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WICKEDNESS OR WEAKNESS: Kendrick Lamar bares all in new album
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ALBUM REVIEW: Kendrick Lamar's DAMN.

Is it wickedness or weakness? You decide.

Four studio albums in and we still don’t know who Kendrick Lamar is. And neither does he.

Anxious elation is brought forward from the journey of discovering what an artist is capable of or who that artist perceives their image to be on a body of work. David Bowie was known for his stark differences between albums while reinventing himself by using stage personas to have different vessels to write out of as to never become stale. (Bowie even said that Kendrick’s last album To Pimp a Butterfly largely inspired him during the creation of his final swan-song album Blackstar).

DAMN. is an exploration of Kendrick’s duality as a black man at age 29. It’s framed around an elongated instance of conjured post-mortem where his emotions become personified as characters in songs.

It intentionally takes abrupt thematic turns with every new track — sometimes multiple times within the same track. (i.e. extravagant braggadocio verses with a chorus that preaches humility and grateful attitude on “HUMBLE.”

Every track is sidelined by directly conflicting emotions and topics to precisely replicate a constantly doubted and challenged mindset. The dream-pop crooning à la Cocteau Twins meets cloud-rap and psychedelic-pop on “PRIDE.” before being pistol-whipped by the celebratory ignorance of “HUMBLE.” Paradoxically shifting every track that follows with distinct vocal delivery, rhyme patterns and instrumentation. “Wickedness or weakness” is the juxtaposition phrase used to differentiate everything hereinafter.

It features his most confident rapping to date while simultaneously being his least conceptually straightforward album yet his most accessible musically.

Track titles and themes feel more like stages of purgatory instead of regularly conceptualized tracks. “DNA.” is Kendrick abrasively celebrating his post-demise while police and political pundits showcase an adverse attitude and a false sense of superiority. A feeling of post-mortem because the majority of the world feels like they would rather see you bleed. Mike WiLL Made-It delivers on production that fans have anticipated since his production of JAY Z’s 2013 interlude “Beach is Better,” and he manages to outdo himself with an unorthodox mid-track beat switch-up.

“DNA.” is the sonic antithesis of 2015’s anthem “Alright,” but the message stays the same: a fiery piss-take aimed at anyone that thinks the selfish putdowns will take the spirit out of the black community. FOX News snippets are sprinkled throughout to illustrate the ignorance of the conservative news to draw only hate from hip-hop without seeing any positive messages meant to blast over the tear gas and systematic oppression of police brutality.

Kendrick recently told Rolling Stone that God is missing in any discussion of conflict in America. Always one to speak spiritual on tracks, he compares his birth to that of Yeshua (a.k.a. Jesus). Not to be sacrilegious, but to touch on the passage of Genesis 1:27 that stated, “...God created man in His image.” Rather than being blasphemous, he’s taking God’s words and instilling it into his life of being a savior to hip-hop and his community by sharing his messages.

Tracks dial into his stalled mental state brought on by a sense of worthlessness or inability to move forward, such as on the track “FEEL.” He wants to be right with God, but knows he’s a victim of his own humanity predetermined for him and will never be as at peace as he believes he should be.

Kendrick never forgets his hip-hop roots (2015’s “The Blacker the Berry” had a straight up boom-bap beat). He has legendary DJ Kid Capri sending shoutouts all throughout the album and “XXX.” is the most successful Public Enemy influenced track to hit us, maybe ever.

A sinister vibe brought on by Kendrick’s haunting inflection in the intro and the unorthodox skipping drum beat with the wind howling in the background. It explodes into a bombastic cacophony of sirens, heavy breathing and murder that makes you double-check if The Bomb Squad came back to produce tracks. Addressing the hypocritical nature of American addiction to violence by way of having a detailed and chilling description of a murderous rampage sidelined by Kendrick speaking at a gun control convention.

I’m still scrambling trying to figure out why “LOYALTY.” is on the album as it sticks out terribly. It’s the obvious tag for a radio single and sounds like a Rihanna song that Kendrick jumped on and not vice versa. It brings the album to an abrupt stop while Kendrick lazily harmonizes with Rihanna while trading verses with her for whatever reason. It’s the only misstep of the album, but it’s a very large one.

“LOVE.” is a genuine love song and portrays the emotion of love as a bubbly and overly affectionate character with no regrets of how it exudes itself. Making a true love song as a rapper without being slyly misogynistic (cc “Hotline Bling) is a hard task, but Kendrick does so in a way to not appear disingenuous or mal intentive.

“DUCKWORTH” is an astonishing storytelling track in the same vein as JAY Z’s “Meet the Parents” or Nas on “Project Windows.” A story told over three different beats of a close call with murder involving his father and his label boss, Top Dawg, that could have resulted in Kendrick Lamar never being a name that left the streets of Compton.

It ties the album together by showcasing a concept of eternal recurrence. In this instance, the belief that wickedness and weakness will never be separate. Kendrick’s desire to help weakness leads to wickedness and vice versa. It ends showing that without Top Dawg sparring Kendrick’s father’s life, he wouldn’t even have had the opportunity to help weakness, only to die from inherent wickedness from a life in Compton.

The backmasking at the end of “DUCKWORTH.” to the start of the album can be interrupted as everything you can lose if chosen to go down the road to wickedness. All the emotions explored can’t be taken with you. Whatever happens on Earth, stays on Earth.

Doubt accompanies pride. Lust flourishes in love. Growing fear from lack of God. Vices and evils are more connected than we want to believe. DAMN. is bookended by gunshots and everything that can flash before your eyes in the separation of shells hitting the ground. It puts everything in perspective in the dichotomized realms of living and dying. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

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About the Author

Kevin Tudor

Born and raised in the mean streets of Yukon, Oklahoma, Kevin is currently majoring in...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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