Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN is a product of its times, for better or for worse.
To Pimp a Butterfly was an epic, a relentless drama about internal struggle that culminated in rap’s ideal, Tupac Shakur, announcing blood, death and riots as America’s self-consuming future.
Mortal Man, the final track from To Pimp a Butterfly, ends on a tragic note. Kendrick Lamar’s theory of self-destructive and spiteful caterpillars becoming higher beings, higher souls that are actually one with the caterpillar, is met with silence. His idol is dead. There is no final verdict on his ideas. He is left with the desire to be remembered like Nelson Mandela, with a country that is failing, because the entire Enlightenment has failed and Western civilization is a collapsing tower five-centuries in the making. It is no wonder that millennials experience such bad conscience in the modern world. We are living simultaneously between two impossible moments.
One of these impossible moments is the redefinition of language and communication itself via the internet and digital reality. Some have compared the emergence of the internet to the printing press. I disagree. It is much more like the invention of language itself, and its developments over the next quarter-century will indicate this over and over again. There is no Donald Trump without constant bombardment of information, the great whelming, the surge of a muscled limb in one heaving direction, and its immediate collapse upon realizing it has nowhere to go. Within Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, we are this aimless limb motivated to scroll for hours at a time, gaining virtually nothing but a deepening sense of impotence in return. Junk data, useless information, has become life itself. Or at least, that is the veneer spread over life, by social media, in particular the false worlds, the Maya, where we spend our time and invest our prospects for friendship, ideology and careers.
The total re-wiring of the plastic brain would be enough for one generation to deal with, but we are also living through the failure of the Enlightenment, concretized in a civilization that is burning itself alive with carbon dioxide, a withering wounded beast arguing feverishly against the walls that its best days are ahead. When Trump says we will reach 4% growth, he is a liar in the same way that Francis Fukuyama and Hillary Clinton are liars, that a splintering feudalistic market economy that is inspiring bitterness and hatred toward the world unlike anything we’ve seen before in this century, could somehow be redeemed and made into prosperity and Christian good faith. It is asinine. The Enlightenment has led to a society of managers, efficient systems experts who hang beautiful decorum around hollow metal frames. The reality of a poverty-stricken death-worshiping America, from police shootings to medical bankruptcy to the pure spite required to vote for a man like Donald Trump, is incoherent to those who see in our burial ground a city on a hill. This spite has real origins, and is fostered by our digital removal from the world and the gamut of daddy’s money and unpaid or temporary work that is required to land even a decent-quality job.
In this great age, the collapse of any pretense to an enlightened rational society, and the acceleration of digital media to the point of sheer blindness, hip-hop has become the spirit of the times. Kendrick Lamar, as hip-hop’s most commercially successful and artistically revered representative, is the leading artist of this great dying-off of centuries of imperial ambition. He is the voice of America meeting its end. He is the great poet who chronicles the dawning of reality upon the empire, and speaks his epic stories in the most popular mode of art that is most intuitive to these times.
Straddling two eras, immersed in darkness with no understanding of what the horizon could possibly look like, Kendrick Lamar is the voice of the blind. How does he follow up his last album, which was an epic? By reducing scope and scale. By trafficking in darkness and grit where the orchestral and sublime has already been done. So with this foreground, DAMN is like a nihilistic thriller.
I am unsure how seriously we are to take the voicemail at the end of FEAR. It is not ambiguous in its meaning. But its meaning is monstrous. The voicemail, left from a preacher to Kendrick Lamar at the end of the crowning song on the album, argues the ultimate canard, the cruelest idea possible – that black people suffer because they have moved away from the Ten Commandments, and have brought God’s plagues upon themselves.
What is anyone supposed to say to such insanity? Why has Kendrick Lamar not been asked about this? Is this voicemail simply meant to indicate the ultimate form of weakness, which becomes pure wickedness? Or does Kendrick think so little of human beings that he actually sees this message as timely and profound?
If FEAR is about damnation, then Kendrick is on damnation’s side. If he honestly believes that racism is a cosmic curse from Yahweh that Godless black people have brought upon themselves, then he is truly insane. Kendrick fails to imbue his notion of God with anything substantial. The song, GOD, following this message of damnation, is an airy song that asks and says nothing. It is totally insufficient as a follow-up to such a human-hating idea raised in the preceding voicemail. So what is going on here?
An artist can be defined as a person who suffers multiple voices. Their minds are never settled, and each thought speaks for the synthesis of a dozen ideas, and each synthesis is only a droplet in the pool of potential thousands. There are countless voices that demand expression. It seems, then, that the hateful, angry, doubtful and skeptical voices are what capture our current age. The impulse of the negative has overpowered the impulse of the positive by magnitudes, and for good reason. The world right now is filled with negatives, obviously, but the problem is that positive alternatives are absent. The absence of anything to fight for is the reason for the triumph of negative thinking. The world is always shrouded in darkness, but at least certain peoples and certain times have held hopes of God, or faith, hope, light, and perseverance in the name of a higher cause. The existence of any higher cause is currently absent, or in the worst case, converted into another tormentor, a curser of peoples, a Demiurge.
The final track, DUCKWORTH, is about a miracle. Kendrick Lamar’s entire career exists only because of a miraculous meeting between two men who were each a criminal and a cashier, and who by all laws of matter should have killed one another. But if miracles are mere chance, then Kendrick’s entire artistic output is also in flux, a contortion of fate that had no essential purpose. There was no cosmic difference between orphanage and death or artistic ambition and success. Therefore, it must be a miracle, and not left up to chance, that Kendrick was able to have a career in the arts at all.
The end of the album loops back to its beginning, telling us that Kendrick has been killed, and all the songs we have heard were just phases of a dying leader’s thoughts, or of a hero facing death. His last thoughts were furious, resentful, rebellious, fearful that a traitor lived within his own soul, that the myriad voices of the artistic self would betray them, that pure chance was all that saved his life, that the world is mortally rotten to the core, and that FEAR, LUST, PRIDE, “poison” in his DNA are all more distinctive and powerful than bland and aimless cliches like LOVE.
The album is an exhibition of atrocities, a self contorted against itself, and thus it is a pure representation of the present moment. It is purely descriptive art, describing the state of the self in 2017, at the great crossroads of the decline of Western civilization, where bloodless centrist neo-liberalism and vicious austere pseudo-populism are the two corrupted forces we may choose from. It is damnation, a description, a representation of fact.
But there are two forms of art. Descriptive, and visionary. DAMN is profoundly descriptive, yet its vision of the future is lacking. Kendrick Lamar’s next album must take many years, and it must be visionary. Death and damnation have been given their due. All great artists must provide the hope of what is next, and what will only come into being perhaps fifty or a hundred years in the future. All great artists are able to glimpse into that future, and those glimpses are what motivate us to move forward through shadow.
The world dies and is reborn constantly. Human beings die and are reinvented multiple times over the courses of their lives. Let us accept DAMN as an accurate description of the self against itself, but a shell to be molted and surpassed.