLE (whether you want to put everything in upper-case or not) is the switch of that: Lamar letting his fellow peers he is superior and has better rhymes and slicker, sicker flows. There is never that much braggadocio but Lamar recognises how good he is and feels no need to be too reserved about the fact. Loyalty is another collaboration – Rihanna making a larger role in this song than U2 on XXX – in a surprisingly tender and affecting song. I am not doing the record/songs justice but showing what a variation there is throughout. Sexual desires are explored on Lust (“All of us worried, all of us buried, and the feeling’s deep/None of us married to his proposal, make us feel cheap.” ) whereas Fear documents, well, yeah, fear (“When I was 27, I grew accustomed to more fear/Accumulated 10 times over throughout the years”). If To Pimp a Butterfly is a more political and proactive album: DAMN. Is a more emotional and reflective work. That would be over-simplifying it but, if anything, Kendrick Lamar is even sharper and more nuanced on his current creation. Nothing on DAMN. is slight or forgettable. Every song has its place and tells its stories. One becomes engrossed by the sheer authority and skill of Lamar’s performances. Some songs are more sinuous and sensuous whilst others are full-out attacks and the American in full-on kill-mode.
Many were questioning whether Lamar could top something as celebrated and astonishing as To Pimp a Butterfly. The sheer scope and weight of adulation it accrued would put lesser artists off. Perhaps they would retreat and spend too long creating an album – the finished results would be patchy and unfocused. Instead, Lamar has worked on a record he wanted to produce and reacted to what has been going on around the world. I look back at To Pimp a Butterfly and a song like King Kunta. It is profanity-laden and bold. The composition has that strong back-beat but so many different elements. Lamar sits up-top and allows that funky, proclaiming vocal to reign. There are spaces and room for maneuver. The tempo changes and there are so many subtle elements you do not catch first time through – sound samples and little instrumental elements that elicit new emotions. Alright is a dazzling, head-spinning epic with Jazz horns, stuttered, sampled vocals and one of the most addictive chorus on the album. Every song, you are hooked by Kendrick Lamar and that immense talent. The same can be said of DAMN. Each number gets into the head and stands you to attention. On God, one hears glitch-laden eight-bit laptop staccato – from Illinois producer Cardo – and some incredible production touches. He has, as he boldly states, done his time and seen it all – fallen on the sword and poured ample blood. The way he phrases things and delivers that depth and attention-to-detail is dazzling.
If I sound like a vacillating, drooling teenager trying to solidify and organsie their feelings towards a new crush, I apologise. A single Kendrick Lamar song is enough to blow the mind seven shades of red over the floor. He brings the audience into his world and grabs them by the throat – they MUST hear and see what is being laid down. Conversely, there is a sense if voyeurism and detachment: watching these songs unravel and the sort of drama and chaos happening all around. You get jibes against political figures and idiot commentators – never filibuster or reckless in their measures – with some introspection and personal examination. In fact, it is that sense of self-worth and place in society one does not hear from too many of Lamar’s peers. I am concentrating on his two most-recent albums – rather than the full scope of his work – as the most concentrated and ballistic examples of an apocalyptic city-blast of a talent. The imagination runs wild whilst the blood, spit and cum bursts from every orifice. Whether enraptured and entangled in the highway-ripping vocal accelerations and caramel, rousing horns – an experience nobody else can deliver. As I said, on DAMN., Lamar holds himself accountable for faults and problems in society. He is keen to reveal and expose those creating false provocations and spewing specious accusations. With a dollar in his pocket and purity in his heart; he is true and loyal to his country and does not blame everyone else for all problems going on. He is an intelligent and honest artist who realises there are hypocritical times and moments he is less-than-perfect. DAMN., again, unlike many contemporary Rap/Hip-Hop records, has earnestness and romance – there is a genuine softness and calm on some songs. The collaborations he weaves though – U2 and Rihanna singing; James Blake lending his talents; as he did on Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Frank Ocean’s latest record – are exceptional and perfectly realised.
IN THIS PHOTO: Rihanna (a co-conspirator on Lamar’s track, Loyalty)
Above all, there is a complex and open human being who can mesmerise with his assessments of U.S. society and drop the knees when turning the microscope (or gun, in some cases) on himself. Lamar is sensitive and revealing: none of the aimless and crass arrogance you would get from inferior records. Swears are disseminating when necessary and not a part of the lexicon he wants to needlessly procreate and overpopulate with. The lines are so smart and tight; there are no wasted words and everything is delivered with complete command and assurance. Lamar is not someone who will bad-mouth contemporaries or demean women. There are so many, in the current Hip-Hop climate, beholden to sexist ideologies and profane and destructive battles. So many artists become embroiled in spats and civil war: filling their albums with age-old ethics and morally-suspicious sentiments. Lamar has respect for everyone and is a pastor: the truth-teller and chosen voice of his generation. It is that voice we do not want to see coarsened and silenced by the vicissitudes and strains of our world. In a time when U.S. politics and societal ills are obsessing column-inches and creating a divided people: Lamar is making sense of it and ensuring those in the right are given a voice. I will end this by stating why, in my view, Kendrick Lamar is the most important musical voice we have right now. Not only is he the greatest songwriter on the planet – a fact many are having to get used to – but one of the most electric, consistent and shocking artists, right. Many would not have expected something to top To Pimp a Butterfly – it seems DAMN. will gain hotter reviews and bigger love. It is scary thinking how many albums as wondrous and staggering as that he can create. It seems there is no slowing that intellectual mind and compelled soul. Lamar lives and breathes music and is not in it for the bling and media glare. You will not catch him whoring over talk show slots and stepping out with the latest, easiest airhead around.
The man is a disciple of those Hip-Hop legends (like A Tribe Called Quest) who are affected and moved by the plight of the black population but do not leave it there. You do, yes, get songs that look at retaliations and police corruption; gun violence and a nation ripped by the very principles and foundations on which it was built. Shame and sin are placed alongside love and acceptance: a man who can mix and take his mind where it needs to go without losing that focus and identity. As a writer, he realises the state his country in and is reacting as level-headed and commendably as he can. One imagines he’d rather stand up to President Trump and give him a mouthful but, instead, uses his pulpit to create some of the most affecting and immense songs of this generation. You do not need to be a black American or a Hip-Hop completest to connect with Kendrick Lamar’s music. DAMN. Is his latest record and one that shows he is so far ahead of the competition. To Pimp a Butterfly did that but few were expecting something as confidence and different upon his follow-up. That is a hard trick to pull off: producing something in the aftermath of a critical love-bomb and rebuilding on solid foundations without duplicating what stood there before. This rate of progression is scary to think – he is still in his twenties and seems in no short supply of lyrics and motivation. Let’s hope the brilliant Kendrick Lamar Duckworth keeps providing the world his unique brand of music because, when you look around, there is nobody out there…
WHO can touch him.