Kendrick Lamar Extends His Vocal And Emotional Range On 'DAMN.'

Apr 27, 2017
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Kendrick Lamar is one of the most widely admired performers in popular music today. His last collection "To Pimp A Butterfly" was named Album of the Year by many publications including Billboard and Rolling Stone. His new album called "DAMN." debuted at number one on the Billboard album chart. Rock critic Ken Tucker says "DAMN." extends Lamar's range and the power of his storytelling.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DNA.")

KENDRICK LAMAR: (Rapping) I got, I got, I got, I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA - quarter piece, got war and peace inside my DNA. I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA. I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA. I was born like this, since one like this immaculate conception. I transform like this, perform like this was Yeshua's new weapon. I don't contemplate. I meditate, then off your, off your head. This that put the-kids-to-bed this that I got, I got, I got, I got realness, I just kill [expletive]...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Each song on "DAMN." has a one-word title, is printed in capital letters and each title ends with a period. It would seem to be Kendrick Lamar's way of announcing a theme with declarative boldness, that period implying the final word on the subject. Those subjects include - and these are song titles - "Love.," "Lust.," "Pride.," "Fear.," "God.," "Loyalty." Lamar knows that the best way to articulate an abstract concept is through specific illustrations, arguments and examples. Listen to the way Lamar lists his worries and his cares on this song called "Feel."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEEL")

LAMAR: (Rapping) I feel like a chip on my shoulders. I feel like I'm losin' my focus. I feel like I'm losin' my patience. I feel like my thoughts in the basement. Feel like - I feel like you're miseducated. Feel like I don't wanna be bothered. I feel like you may be the problem. I feel like it ain't no tomorrow, [expletive] the world. The world is endin'. I'm done pretendin'. And [expletive] you if you get offended. I feel like friends been overrated. I feel like the family been fakin'. I feel like the feelings are changin'. Feel like my daughter compromised and jaded. Feel like you wanna scrutinize how I made it. Feel like I ain't feelin' you all. Feel like removin' myself, no feelings involved. I feel for you, I've been in the field for you. It's real for you, right? [Expletive] I feel like ain't nobody prayin' for me.

TUCKER: Kendrick Lamar began almost every line of that verse with the phrase I feel. That composition is what the New York School poet Kenneth Koch used to call a list poem. Lamar's verse talks about feeling misunderstood, impatient, put upon, besieged and yet abandoned. There have been a lot of fame-is-messing-with-my-head songs in pop music. "Feel." is one of the most vivid of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LUST.")

LAMAR: (Rapping) I wake in the mornin', my head spinnin' from the last night. Both in the trance, feelings I did - what a fast life. Manager called, the lobby called, it's 11:30. Did this before. I promised myself. I'd be a hour early. Room full of clothes, bag full of money, call it loose change. Fumbled my jewelry, 100k, I lost a new chain. Hop on the bird, hit the next city for another M. Take me a nap and do it again. We all woke up, trying to tune to the daily news, lookin' for confirmation, hopin' election wasn't true. All of us worried, all of us buried, and our feeling's deep. None of us married to his proposal, make us feel cheap Still and sad, distraught and mad, tell a neighbor 'bout it Bet they agree, parade the streets with your voice proudly. Time passin', things change. Revertin' back to our daily programs, stuck in our ways - lust. Lately, I feel like I been lustin' over the fame. Lately, we lust on the same routine of shame. Lately, lately, lately, my lust been hidin'. Lately, lately, it’s all contradiction. Lately, I’m not here. Lately, I lust over self. Lust turn into fear. Lately, in James 4:4 says friend of the world is enemy of the Lord. Brace yourself. Lust is all yours. I need some water.

TUCKER: I like the way Lamar's voice in that song "Lust." frequently ascends to a falsetto that reminds me of Curtis Mayfield's. And, like Mayfield, Lamar is adept at making emotions such as lust and love serve as metaphors for social and political struggles. In "Lust." he has a line about waking up one morning and, quote, "hoping the election wasn't true." There are a couple of times on this album when he samples voices from the Fox News Channel, one of them specifically criticizing the lyrics of Lamar's music.

The toughest music on this album is a blunt answer to such criticism, a refusal to back down. The range here is prodigious. He uses the kroon of U2's Bono on a lamentation for America called "XXX.," and the song called "Love." is just plain remarkable. Listen to the way toward the end of the verse he executes his version of pentameter, five fast syllables the end of each line dropping an octave.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE.")

LAMAR: (Rapping) If I didn't ride blade on curb, would you still love me? If I minimized my net worth, would you still love me? Keep it a hundred, I’d rather you trust me than to love me. Keep it a whole one hund' don't got you, I got nothin'. Hey, I got somethin'. Hold up. We gon' function, no assumptions. Feelin' like Tyson with it, knock it out twice, I’m with it only for the night. I’m kiddin' - only for life. You’re a homie for life. You're a homie for life. Let's get it. Hit that shoulder lean. I know what comin' over mean. Backstroke oversea. I know what you need, already on 10, our money come in. All feeling go out, this feeling don’t drought. This party won't end. If I didn't ride blade on curb, would you still love me?

TUCKER: In a recent interview, Lamar said that while his previous album "To Pimp A Butterfly" was about changing the world, the implied message of "DAMN." is I can't change the world unless I change myself. Listening to Kendrick Lamar tussle with his ideas about how to effect that change in himself can make you think about your own life, and, perhaps, the things we can change.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews, you missed like this week's interviews with political columnist Frank Rich about his work as an executive producer of HBO's "Veep," the psychiatrist Elizabeth Ford about treating mentally ill patients from Rikers Island jail or former Major League pitcher Rick Ankiel about losing his ability to pitch, check out our podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. John Sheehan directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.