Kendrick Lamar Tells Story Of Our Time In Prophetic Terms With 'DAMN.'

Dec 22, 2017
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now the best album of 2017.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DNA.")

KENDRICK LAMAR: (Rapping) I got, I got, I got, I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA.

MARTIN: Kendrick Lamar's "DAMN." has been at the top of a number of best-of lists, including NPR's. Here to tell us why is NPR Music's hip-hop writer Rodney Carmichael. Rodney, welcome. Thanks so much for coming back.

RODNEY CARMICHAEL, BYLINE: Thank you, Michel, for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DNA.")

LAMAR: (Rapping) I was born like this, since 1 like this - immaculate conception. I transform like this, perform like this, was Yeshua's new weapon.

MARTIN: So we're listening to one of the songs from "DAMN." It's called "DNA." This is the second song on the album. So if you tell us a little bit about it - and why is it topping so many of the best-of lists this year?

CARMICHAEL: Well, this is Kendrick's third major label studio album, and it really is his most personal and prophetic album in a lot of ways. It came out on Good Friday, of all days. And it debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 chart, double platinum sales, seven Grammy nominations. It's been pretty phenomenal.

MARTIN: What is it about this album that appeals to you in such a personal way? I'm thinking of the fact that you wrote a more-than-3,000-word essay about this album just a few weeks ago, which was some time after the album came out. What is it that really speaks so strongly to you?

CARMICHAEL: You know, this album is an album that I've been grappling with a lot. And I think it's because I hear Kendrick grappling with so much. I mean, it's really a spiritual struggle that I think he's revealing in the album. And in a lot of ways, it forced me to question a lot of my own fears and ideas around faith. It's an album that, if you allow it to, it really takes you there.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENDRICK LAMAR SONG, "FEEL.")

MARTIN: You talked about how, you know, the album unpacks this spiritual struggle. Can you point to a song that speaks to that?

CARMICHAEL: The song "FEEL." I think is a really good example. The hook is really simple.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEEL.")

LAMAR: (Rapping) Ain't nobody praying for me.

CARMICHAEL: He says, ain't nobody praying for me over and over again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEEL.")

LAMAR: (Rapping) Ain't nobody praying for me.

CARMICHAEL: And again, I think you see this idea of his personal torment. You know, prophets were really tortured souls in a lot of ways. They often felt like they weren't worthy of the message they were bringing but also felt like they were so alone in the world. And I think you really hear that, and it resonates in that song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEEL.")

LAMAR: (Rapping) I feel like it's just me. Look; I feel like I can't breath. Look; I can't sleep. Look; I feel heartless, often off this, feeling of falling, falling apart with darkest hours, lost it, feeling the void of...

CARMICHAEL: He's struggling with what everybody in this world is struggling with, which is the side that makes you want to do good and the side that makes you want to do other things, you know? He's he's struggling with this calling that he has, and it's a lonely road, I feel like, for him. And he's kind of allowing us to see that.

MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit more, though, about him as a prophetic figure? I mean, that is a term that some people will be very familiar with, and some people might not be. They might see it as something kind of grandiose. Like, you know, who do you think you are? But if you talk a little bit about what it means to be a prophetic figure within his own tradition...

CARMICHAEL: He's really looking at the Old Testament idea of God - right? - and this idea that God is a wrathful God and a vengeful God. And in a lot of ways, like those Old Testament prophets, he's bringing this message of ungodliness that we need to grapple with as a people. And he's using himself and how he's grappling with his own ungodliness as, like, a metaphor I think for where we are right now in the state of the nation and in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRIDE.")

LAMAR: (Rapping) See; in the perfect world, I would be perfect, world. I don't trust people enough beyond their surface, world. I don't love people enough to put my faith in man. I put my faith in these lyrics, hoping I make amend. I understand I ain't perfect.

MARTIN: So we've talked about the artist and the music. Tell us. Why is this the album of 2017?

CARMICHAEL: Well, when you think about the way this year has unfolded, you know, when you think about politics and personal accountability and, you know, ideas around consent and the abuse of power, a lot of themes in this album really resonate with the state of the nation today. It's a political album in ways that I think we might not realize. But instead of pointing the blame outward, which we all have a tendency to do, he's looking inward.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "XXX.")

LAMAR: (Rapping) Hail Mary, Jesus and Joseph, the great American flag is wrapped and dragged with explosives.

CARMICHAEL: The song "XXX." or triple-X (ph) is the song where he really gets a lot more specific in terms of how we've gotten to this place in America - this social and political place that we're in right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "XXX.")

LAMAR: (Rapping) Homicidal thoughts - Donald Trump's in office. We lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again.

MARTIN: That's Rodney Carmichael. He's NPR Music's hip-hop writer. He wrote about Kendrick Lamar's latest album in his article "The Prophetic Struggle Of Kendrick Lamar's 'DAMN.'" Rodney, thank you.

CARMICHAEL: Thank you so much, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUMBLE.")

LAMAR: (Rapping) I remember syrup sandwiches and crime allowances, finesse a... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.