As far as years go, 2017 was…complicated. And so it stands to reason that The Key’s annual go at determining the top 15 albums of the year — the records that resonated the most with us, the collections of songs that best captured the spirit of the past twelve months — was no straightforward affair.
In 2017, we thrilled to the reflective psych-rock sprawl of Philly’s The War on Drugs, a seasoned band delivering its most confident and refined artistic statement to date. We also heard the hushed introspection of Big Thief‘s sophomore album, which transformed trauma and pain into beautiful atmospheric folk. Artists looked deeply inward to discover raw personal truths, whether we’re talking about U.K. singer-songwriter Sampha, Philly newcomers Katie Ellen or hip-hop mogul Jay-Z, sounding more down to earth and honest than he has in years (decades?). They refused, as Lorde and (Sandy) Alex G did, to be confined by boxed-in preconceptions of their work, and pushed their chops into new territories, whether they be on album three (The Districts) or nine (Spoon).
A common thread was embracing vulnerability, practicing self-reflection and finding inner strength. That’s the story of albums by Waxahatchee and Harmony Woods, Cayetana and Kelela. It’s also an undercurrent to Kendrick Lamar‘s remarkable DAMN., which The Key’s contributors rallied around to vote it number one album of the year. Our John Morrison does a deep dive on the record, dissecting its nuanced pairing of hard-hitting hip-hop production with complex themes about fear and internal conflict, virtue and vice, weakness and wickedness and whether those traits make us flawed.
Last year, you’ll recall, was also a complicated year. It left many in artistic circles revving up to fight and affect change…and some, like Hurray for the Riff Raff, chased that impulse with thrilling results. But it seems that the records that stuck with us the most at year’s end are all saying, in one way or another, that before we go out to better the world, we need to look within and (to borrow a phrase from Adam Granduciel and co.) gain a deeper understanding of ourselves. – John Vettese
15. Cayetana — New Kind of Normal — (Plum Records)
There’s a moment on Cayetana’s “Certain for Miles” when Augusta Koch’s voice, which always carries a raw and gritty edge, wavers for the briefest of seconds. Instead of breaking, though, she bounces back with intensified strength, belting one of New Kind of Normal‘s most gripping lines: “I always seem to doubt how everyone seems to have it all figured, all figured out.” This deftly balanced mix of vulnerability and assuredness captures Cayetana’s remarkable resilience, evident on all their releases but now articulated with newfound clarity.
2017 has been a year of growth for the Philadelphia trio. The band released New Kind of Normal on Plum Records, an independent label they started themselves, and their second full-length expands their well-established sound while delving further into emotional depths that 2014’s Nervous Like Me first grazed. The album’s 12 tracks take on a range of tones, from brooding to triumphant, slow-burning to rage-filled. Cayetana lets us know from the start that the album’s themes will be personal: “Inside my brain you’ll find a cluttered room … Is there a way out of this?” they wonder on opening track “Am I Dead Yet?”. But in baring life’s anxieties, Cayetana can’t help but strike a chord with listeners — what’s rooted in individual experience often finds common ground, what feels personal can be the most resonant.
“Follow” stirs up insecurities with the question “Did things change, or did I stay the same?”; Cayetana’s persistent strength is amplified with “Bus Ticket,” which brings us down to rock bottom and back up again. “Mesa,” given an upbeat sheen by Kelly Olsen and Allegra Anka’s drum and basslines, dwells in idealized nostalgia: “Together we made flowers out of weeds, we danced in garbage instead of leaves.” In a quiet moment at the end of “Side Sleepers,” we can hear Koch murmur “that one was the best one so far” – it’s a candid observation caught on record, but it encapsulates what listeners will find to be true of the album: New Kind of Normal is Cayetana at their very, very best.
14. Harmony Woods — Nothing Special — (Honest Face)
Musician Sofia Verbilla, creator of the project known as Harmony Woods, is a student and fan of emo — but the band’s 2017 album, Nothing Special, does not sound like an emo album. Special is a concept album about a couple falling in love and then going through a hard break-up which, okay, is pretty emo. And yes, Verbilla recruited Jake Ewald and Brendan Lukens of the emo-ish band Modern Baseball to help her on the project. However, instead of the abrasive vocals normally found in the genre, Verbilla’s vocals are mellifluous and smooth, and instead of pogo-ready jams, the songs are astute and reflective.
