How big a deal is rapper Kendrick Lamar's fourth album, D--N.? Any way you want to parse it, Lamar's latest is BIG. (Which might explain why its profane title and all 14 tracks are listed in all caps, with a period at the end of each to boot.)
Mainstream critics have loaded and fired the superlative cannon in their praise, using descriptors such as "dazzling," "masterpiece" and "the very definition of cutting-edge."
Unlike some critically hailed arthouse darlings, D--N. is enjoying massive popular success as well. The album is likely to be only the second release ever to surpass 300 million track streams in its first week (second only to Drake's recent release More Life).
But critics and fans encounter a dense, complex narrative here. Lamar's persepctive veers wildly between the spiritual and the carnal, the profound and profane and just about everything in between.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
"DNA." describes the jarring, jumbled collection of influences that make us who we are: "I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA/I got hustle, though, ambition, flow inside my DNA." On "Yah," (reportedly a shortened version of the Hebrew name for God, Yahweh), Lamar raps, "I'm a Israelite, don't call me black no more." Later in the song he adds, "My cousin called Duckworth/Said, 'Know my worth'/And Deuteronomy say that we all been cursed."
"ELEMENT." laments, "All my grandmas dead/So ain't nobody prayin' for me." Lamar also proclaims, "We ain't goin' back to broke, family sellin' dope." "FEEL." seems to ask us what we're seeking to fill us up inside, with drugs, the Internet, religion, money, racism, work, family and gossip being among the many possibilities that Lamar namechecks. In similar territory, "LOYALTY." asks us to ponder who or what we're most beholden to: "Tell me who you loyal to/Is it money? Is it fame? Is it weed? Is it drink?/ … Tell me when your loyalty is comin' from the heart." '
"PRIDE." says, "Love's gonna get you killed/But pride's gonna be the death of you and you and me." Lamar also raps about racism's divisive impact ("Race barriers make inferior of you and I") and what he values most ("I'll choose faith over riches").
On "LOVE.," guest singer Zacari sings simply, "Just love me/I wanna be with you." "XXX." finds Lamar asking of our national character, "But is America honest or do we bask in sin?" "FEAR." involves Lamar recounting a long, painful list of the things an abusive father said to a young son. Later, the song offers a parallel list of the kind of things that adults might fear. The meaning of the song seems to be that fear is something we continue to confront throughout our lives. The track also begins with a recitation of a relative talking about Deuteronomy 28:28, which lists the consequences of disobeying God.
"DUCKWORTH." seems to recount biographical details of someone who's been killed, with Lamar pondering how things might have been different if he'd lived.
"DNA." unleashes a profane blast against critics: "I live a better life, f--- your life/ … I'd rather die than listen to you." Similar messages for haters turn up in "FEEL." and in "Yah," Lamar raps, "Keep the family close, get money, f--- b--ches/ … But it's money to get, b--ches to hit." Likewise, "ELEMENT." seems to nod acceptingly at the physical abuse of others.
"LOYALTY." is one of several songs that employs harsh anatomical slang to objectify women and fantasize about sex with them. (We also hear, "I'm a savage, I'm an a--hole, I'm a king."). "HUMBLE." talks graphically of oral sex and mentions a crude euphemism for the male anatomy. (There's also a reference to abusing prescription cough syrup). Meanwhile, it's no surprise that the song "LUST." includes a plaintive, explicit request for a particular sex act. The song also talks about going to the bathroom and getting high before having intercourse, while lyrics elsewhere in the track allude to masturbation and perpetrating credit card fraud.
Critique of America's shortcomings and its racism turns dark in "XXX." when Lamar raps, "Pass the gin, I mix it with American blood." On "FEAR.," He wishes dealing with his fears was as easy as getting high. A bit later, he adds a reference to seeking solace in sex as well: "Life's a b--ch, pull them panties to the side now." Near the end, Lamar hints at the possibility that we're all condemned, repeatedly using God's name paired with "d--n" to make his point.
"GOD." tells us, "This what God feel like, yeah/Laughing to the bank, like, aha, yeah." Elsewhere, the song repeatedly demands, "Don't judge me."
There's a lot going on when it comes to Kendrick Lamar's storytelling style. The tales he tells on D--N. can no doubt be mined for multiple layers of meaning—often meaning that requires a rap maven's encyclopedic understanding of the genre.
Lamar wades into deep waters when it comes to his subject matter. Life, death, God, faith, prayer, belief, identity, sex, drugs, poverty, riches, rage and regret are just some of the topics he touches on. I understand why D--N. has left many mainstream critics' jaws on the floor.
I appreciate lyrics here that treat faith as a substantial part of Lamar's life. But I struggle deeply with those lyrics' close proximity to other lines that are drenched in the harshest of profanities, praise marijuana use and narrate sexual experiences with exceedingly explicit imagery.