Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Kendrick Lamar, Damn (2017)

My evenings are usually given over to writing short fiction or narrative essays (my life as a Kentucky boy, my life as a Korean expat), but this evening is slightly different. I'm writing this instead, and for a special reason: to preach the good news of Kendrick Lamar's Damn. When last we spoke, I accidentally lied. I told you I had recently listened to Damn and was underwhelmed. It was actually To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) I had listened to again and was underwhelmed. Anyway, you said you didn't like Damn, but you did like Lamar's new album. (Wikipedia tells me that's called Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, out this year; I'll listen to it.) For what it's worth, I would encourage you to give Damn another chance.

I'm not exactly trying to convince you to like the album. Maybe I'm just interested in encouraging you to try to appreciate it in a certain way, even if in the end you still don't like it. You tend to put your vinyl on the spinner and sit back and listen in your recliner, am I right? Why not try some earbuds or headphones for this one? That difference might be enough a shakeup.

So why do I like this album? Well, for starters, I think it's poetry. Sure, it's raw and unrefined, but it's poetry nonetheless, akin to good punk rock and that rowdy rock you like so much from early Kings of Leon. Now I will say this. The older I get, the less I like to hear wordy durds in my music. As a younger man, I saw freedom as the absence of control, but as I get older, I see freedom as the opportunity to make good choices. (The best of societies would maximize opportunities for good choices and minimize suffering for stupid luck and misfortune.) The best of artists know how to make good choices. That's what makes them the best of artists. They train their eye on something we all see and that we've passed by a million times. They're different and they're artists because they're training their eye on something worth looking it and (if you'll allow me a little wordplay) they train us how to see. As for Lamar and his wordy durds, I don't think any of them are misplaced or for the sake of profanity.

Take, say, the song "Lust." At first blush, it seems like the song is an endorsement of the lust that is its subject. It's not. The song is a form of repenting. I won't repeat the refrain (I don't want to use bad words), but there Lamar is parodying the risky behavior of young people. In addition to youth's preoccupation with premarital congress, in the song is talked about doing bad for bad's sake (hence the "credit cards scam") and the seeming emptiness of everyday life ("watching a comedy," getting one's hair done) that people feel when they're young and poor and or so overburdened by problems that they don't see or don't have opportunity. Or take the unfortunately titled song "XXX." It's about a family member getting shot by police outside an ATM, at the moment when the young man's card showed "insufficient funds." This song could almost go without comment, the relevance is so obvious. The bridge is a bass-and-drum combo that sounds like gunshot.

Lamar's album is sprinkled with the leitmotif "Ain't nobody praying for me." Scripture is quoted regularly throughout. This is a deeply religious album. The song "Fear" repeats, "Why, God, why, God, do I got to suffer?" Lamar is 34 years old, but he's not a vapid young man. It's clear he's familiar with the Psalms. It's clear he cares about his community. He cares about the influence of his music. He cares about what's going on in the United States. This is a thoughtful album.

As I said, in the end, if you didn't like it the first time around, you might not like it another time around. Heck, you might have already given it several chances. Could you give it one more? I just hope you might in the end appreciate it a tad more.

A quick story.

My favorite author is Alice Munro. She's hands-down the greatest living writer. She's 90 years old now. The world will be a worse place the day she passes.

Alice Munro wasn't always my favorite author. In fact, when I first read her, I downright disliked her. It seemed to me she wrote long, boring stories about everyday life that was so everyday and humdrum that it didn't seem worth writing about. I gave her several chances.

I remember one day I was at the airport, laid over, waiting for my flight to Nashville. My father was back home dying of cancer. I thought at the time that that was it for the man, but it turned out God had other plans. My dad went on dying for about another year. Anyway, I needed a good book, so I went to the bookstore to get one. This was either the JKF airport or Dallas-Fort Worth, I can't remember. Alice Munro had just won the Nobel Prize for literature, so the bookstore had several copies of her work. Her most recent collection of stories, Dear Life, was there. There was a gold Nobel logo embossed on the front of the paperback. I picked it up and bought that, along with a Dr. Pepper. Then I found as comfortable a seat as I could find outside my terminal and over the next three hours I proceeded to read the book cover to cover. When I finished, I threw it away. That's how worthless and wretched I thought the thing was. The other day, I bought it again. I now think it's one of the greatest works ever.

Sometime between throwing that book away and buying it again, I had read a short story of hers in an anthology, and I was floored by how good it was. I went and sought out her other stories, stories I had read before, and I liked them too. Now of course it's evident that part of what allowed her work to work on me was that I had gotten older. But another thing had happened too. She had taught me how to read her. Really good artists, I think, change the game. They elevate your understanding. They get you not only to see the world on their terms but to communicate with their work on their times. Bad work tries to do this, also, but bad work's problem is that the artist never saw the world right in the first place.

All right, that's not enough preaching.

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