There are flashes of ragged and noisy guitars (courtesy of Verbilla and Lukens) but these sounds help bring to life the thoughts of a couple who are agonizing over whether to stay in a relationship going nowhere. The song “Parking Lot,” acts as an emotional crescendo, with Verbilla singing as “The parking lot’s too god damn small today. I can’t back out, I can’t think straight. It’s getting harder every day.”
When Nothing Special was recommended to me, the reason I was given for why I should listen was filled with adjectives of the highest order and comparisons to some of my favorite bands. I am not one to fall for such hype, so I listened to Nothing Special with caution. I can tell you after a billion listens to this album and a billion head-banging sessions at my cubicle that Harmony Woods is the real deal. Sofia Verbilla is a literary songwriter who knows how to envelop her stories with layers of musical complexity. The emo and punk scenes are better for having Harmony Woods in their lives.
13. Kelela — Take Me Apart — (Warp)
The long road to Kelela’s highly anticipated debut LP was one paved with patience, working and waiting until she knew exactly what she wanted to say, how she wanted to say it. Fittingly, Take Me Apart soundtracks the sentiment of running out of patience. A masterclass in tension and release, it cuts to the feeling of finally knowing what you want, in love and in life, and not being willing to wait for it anymore. And it expresses that with a determination and vulnerability that feels anthemic.
Her boldness is bolstered by badass, Björkian beats. With contributions from 13 producers, including Jam City and Arca (a current collaborator of the aforementioned Björk’s), Kelela manages to take a kaleidoscope of unique sounds and weave them into a cohesive, consuming sonic universe with her vocals, which are luxe, languid, but never lazy. One minute, she’s the sighing eye in the storm that is the cyclonic title track. The next, she’s a resigned, restrained Fury in single “Frontline,” which served as an impeccable score to the climactic breaking point of the protagonist on HBO’s Insecure this summer.
On that song, which opens the album, she accuses a transgressor of fucking with her groove. But the groove and artist that persist throughout Take Me Apart are unfuckwithable, and undeniable. She may beckon for a lover to take her apart, but that invitation is generously extended by the album itself to the listener. It’s a universe worth deconstructing, exploring, and immersing yourself in for hours.
12. Waxahatchee — Out in the Storm — (Merge)
Singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield’s fourth album as Waxahatchee, Out in the Storm, is a musically strong and confident collection that confronts complex emotions and themes such as remorse, escape and personal revival. Crutchfield has said that her inspiration for this album was a toxic relationship, but it shouldn’t be boxed into the category of “breakup album”; Out in the Storm is an assertive and self-assured set filled with self-reflective and figurative songwriting that narrates Crutchfield’s experience of having a personal reawakening after finding herself free. Her songwriting is excellent on this album; it is vulnerable in the sense that it’s about her personal feelings and life experiences, yet there is refreshingly no presence of self-pity.
In “Never Been Wrong,” a bold storm of guitar chords and Crutchfield’s sad and enraged lyrics set the tone for Out in the Storm. Crutchfield is honest and direct: “All your tragic fiction, I always take the bait / But the margin’s gigantic. Am I happy or manic? / Does it make you feel good to blend in with the wall? / Everyone will hear me complain, everyone will pity my pain.”
One of the most cathartic moments happens midway through the album during “Sparks Fly.” Crutchfield recognizes that her relationship has negatively influenced how she views herself, and she allows herself to see her through sister Allison’s perspective: “Tonight I’ll laugh, I say whatever I want / Stay in the bar til the sun comes up / And I see myself through my sister’s eyes / I’m a live wire, electrified / Sparks fly, sparks fly.” Other notable songs include the anthemic single “Silver,” the beautifully metaphoric “Recite Remorse,” and the empowering resolution of the acoustic closing track “Fade.”
Not only is this album lyrically remarkable, Crutchfield’s voice and guitar playing is beautifully energetic and defined from start to finish. The instrumentation on this album ranges from explosive and uncontrollable to acoustic and light, with assistance from bandmates Katie Harkin on vocals, guitars, keyboards and piano; Allison Crutchfield on keyboards and percussion; Ashley Arnwine on drums; Katherine Simonetti on bass; and Joey Doubek on percussion. Put together, it’s a record that’s at once deeply personal and immensely relatable, a moving set of songs to turn up loud and play on repeat.
