The constant push and pull in Christianity — especially the black church — is the one between praise and worship and suffering and obedience.
The praise and worship are always the draws.
The joy of the exultant choir, the release of hands stretched high and mouths calling his name all offer a spiritual high.
The suffering and obedience — the reminders that pain is an inextricable part of life but blessings come through faith and commitment — are the tougher sell. It’s why people show up on Easter but not Good Friday.
But praise and worship always have made Kendrick Lamar skeptical, nervous, and fearful.
Lamar emerged in the mainstream as a hip-hop revivalist, reincarnating the genre in its purest form with his gripping debut “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” in 2012. He was tapped as a rap “savior” almost immediately, and he’s both embraced and wrestled with it ever since. On his 2015 follow-up “To Pimp A Butterfly,” he challenged hip-hop to explore the sounds that created it and the social issues confronting it. He was heaped with praise from here to the heavens — five Grammys, multiple album of the year nods, a Reebok deal, trips to the White House, a spot on the Forbes list.
But Lamar’s always been more concerned with the suffering, parsing through every step of his journey, wondering if — or why — he’s worthy.
On his third proper album, “DAMN.,” he’s no different — even if he’s at his highest point.
The album is a 55-minute blitz of thumping beats and head-spinning rhymes that blur by you before you have a chance to process them. The first time it takes a quick moment to breathe is after the blistering Mike WiLL Made-IT-produced “DNA.,” when Lamar makes his unrest evident on “YAH.”
“I got so many theories and suspicions,” he raps.
When Lamar released a loosie last month, “The Heart, Part IV,” and his lead single, “HUMBLE.,” much of the fuss was about the swaggering stance he took over menacing soundscapes, all but calling out rivals like Drake and Big Sean by name and claiming the top five spots on the list of greatest living rappers for himself. But within the full scope of “DAMN.,” his crown-claiming feels trivial. He’s mining through virtues and vices, successes and shortcomings.
Over in-house producer Sounwave’s sped-up flip of Fleurie’s whispery 2016 cut “Don’t Let Me Down,” Lamar laments on “FEEL.,” “I feel like I’m boxing demons, monsters, false prophets, scheming sponsors, industry promises.”
The success of “Butterfly” created expectations that threatened to fence in Lamar. He was more than a rapper, he was a symbol — for activism, social awareness, black musicality, and blackness as a whole. He weighs how heavy it all was on “FEEL.”
“I feel like the whole world want me to pray for them, but who the [expletive] praying for me?”
On “DAMN.,” Lamar doesn’t seek approval.
If anything, it’s the embodiment of the “To Pimp a Butterfly” cover art, with Kendrick in front of the White House surrounded by the friends he grew up with in Compton. If society is going to swarm him with success and validation, it also has to welcome the genre and people he represents — as is.
“DAMN.” is unapologetically and relentlessly rap. Trap savant WiLL’s frantic drums pulse through the album, from “DNA.” to “HUMBLE.” to “XXX.,” like an arrhythmic heartbeat, and Lamar’s words are almost deliberately confrontational.
The final track, “DUCKWORTH.,” accented by the unmistakable sample chops of underground icon 9th Wonder, is the undeniable anchor — a cinematic tale of two men starting at different points, crossing paths at a chicken spot in Compton, having an altercation that could have cost one of them his life before it is ultimately defused. The man who could’ve lost his life is Lamar’s father. The man who could’ve taken it is his current boss, Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, president of Lamar’s label Top Dawg Entertainment.
Religion permeated hip-hop in a way that seemed earnest when Chance the Rapper rejoiced on his mainstream breakthrough “Coloring Book.”
But Lamar looks at it through the lens of a man searching more than celebrating. On “FEAR.,” he spends eight minutes wading through worries over a pensive Alchemist beat. Initially, he travels through time reflecting on the fear instilled in him by his parents as a 7-year-old (“I beat yo’ ass if you jump on that couch”), then by the world as a 17-year old “(I’ll prolly die walking back home from the candy house, I’ll prolly die because these colors is standing out”), and ultimately by God at 27.
“All this money, is God playing a joke on me?/Is it for the moment, and will he see me as Job?/ Take it from me and leave me worse than I was before?”
From the mountaintop, he still isn’t sure.Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.