The best albums of 2017, No 2: Kendrick Lamar – Damn
Sunday - 24/12/2017 16:15
With an incendiary beginning and deeply personal social commentary, Lamar’s fourth album reveals an artist at his real and metaphorical peak
‘The feeling of an apocalypse happening, but nothing is awkward”: one line from Kendrick Lamar that perhaps sums up 2017 more than any other in the year’s pop music. We know that the Earth is warming to apocalyptic levels, and yet in the west we can still generally go about our business unimpeded; Trump can still make apocalyptic pronouncements and yet their lunacy can obscure their seriousness. Lamar is possibly also referring to how black Americans feel under siege while many white Americans ignore their plight.
Broad social commentary like this is what made Lamar’s previous album, To Pimp a Butterfly, so powerful, with its howl that black lives matter: “You hate my people / Your plan is to terminate my culture.” But his most mesmerising skill is telescoping between these macro observations and closeups on himself and his community, something he does with incredible power on his fourth full-length release, Damn. One minute he’s pondering God or his ethnic heritage – “I’m an Israelite, don’t call me black no more.” The next he’s parroting his mother: “Better not hear ’bout you humping on Keisha’s daughter!”
Loyalty is a recurrent focus, as Lamar, who admits his “home got a Valley peak” – ie he’s no longer down in Compton – wonders if his peers’ loyalty will be “unconditional when the ’rari don’t start”. He zooms in and out of this theme as well, as on XXX, where he tells the story of an individual case of violent retribution and then widens it out to a racial level. “Ain’t no black power when your baby killed by a coward,” he says – in other words, forget afrocentric loyalty if the person harming your family happens to be black. The closing track, Duckworth, features all of these levels of scale: it’s a tale of cosmic fate set in a branch of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Special mention must be made of the album’s incendiary beginning (or ending, if you’re listening to the commemorative edition with a reversed tracklist). Blood sees Lamar recounting a dream – or is it a memory from beyond the grave? – in which he tries to help a blind woman and ends up dead. It’s weirdly reminiscent of watching the dashcam footage of Sandra Bland, or maybe the film Get Out: you know something awful is going to happen in this initially benign situation, but you don’t know when, how or why it’s going to escalate. It then segues into DNA, a technically astounding and ferocious track that pointedly samples Fox News diatribes against him.
There is plenty of self-aggrandisement too, but it’s complicated by Lamar’s relentless self-analysis. On God, he compares himself with the man upstairs, but on Fear he compares himself to Job. On Humble he’s both, its chorus of “sit down, be humble” simultaneously aimed at his followers and himself.
Damn was a hit in every sense: it earned hundreds of millions of streams and seven Grammy nominations. But its real success is the complexity of its vision. Lamar is a man living on a real and metaphorical peak, with one eye trained on the heavens, the other searching for stories in the valley below.