11. Katie Ellen — Cowgirl Blues — (Lauren Records)
Katie Ellen isn’t a person, it is instead the chosen moniker for one of Philly’s most promising new bands, led by ex-Chumped frontwoman, Anika Pyle. The band’s debut album, Cowgirl Blues, cuts with razor’s edge resolve, wearing the songwriter’s dread and confidence in equal measure. It’s obvious early on this is no rookie outfit breaking into the scene, but a group of talented, experienced musicians with plenty to say. Few albums this year can boast the emotional range expressed in just the 4-minute opener, “Drawing Room”, which rolls downhill from the breathlessly cozy to something far more driven with bursting momentum.
In this we find the greatness of Cowgirl Blues, which has the ability to be both intimate and rightfully annoyed without ever feeling forced in either direction. Tracks like “Lucy Stone” and the album standout “Sad Girls Club” are the pinnacle the kind of pointed-without-preachy punk rock 2017 deserves. Lines like “Well, I don’t wanna have your children / Does that make me less of a woman?” and “Sad girls don’t make good wives” aren’t tongue in cheek, there’s no irony, there’s only the pissed-off vulnerability of someone begging to have the absurd pressures and one-sided expectations of romantic relationships explained with something more than an idle shrug.
Whether Pyle is belting a well-hooked chorus or the band is breaking, full-fledged, into a frenzied breakdown, the whole enterprise drips with the kind well-earned catharsis many can attempt but hardly any can master in the way that Katie Ellen does so fluently here on their debut album. Few albums will have you howling along with each and every song the way you can’t help but do when immersed in the throes of your own Cowgirl Blues, and that’s a promise.
10. Spoon — Hot Thoughts — (Matador)
Every time Spoon releases a new record, music writers reliably rave that it’s their “best yet.” Even where that’s intended as high praise, it’s a phrase too commonly thrown around, to the point of attenuated cliche, and on too many occasions it can even serve as a some kind of sympathy vote: Bob Dylan has earned his legend and may be beyond critique at this point, and all that, but it’s hard to argue that Modern Times is the record for which he’ll always be best remembered.
Spoon’s a different sort of animal though, a band that’s proven themselves unflaggingly able to assemble great new records time and again. Nearly a quarter-century into their career now, they’ve offered up a 2017 submission to top off an unimpeachable nine-studio-album catalog (not to mention dozens of noteworthy B-sides that don’t get the attention they deserve — check out 2000’s Love Ways EP). Having started out trending toward pop-punk with their 1996 debut album Telefono, the band’s development of their storied “minimalist” sound and the eventual (arguably inevitable) introduction of Alex Fischel’s lush synthesizer articulations in 2013 has culminated with Hot Thoughts: the highly stylized electronic-dance-jazz-indie-rock record that only they could do this right (or maybe even at all).
Even as a logical next-step study in an evolving spectrum of a catalog, Hot Thoughts features all the elements and qualities that frontman and main songwriter Britt Daniel has been working to carefully refine since the beginning: the stunted staccato hook of “Can I Sit Next To You,” for example, and the lumbering swagger of “Do I Have To Talk You Into It.” On “Shotgun,” they bring the rhythmic cadences of Led Zep’s “Achilles’ Last Stand” to Daniel’s lyrics that tend to mix pointed rhetorical questions and enough bizarre detail to uniquely brand his sense of storytelling. And even while re-upping on full-throated sonic dreamscapes they started writing as far back at 2010’s Transference with the Underworld-esque synth of a track like “WhisperI’lllistentohearit” — despite even a more wild foray into free-jazz that punctuates the end of the record, featuring Ted Taforo’s catchy saxophone — there’s always enough hint of the empty space between Jim Eno’s strong-armed beats and gracenotes to keep Spoon’s authoritative signature faithfully in place.
9. Hurray for the Riff Raff — The Navigator — (ATO)
Alynda Segarra may be physically short in stature, but she’s got a pretty big middle finger. And with lyrics like “Now all the politicians, they just flap their mouths / They say we’ll build a wall to keep them out,” it’s not hard to see who she’s waving it at. That’s because Hurray for the Riff Raff’s The Navigator is a good old-fashioned protest album, something the music community had been expecting from artists given the events of last November.
