#DAMN. An Album for Kendrick by Kendrick. We are Witnesses.

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By Tayllor Johnson 

When I first saw the DAMN. album cover, ironically my first reaction was damn! Ol’ boy wasn’t lookin too good! Disheveled beard, eyes vacant and dim, lookin nowhere, I was concerned for him! Then I heard the criticisms of his single “HUMBLE.”: misogynist, sexist, an attempt to police women’s bodies. What I saw in “HUMBLE.” was a man on the thin line between humility and cockiness not sure where he should stand as a Black man. I saw a man battling with many images, light and darkness, heaven and hell, white and black, poor and rich. I saw a man battling himself. HUMBLE. was Kendrick versus Kendrick. What stood out to me more was the fact that Kendrick’s preference for stretch marks and natural hair was more a controversy than lyrics that demanded our asses be fat, our weaves long, and our name bitch. Even so, my opinion was still met with confusion and distaste for this new Kendrick that burst on the scene. People were asking: What happened to him? He used to be so conscious, now he’s just like every other rapper. What happened to “To Pimp a Butterfly” Kendrick? Who is this Kendrick Lamar? After listening to DAMN. I have never seen Kendrick Lamar as more Kendrick Lamar. He is an artist. And his latest album DAMN. is a tribute to what we artists use our art for: a way to process and understand our world beyond the unspeakable.

DAMN. was a portal into the world of a Black man, his certainty, uncertainty, fear, reflections, and determination. His album brings a humanity to the celebrity. In a country that praises and worships the lives, the wallets, and the scandal of celebrities and stars, I forget that these people are people. Their art is a result of their humanity. These influencers do not exist solely for their audience. That is why Beyoncé’s Lemonade struck me to my core. She ceased to be a brand, a face, a single—she was a complete process. DAMN. is Kendrick Lamar’s human process. Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. is a labor of love for Kendrick Lamar. After listening to tracks like “FEEL.” and “GOD.” it sounded like he wrote these songs/poems because he needed to; and like many artists, the act of sharing is just as healing as creating it.

The shock value of my success put bolts in me

All this money, is God playin’ a joke on me?

Is it for the moment, and will he see me as Job?

Take it from me and leave me worse than I was before?

As a 24-year-old who wants to start her own business, write a book, and step into my own calling of using poetry and performance as an empowerment tool for voiceless communities, the song “FEAR.” moved me. I can’t be the only one who is afraid of success, and just as afraid of failure. Kendrick Lamar reminded me that no matter the checks, followers, or rewards we all have or will be at that crossroads. I have asked myself similar questions on my own journey. Any milestone that pushes me closer to reach my potential is met with resistance; a timid voice whispers and questions: Is this possible? Or is it all just another universal test only to start from the beginning again in a few years? The higher I go, the farther I have to fall.  How Kendrick must feel! From his first mixtape in 2004, Youngest Head Nigga in Charge (Hub City Threat: Minor of the Year) to being called the greatest rapper of all time. I could almost taste the anxiety, the questions, the fatigue in DAMN. I could only imagine, the money is coming in, the workload is increasing, advice is flooding in from everywhere, and the world is looking to him, fans leaning on him to continue to climb, to create! I too would go to my pen and paper like I always do, purging the secret questions, revelations, resentments, declaration, writing desperately toward that inner silence.

Lamar created a human experience in DAMN. He reminded me as a poet and activist that the foggy moments, the silences in between our epiphanies, success, and failures are just as beautiful, just as valid and telling and universal. After listening to the whole album, I wanted to give Kendrick a huge hug and say thank you, from one Los Angeles native to another. The job of an artist is to dig and dig deep within; to find the piece that pushes us even deeper and to share that work in order to connect to the depth in someone else. And we need that right about now. When I watched the news of the Manchester bombing, picture after picture being released of deceased young people, when I read about the impending threat to my healthcare rights as a woman, when I get a notification about another toxic tweet or another tragedy so far away I can barely fathom; when I consider the rise in violence against Black bodies, Muslim bodies, Trans Bodies, Our Bodies; when I walk down the street and have to maneuver my body so that I am not touched or followed or worst, I can’t help but think damn. It is a state of being, that damn. It’s that sigh when you’re a woman and you get home safe after a fun night, it’s that tension in the muscles when the police keep cruising past you. Kendrick’s DAMN. is not only a confirmation of what that damn can do to the spirit, it is a powerful reminder that we are not alone in feeling it and that is possible to use that damn and repurpose it, as much of the country and the world has done throughout history at the beginning of every revolution.