Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? This couplet, which opens DAMN., the latest album from Kendrick Lamar, cuts right to the quick of the powerful anxiety that is so prevalent in all of his work: Am I strong enough spiritually? Physically? Is what I am doing right? Good?
These are universal concerns, of course, but acutely felt by one on whom such great expectations are placed. From early on, maybe even from the time of his first mixtape in 2004, when he was only 16, Lamar was a rapper with profound potential. After a series of star-making appearances on other artists’ songs, Lamar was, in 2011—even before the release of a proper major label album of his own—already being hailed as the best rapper on the West Coast. When it did arrive the next year on Dr. Dre’s Aftermath imprint at Interscope, good kid, m.A.A.d cityonly emboldened that opinion. In due course, the album went platinum and Lamar was nominated for seven Grammys while being vaulted out of his native Compton, California, to go on Kanye West’s Yeezus tour. GKMC also probably set in motion the endless comparisons of Lamar to Tupac, as well as the ongoing debate about whether he is the greatest rapper alive.
That’s a lot. But if it was Lamar’s soaring ambition and lyrical talent that made him particularly great, it is his honest introspection in verse and the clarity with which he has described his interior life that have made him sublime. His next album, 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, is nearly neurotic with its naked fears about losing out to the devil (or “Lucy,” as he called the evil that tempts him); about letting down his hometown; and about approaching escape—velocity fame and wealth, which might, as it did for Tupac, rocket Lamar out of reach from any sense of community, family, or belonging.
In signature fashion, the 30-year-old faced his fears head on. He came home and put Compton, the Coast, and everyone else on his back to make DAMN., a dazzling and utterly singular album that he says he recorded—and is presently touring—to bring comfort and strength to the rest of us. “LeBron James or the little boy around the corner,” Lamar tells Dave Chappelle, a comedian and cultural critic who knows a thing or two about greatness. “We come from the same struggles, and it comes out of my mouth for them to relate to.”
And if what does come out is, despite all of Lamar’s successes, still fraught with self-conscious anxiety, it seems to support the old truism popularly attributed to Bertrand Russell: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people”—or, we might say, the truly righteous and brave—”so full of doubts.”