But it’s more than just that; the album draws from Segarra’s life experiences, such as being a Puerto Rican woman raised in New York City and her subsequent vegabond life of running away from that very city at age 17 to travel the country by freight train. “Living in the City,” “The Navigator” and “Hungry Ghost” all touch on those themes. Segarra’s consequential songwriting is counterbalanced throughout the album by a driving mix of her full-bodied invigorative voice, layers of strings and keys when appropriate, and a healthy supply of Latin percussion instruments at diversified moments throughout the album. But there’s an important lesson to be learned here, and it’s this: there’s something that separates the best protest albums from the just OK, and that’s a sense of optimism.
A wise old mononymous Irish man once said that “pop music often tells you everything is OK, while rock music tells you that it’s not OK, but you can change it,” and he was right. Hurray for the Riff Raff reminded everybody of just that in The Navigator’s penultimate track, entitled “Pa’lante,” which is a word that means “forward” in Puerto Rican slang. Because sure, making your dissenting voice heard in times of social and economic strife is important. But nobody ever achieved positive social change by standing still.
8. Jay-Z — 4:44 — (Roc Nation)
To truly understand the power of 4:44 as a complete body of work, one needn’t look further than the title track. Tucked nicely in the middle of the album, it’s the most reflective, and affecting, piece of music Jay-Z has ever written. No I.D.s production sparkles, the beat kicks in and Hannah Williams voice echoes back and forth as Shawn lays it all bare (He’s no longer Jay-Z at this point, this is 100% Shawn Carter rapping to us, rapping past us).
In the 21 years since Reasonable Doubt, Jay-Z has made it clear that out of all of his problems, a woman wasn’t one, and, proudly proclaimed “Me give my heart to a woman? Not for nothing, never happen. I’ll be forever mackin.” Now he’s laying his soul bare, asking forgiveness from his wife, Beyonce, and holding nothing back.
There are many moments of classic Jay-Z that permeate the album, moments of braggadocio, moments of spite, and while those moments themselves don’t ever drag the album down (in fact some of them are sincerely touching, such as his defense of Prince’s wishes for his music and estate), the moments of introspection (his feelings on his mothers sexuality and freedom now that she is ‘out’ on “Smile”), education (“The Story of O.J.”), and reflection (such as his sentimental look back on “Marcy Me”) rise so much higher. At times, his voice seems to pause, just briefly, as if to reflect on what he is about to say, to make sure that it’s the right thing, a feeling I’ve never had listening to him rap in the past.
No I.D. deserves just as many kudos here, as this album is a partner piece between the two. Collaboration of this character is a rarity in hip-hop today, and the beats are impeccable. The production never outshines the lyricism, nor does it get crushed beneath it. Rather, every subtle nook and cranny, from sample to snare, carries Mr. Carters words along, like the ocean bringing a raft of shipwreck survivors gently back to shore.
7. (Sandy) Alex G — Rocket — (Domino)
Last spring, in very characteristic unassuming fashion, (Sandy) Alex G dropped a pair of singles: “Bobby” and “Witch.” The first, a beautiful alt-country ballad, and the second, an ominous folklore-like admonition. In relation to (Sandy) Alex G’s extensive collection, one of these is very much so not like the others. To some fans, the twang was immediately embraced as a delightful surprise, and to others, it elicited fear of a totally changed and countrified Alex G. But as more starkly diverse tracks were revealed — from the campy and sarcastic “Proud” to the joint release of heavy industrial banger “Brick,” and the auto-tuned, floaty-piano strung, “Sportstar”– it became clear that no one sound or genre would define Rocket.
While familiarity was found in long-time collaborator Emily Yacina’s angelic supporting vocals and the inherent, indescribable charm and vague comfort that all (Sandy) Alex G songs possess, unfamiliarity was introduced in Rocket‘s underlying sense of daring exploration; a move that allowed for a heartfelt ode to brotherhood (“Powerful Man,”) a background cacophony of barn animals (“Poison Root,”) and a strange and smooth jazz singalong (“Guilty,”) to stand together — somehow in perfectly imperfect harmony.
6. Lorde — Melodrama — (Republic)
In one of the last few times I spoke with an ex, we fell into an all-too-familiar pattern: arguing cordially about music.
The sparring centered on Lorde’s then-just released sophomore album, Melodrama. “This record could sound like it came from any pop star” and “the songs are boring, sing-talky, and sound like musical theatre,” he said, unknowingly mirroring characteristics found in Melodrama‘s primary subject. (This pretension could very well be sourced from the same boy who lies about loving the beach on lead single “Green Light”.)
