Above all, Kendrick Lamar is an extraordinary storyteller. and the final track on his fourth album DAMN., ‘DUCKWORTH.’, is the ultimate origin story. Lamar sews an enthralling intersection where Anthony Tiffith and Lamar’s father Ducky are thrown together by fate. Tiffith spares Ducky’s life in a robbery at KFC before later founding Top Dawg Entertainment, the label that gave Kendrick Lamar his first major label release. 20 years on from the incident, Lamar penned ‘DUCKWORTH.’ and threw Tiffith and Ducky together once more. As a storyteller, it is arguably Kendrick’s finest narrative yet. The tale is extraordinary, so unbelievable that it must have been plucked from the fictional ether and yet it’s completely true. And what’s more remarkable than that is Lamar’s timing; that it took him four albums to share the tale, to share his ultimate plot twist.
In that sense, Kendrick is a throwback. He layers vintage ’90s rap textures with existential, philosophical musings. The shifts aren’t as sudden or as jarring as To Pimp A Butterfly but they retain an episodic feel. ‘XXX.’ twitches with its envelopment of several beats and samples before dropping suddenly into a loungy interlude featuring U2’s Bono. Lamar’s wordplay is luminous and feverishly rapid. It recalls both the detachment of Andre 3000 and the acute exploration of the self inherent in Eminem’s flow and scoffs at the hip-hop/pop ambiguity of his modern day adversaries. But despite the endless comparisons to greats past and present, Lamar possesses a voice all of his own.
Throughout DAMN., Lamar deals heavily in repetition and contradiction. ‘I’m a savage, I’m a asshole, I’m a king,’ he raps on ‘LOYALTY.’ alongside Rihanna. Here, Lamar satisfies all the conflicted versions of himself. Modestly, Lamar describes himself as a human like anyone else and yet on ‘PRIDE.’, he tackles his global recognition more confidently (‘I can’t fake humble just ’cause your ass is insecure’). When he finally screams ‘Bitch, be humble’ on the following track ‘HUMBLE.’, the discussion of contradiction, and themes such as pride, loyalty and trust that make up the fabric of Lamar’s thought process become apparent in the production of DAMN. too. ‘LOYALTY.’ glistens with the confidence and swagger of a thousand ’90s summer slow jams. ‘PRIDE.’s’ sombre guitar line gives the track a dejected loping feel. And ‘HUMBLE.’ is resilient, propped up by its jabbing piano instrumental. If To Pimp A Butterfly addressed the present struggle, especially those in the racial tensions in America, then DAMN. addresses something much more exclusive and personal. Butterfly pushed him into a new space consciously and DAMN. is an intriguing dissection of Lamar’s interaction with that burden.
That heavily interlocked trio of songs is indicative of the whole album. Lamar’s emotion is transient; on ‘DNA.’, he shifts from elation to desolation within a line’s length (‘I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA’). And yet Lamar’s views on mortality couldn’t be any more disparate on ‘ELEMENT.’ (‘I’m willin’ to die for this shit’) and ‘FEAR.’ (I’ll prolly die ’cause that’s what you do when you’re 17′). Lamar’s depiction of the unpredictable and temporary nature of the human condition on DAMN. is amongst his most authentic observations. Lamar continues to defy the expectations his work raises and yet like the rest of us, the natural tendency to play down one’s successes and achievements with that same reality only adds to the legitimacy of his exploration and his story.
Throughout DAMN. Lamar slips in and out of both the sobering and heightening aspects of his reality. Lamar contemplates the notion of affecting and altering his own fate and yet, as finale ‘DUCKWORTH.’ suggests with its incredible arc, maybe his success is the result of a higher power that Lamar had no influence on. Opening track ‘BLOOD.’ suggests otherwise, as Lamar is shot after disobeying God and giving into the wicked temptations in and around his home. On ‘DUCKWORTH.’ Lamar reverses that scenario and rejects wickedness in a moment of self-reliant intervention. There’s no powerlessness here; Lamar makes the decisions and reacts in what he deems to be the right manner to the changes in his scenario. Anthony Tiffith and his father Ducky laid the groundwork and with DAMN. Lamar rewarded their faith with a structure so great you couldn’t make it up.
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