The GOAT among sheep

Bhanuj Kappal | Updated on March 10, 2018

Master’s in the house: Kendrick Lamar’s technical virtuosity on DAMN. is well-nigh unmatched   -  Reuters

Kendrick Lamar’s new album proves, yet again, why he is a perennial contender for the title of the greatest rapper of all time

Put two rap fans in a room for 20 minutes and chances are you’ll find them engaged in the favourite argument of rap fans everywhere — who deserves the distinction of GOAT (Greatest of All Time). Thanks to the boxes you need to tick to even be considered — consistency, cultural impact, record sales, lyrical and verbal skill — the list of possible contenders has long been the preserve of classic rap legends: Jay Z, Nas, Biggie, Tupac, with the most recent entrant being Eminem. Contemporary rappers may be good, but they haven’t had a hope of knocking any of those five off their perch. Except, of course, for Kendrick Lamar.

The 29-year-old rapper made his first move for the throne with 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, a complex, weighty and mind-bending concept album that told the story of Lamar’s teenage years spent on the bloody, crime-ridden streets of Compton, California, and how faith and family pulled him back from the brink of nihilism and gang violence. Three years later, as America’s long-simmering racial tensions boiled over and a new generation of activists took to the streets under the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) banner, he returned with To Pimp A Butterfly (TPAB), a jazz-inflected meditation on blackness, community and self-worth. In Chicago, Washington, New York, and countless other American cities, young black activists marched to the defiant soundtrack of the song ‘Alright’, testifying to Lamar’s ability to capture the rebellious spirit of black America and channel it towards hope and change. TPAB represented the peak of a cultural moment that only comes along once a generation, so when his latest album DAMN. was announced, fans could be excused for wondering if he had it in him to top that magnum opus. But thankfully, we were wrong.

DAMN. comes out in an America that looks vastly different than it did two years ago. Donald Trump has replaced Obama in the White House. The euphoric optimism of #BLM’s early mobilisation has turned into fear and despair as even long-standing gains in civil rights fall under relentless attack from alt-right vigilantism and Presidential executive orders. This sense, of a national depression, runs through the record as Lamar grapples with self-doubt about the two pillars of his life — his faith and his moral compass. Lamar has always had a saviour complex, viewed himself as a preacher brutally satirising the hedonism of mainstream hip-hop culture. But on DAMN., tired of trying to save the world, Lamar steps away from that role and looks inwards, dissecting and shining a light on his own inner contradictions in an effort to save himself. That reflects in the production as well. Instead of pushing hip-hop into new and electrifying sonic territory, as TPAB did, the beats on DAMN. hark back to rap’s classic era — G-funk grooves, piano riffs, ominous bass rumbles — though filtered through the postmodern shape-shifting sensibilities of producers Sounwave and Mike WiLL Made It. And over it all, Lamar lays down not just rhymes but bars — hyper-dense, aggressive, stuffed with references, bending and twisting their way through philosophy, braggadocio and self-recrimination in an unmatched display of technical virtuosity.

The intro ‘Blood’ lays down the record’s thesis statement of sorts with the questions “Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide, Are we going to live or die?” before we’re thrown head first into the sabre-rattling war march of ‘DNA’. The excellent two-track suite of ‘Pride’ and ‘Humble’ sees Lamar once again grappling with big philosophical and biblical questions. On ‘Pride’, over a metallic bass hook, he raps about the conflict between the humility mandated by his faith and the hubris of calling oneself the greatest rapper alive. On ‘Humble’, he seems to have resolved the dilemma, donning the mantle of the rap pope to tell his rivals to “sit down, be humble” and recognise his ascendancy.

‘Fear’ starts off with a voicemail left by his cousin Carl Duckworth, who quotes Deuteronomy 28, often referenced by black Hebrew Israelites — who identify African-Americans as one of the tribes of Israel — to illustrate the fear that the atrocities they suffer are a result of turning away from the Old Testament god. Lamar doesn’t endorse this view, but he presents it as an example of the sort of fear and self-recrimination that keeps downtrodden minorities oppressed.

The closing track ‘Duckworth’ tells the true story of when Lamar’s label owner Anthony ‘Top Dawg’ Tiffith nearly killed Lamar’s father, Ducky, while holding up the KFC the latter worked at. The only thing that saved Ducky was his kindness — the reformed gang member would slip free chicken nuggets to poor customers like Tiffith. “Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence? Because if Anthony killed Ducky/ Top Dawg could be servin’ life/ While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight,” raps Lamar, before a final gunshot and a repeat of the opening line from ‘Blood’ adds a twist. Is DAMN. written from the perspective of a Lamar who grew up without a father to save him from gang-banging? That’s a question that only Lamar can answer, but it shows the complexity of the work. DAMN. may not be enough to win Lamar the title of GOAT outright. But it does establish him as a perennial favourite.

Published on April 28, 2017

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