Quite the contrary, Melodrama is a body of work that sounds singularly like Lorde, an artist who has so unabashedly found and mastered her voice (and so early in her career), here distilled into a collection of emotionally intelligent and complicated pop songs that documents a coming to terms with growing into one’s self.
Romantic loss colors the movements: The self-deprecating ballad “Liability”; “Writer in the Dark”‘s vengeful obsession; Showing off just how much fun you’re having in “Homemade Dynamite”; “Hard Feelings/Loveless”‘s sick pleasure found in getting left behind. (“Bet you wanna rip my heart out / Bet you wanna skip my calls now / Guess what? I like that” makes you feel like she got ahold of your diary.)
These are very, very messy feelings. It’s one accomplishment to navigate them as expertly as Lorde does throughout Melodrama, but it’s another entirely to do so while crafting them into absolute bangers. A number of these songs function as sweaty, tears on the disco floor soundtracks.
Case study: “Supercut”. Anchored by a dancehall piano riff and gated drums, Lorde’s breathless delivery so convincingly cuts into a barely tangible apparition of love lost-it’s gone, but a shape and form remains:
“All the moments I play in the dark / We were wild and fluorescent / Come home to my heart”.
5. The Districts — Popular Manipulations — (Fat Possum)
Two years ago, indie rock four-piece, The Districts, released their sophomore record, A Flourish and a Spoil, a record that was met with much critical acclaim.
There’s no doubt that Flourish was the band’s breakthrough record. Their first LP, Telephone, introduced us to the quartet’s distinct indie from the Lititz, PA natives. On Popular Manipulations, the Districts deliver a mature, cohesive set that displays musical and personal growth amongst the band.
There’s a distinct difference to how they approached Manipulations, placing more focus on the arrangements and production of the album. That difference results in a bigger, fuller-sounding record when compared to their previous releases, and is evident with the opening track, “If Before I Wake.” The song’s roaring guitars and lead vocalist Rob Grote’s fearless delivery showcase the band’s move to a bigger, fuller sound. In fact, throughout the record, you notice a difference in his vocals, from a lower register to incredible vocal acrobatics.
The themes on Manipulations aren’t lacking, in fact, on one of the album’s preview tracks, “Violet,” the four-piece explores themes of relationships: intimacy, sex, dependency, and possessiveness – all of which can sometimes be used in a manipulative way. Grote explores those themes with buzzing reverb and chugging drums driving the majority of the song.
While it’s clear why the quartet chose the preview tracks they did, it’s some of the album cuts that truly showcase the band’s musical growth in songwriting, arrangements, and production. Songs like “Why Would I Wanna Be” and “Airplane” showcase the band perfecting its craft.
It’s evident that Popular Manipulations will be the Districts’ record that solidifies them as a staple in the indie rock scene. It brims with craftsmanship that hasn’t always been part of their persona and the focus on the arrangements, production, and songwriting show how they’ve matured musically, artistically, and personally.
4. Sampha — Process — (Young Turks)
Sampha unveiled his greatest talent – the ability to strip everyday anxiety to its naked imploding core – to much of the world through key guest spots on tracks like Drake’s “Too Much” and Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair.” He dismisses the former song’s instruction to not “think about it too much” all over Process, his poignant debut full-length album.
The British artist jumps right into one of his defining traumas — stemming from when he uncovered a lump in his throat that various doctors couldn’t diagnose — on album opener, “Plastic 100°C.” The song, like much of Process, sets Sampha’s dense electronic compositions under vocals that shimmer and crack with every rumination. The resulting music captures the roller coaster of sensory overload and quiet desperation that anybody who’s experienced the medical worries, loss of family or other earth-shattering difficulties that Sampha unravels will immediately understand. Whether he sings about “sleeping with my worries” on “Plastic 100°C” or abandoning his disabled brother on “What Shouldn’t I Be?,” Sampha refuses to dismiss the regret and grief that permeate everyday tragedy. He instead lets it overcome him in all its terror, enduring the pain with the hope that it leaves clarity in its wake.
Process does not offer that immediate clarity, which might frustrate listeners looking for a record that both acknowledges and answers their existential dread. That open-ended examination offers a better reflection of reality than what most of us can grab, especially during the political turmoil that seized Sampha’s homeland and and ours during its early February release. Sampha may not have intended to summarize the post-Trump and -Brexit mood, but he — the child of Sierre Leonean immigrants, the result of a multiculturalism that the Brexit and Trump crowds reject as divisive — still offered a poignant lament to the universal and personal horrors that haunt us at every waking moment.
3. The War on Drugs — A Deeper Understanding — (Atlantic)
“I’m stepping out into the light,” sings Adam Granduciel on A Deeper Understanding‘s opener “Up All Night.” The Philly guy who has spent years holed up in the studio making meticulous yet ornate rock records under the name The War On Drugs returned this year with his best one yet. After 2014’s lush and patient Lost In The Dream, the band showed that they could be one of this generation’s greatest sources of modern rock. With A Deeper Understanding, their major label debut, it cements them at the top.
The album plays like a late night drive through a thunderstorm in the woods of Western Pennsylvania. It builds with the ever-rising guitar pyrotechnics of “Strangest Thing” to its centerpiece “Thinking Of A Place,” maybe the most concise and focused 11-minute song ever written. Granduciel’s voice drifts through the music like a ghost; he’s over your shoulder, guiding you through the darkness. Songs such as “Nothing To Find” and “In Chains” are small odysseys in themselves, all decorated by Granduciel’s studio wizardry with every guitar flourish and electronic synth line falling perfectly into place. These songs all trek upwards to that big “moment,” where the world around falls away and nothing else matters.
Since their return, the War On Drugs played their largest Philly-area show where they headlined Connor Barwin’s Make The World Better Foundation concert at The Dell Music Center back in September. They even finished the year with a Grammy nod for Best Rock Album. Thematically, A Deeper Understanding is a relationship record. It’s a record about love and connection and yes, “understanding,” but it’s also about your relationship with yourself. It’s about the light at the end of the tunnel. Granduciel shows us all how to keep our heads up and keep driving forward.
2. Big Thief — Capacity — (Saddle Creek)
The Brooklyn-based folk rock band that wormed its way into our ears and hearts last year with the excellent debut album Masterpiece returned with a follow-up more quickly than expected. And while Big Thief remained a well-kept secret for most of 2016, this year everyone took notice — Capacity, the band’s second full-length, is inescapably enticing.
The album feels both like a welcome continuation of Masterpiece and like something marvelously and entirely new; it picks up where the first album left off while simultaneously standing as a sure-footed work of its own. Sophomore releases often signal a band coming into its voice, but given the strength and solidity of Big Thief’s debut, Capacity functions more as an equally articulate and assured volume 2 — the power of Big Thief’s words is evident from the moment we hear the hushed and fragile opening chords of “Pretty Things.” And this is a band that has a lot to say.
The four-piece, fronted by songwriter Adrianne Lenker, infuses Capacity‘s 11 tracks with their roaming, nomadic essence and quiet freneticism. The album is instrumentally and thematically unpredictable; the sparse folk of “Coma” and “Objects” bleeds into the guitar-driven jaggedness of “Watering” and “Great White Shark,” and Lenker’s densely poetic songwriting weaves stories both fictional and deeply, deeply personal. Delicate piano ballad “Mary” rambles breathlessly of love lost, while the steadily rhythmic “Mythological Beauty” recounts a painful memory from the songwriter’s childhood.
Big Thief doesn’t fail to include an upbeat song that matches the bright intensity of Masterpiece‘s title track – though here it comes in the form of “Shark Smile” which, under its lighthearted sheen, is lyrically one of the album’s most emotionally fraught. With Capacity, Big Thief continues to mature, their always-smart songwriting now brimming with pointed insight. “My brain is like an orchestra, playing on insane,” Lenker sings in “Mary”; in “Black Diamonds” it’s “So much coming in, I do not know where to begin,” leaving us with the lingering sense that Big Thief is just getting started, that they have volumes upon volumes more of uncovered wisdom to share.
1. Kendrick Lamar — DAMN. — (Top Dawg Entertainment)
Compton, California born rap-savant, Kendrick Lamar’s fourth studio album opens with a question: “Is it wickedness? Is is weakness?”
A quick look at the album’s tracklist with songs like “Pride”, “Fear”, and “God,” it becomes clear that the “it” in this equation is Kendrick’s own state of moral fortitude. Whether he is tackling gang violence in his neighborhood, the decadent nature of American capitalist culture or his own fame, Kendrick’s dilemma is essentially a moral one. Whereas there were moments on his previous album To Pimp A Butterfly where Kendrick seemed to be speaking to and / or for the broader culture, the themes he addressed on that record were presented through his own personal sense of morality and how that morality guides the choices that he made and that we make.
It is this sense of moral conflict makes Kendrick different from say, Chuck D (Public Enemy front man and the standard rapper/activist archetype), who spoke in big and broadly unifying language to highlight socio-political issues. Kendrick primarily filters the political through his own personal struggle and pain and the persistent need to view the world through this deeply moralistic prism. This moral drama has always shown up in his work (see “The Art of Peer Pressure” from Good Kid, M.A.A.D City). On DAMN., Kendrick’s moralizing deepens and intensifies, taking on a obvious biblical influence and tone. Throughout the album, Kendrick indulges and restrains, his art, mind, his very life, offered up, between these sharp binaries of Pride and Humility, Love and Lust, Trust and Fear, Wickedness and Weakness. Each of these serve as lesser issuances of the penultimate and most painful dichotomy of them all, that which separates God and Humanity. This is not unique in hip-hop; Scarface, Beanie Sigel and countless rappers have wrestled with these ideas. Kendrick’s approach is different from that of a Gospel rapper, because for the most part, they’ve already chosen a side. Kendrick does not use his voice to praise God, he uses it to question God and himself. Kendrick Lamar is not a pious man, he is limited and vulgar, trapped in the middle of life’s great battle between good and evil, and as such, he creates magic in the midst of these great moral tensions.
“Our fathers sinned, and are no more; It is we who have borne their iniquities.”
“I got Loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA
Cocaine quarter piece, got war and peace inside my DNA
I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA”
-Kendrick Lamar, “DNA”
On “DNA”, a manic Mike Will-Made-It produced banger, Kendrick presents his dual nature as an inherent part of his make-up. It is this view that makes the morality drama all the more agonizing, his animated delivery the bouncing and swerving back and forth between technical brilliance and raw unhinged emotion. Much of the album follows a similar of colorful, if not musically groundbreaking production that serves as a backdrop for Kendrick to relentlessly explore the minutiae of every crack and crevice of his conflicted soul.
“Fear” is undoubtedly the album’s emotional center. Over a delicate Alchemist production, Kendrick runs an impossibly detailed catalog of the role fear has played throughout his life. The first verse, finds Kendrick at the age of 7, speaking in a voice, we assume is his mother, threatening to beat and punish him for virtually any minor infraction. By the second verse, he has carried this trauma outside the house and out into a world that is especially dangerous for adolescent Black boys. Each line of this verse beginning with “I’ll probably die….” as Kendrick runs off an endless list of (very real) threats and scenarios that could end his young life. Gangs, police, drugs, panic etc. He ends this verse with a heartbreaking prediction: “I’ll probably die cuz that’s what you do at 17, my worries in a hurry….I wish I controlled things” By the third verse, at the age of 27, he is wildly successful, rich and famous. Despite this, he now finds himself desperately afraid of losing it all and going back to the hood, back to where this deep sense of fear was born. Crutched with this trauma and fear as his emotional bassline, young Kendrick lives in a state of hypervigilance, fearful that he could die at any moment, for any reason, or no reason at all.
The album ends with “Duckworth,” a mind-blowing, if slightly heavy handed song about the karma that comes from making “good” choices and doing the right thing. Essentially, Kendrick tells the true story of a chance meeting between a young fast food worker “Ducky” and a gangbanger named “Anthony.” Despite Anthony’s proclivity for violence, he decides not to kill Ducky in a robbery. In a plot twist of Shymalanian proportions, Ducky would grow up to have a son named Kendrick Lamar Duckworth and Anthony would go into the music business, eventually discovering young Kendrick and helping to launch one of the most celebrated careers in rap history. Seven Grammys and millions of dollars later, Kendrick is here, on this album, framing his success as the result of a deeply intertwined strand of karmic consequence that reaches back to his father’s youth and beyond.
Ultimately, DAMN. is a deeply complex, occasionally brilliant meditation on life, death, free will and the human condition. The album finds endlessly clever and agonizing ways to pose a simple set of questions: What does the human spirit look like in the midst of deep moral conflict? Are we inherently wicked? Or are we merely weak? In Kendrick’s mind, it is clearly both. We suffer and fail due to a mixture of “wickedness” which is our unwillingness to do right and the weakness that is the result of inability to do right, when placed in the wrong circumstances.