Hoping for the Best
On Kendrick Lamar and Giving a Damn

So, Doctor Who is back.

You’d be forgiven for not realizing that. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a quieter, less momentous start to a season, let alone a season this significant. Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi will bid goodbye at Christmas this year, so this is his last full season. Arguably more importantly, though, showrunner Steven Moffat will also hang up his TARDIS key this year. We have only four more Moffat-penned episodes to go, and since I consider him the best writer the show has ever had, I’m feeling wistful about it.

But despite the winds of change surrounding it, season 36 (or series 10 for those of you who care about the old show-new show division) has sauntered in on a summer breeze. The first two episodes have been almost entirely about the relationship forming between Capaldi’s grumpy yet kind Doctor and Pearl Mackie’s winsome, curious Bill Potts, and it’s a lovely one, to be sure. I adore Mackie, and Bill is a perfect companion for Twelve – after the brutality of last season, he needs someone who can help him see the universe afresh, through new eyes.

This isn’t a new dynamic. It is, in fact, the very engine of the show – the companion revitalizes the Doctor, and the show at the same time. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that dynamic approached in such a gentle way before. Moffat’s opening episode, cheekly titled “The Pilot,” spent most of its running time introducing Bill (and reintroducing the Doctor). It was ages before a plot appeared, and when it did, it was a simpler, more emotional story than I expected.

“Smile,” the second episode, followed suit. Penned by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, the story follows the Doctor and Bill as they investigate a seemingly empty settlement on a distant planet in the future. And it’s very quiet. For about 30 of its 45 minutes, Capaldi and Mackie are the only actors on screen, wandering empty halls and looking for clues. The resolution is a lovely anticlimax as well, and it’s clear that so far, the focus here is on these two characters getting to know one another as they travel space and time.

Nothing whatsoever wrong with that, and I’m enjoying the slower pace, the more languid feel, and the trust this show is placing in us to appreciate those things. I expect the show’s heart rate to ramp up soon – there’s a three-parter at the heart of this season, and an intriguing mystery in the background that will no doubt explode all over the place. But for now, Doctor Who season 36 is a quieter, more reflective thing, and that’s a delightful change of pace. It gives us more time to take in the nuances of Capaldi’s performance before he heads off into the sunset.

* * * * *

Kendrick Lamar may be the greatest rapper alive.

He’ll tell you so, of course, but when Lamar refers to himself as the greatest, it sounds more like an acknowledgement of fact than a boast. More than that, it sounds like an acknowledgement of responsibility. When Lamar speaks now, people hang on his every syllable – more people, perhaps, than Lamar himself ever expected to be paying attention to him. He knows he has influence, and a moral imperative to use that influence wisely.

That’s what To Pimp a Butterfly, his masterpiece of a third album, was all about at its core: Lamar’s struggles with his own responsibility, and his intense efforts to live up to it. He knows he’s an example and an inspiration to poor kids in Compton, his home town, and now to millions of other kids who look up to him, and Butterfly, with its Biblical temptation narratives, its deep probe into the self-image of Black America, and finally, its extended fantasy conversation with Lamar’s idol, Tupac Shakur, explored this from all angles.

I don’t hesitate to say Butterfly is one of the best albums of the past decade, and Lamar’s almost superhuman ability to realize his tightly controlled and intricate vision is one major reason why. That’s why I think he’s the greatest – not just because he’s the fastest and most adept behind the mic, though he very well may be, but because he thinks on grander scales, maps out his albums like novels and trusts his audience to understand. We will still be listening to To Pimp a Butterfly in 20 or 30 years, still parsing it out, still revering it as a milestone.

The same can’t quite be said of its follow-up, Damn, but Lamar’s hallmarks are here. The album has a circular structure, beginning with the rapper’s own death and ending with a story of redemption. It explores Biblical concepts of justice and humility. It speaks directly to Lamar’s Black audience, offering them more insights into his own struggles in the hopes that it will help with theirs. It feels like a Kendrick Lamar album.

I just wish I liked it more. Lamar’s on fire throughout this record, particularly on “DNA,” “Feel” and “Fear,” and there’s no faulting his prowess. But coming off of one of the most complex rap albums ever made, Damn feels thrown together in ways I didn’t expect. It certainly announces itself as more visceral, from the title to the cheap-looking cover, and songs like “Loyalty” don’t feel like they contribute to a larger whole. That wouldn’t bother me if the songs were amazing, but mostly they’re just good.

The production on Damn doesn’t help me to love it. Butterfly’s experiments with jazz and funk are all but gone here, replaced by a pretty average electronic hip-hop sound (thanks to producers like Mike Will Made-It). If the goal of Damn was to show that more typical hip-hop records can be creative and inspiring, it succeeds a good chunk of the time. But I’m not sure why Lamar chose that goal, especially when following up one of the most creative and interesting records of the decade.

It remains a singular treat, though, to hear Lamar dig in on tracks like “XXX,” a mini-epic that features Bono on vocals near the end. Just check out this extraordinary verse: “Hail Mary, Jesus and Joseph, the great American flag is wrapped and dragged with explosives, compulsive disorder, sons and daughters, barricaded blocks and borders, look what you taught us, it’s murder on my street, your street, back streets, Wall Street, corporate offices, banks, employees and bosses with homicidal thoughts, Donald Trump’s in office, we lost Barack, promised to never doubt him again, but is America honest or do we bask in sin?”

Lamar seeds Damn with mirror images sequenced next to each other – a song called “Lust” followed by one called “Love,” for example. It’s no coincidence that “Pride” and “Humble” sound like their opposite, “Humble” crashing in on a strident beat while “Pride” takes a more contemplative tone. It is on “Pride” where Lamar addresses his own arrogance, something he has always been cognizant of: “Seems like I point the finger just to make a point nowadays… I know the walls, they can listen, I wish they could talk back, the hurt becomes repetition, the love almost lost, that sick venom in men and women overcome with pride…”

And as he often does, Lamar ends that verse with a skyward look: “In a perfect world I’ll choose faith over riches, I’ll choose work over bitches, I’ll make schools out of prison, I’ll take all the religions and put ‘em all in one service just to tell ‘em we ain’t shit but He’s been perfect, world.” That’s just perfection, some of his very best work.

If much of the rest of Damn is intended to remind us of how imperfect the world is, it certainly does that. But there are just too many unconnected, sloppy moments for me to rate this as highly as I would like to. “Loyalty,” just as an example, isn’t a bad song, it’s just average, with lines about working “only for that dollar sign” and “that pussy good, it’s to die for” cluttering it up like stray thoughts. Rihanna’s presence doesn’t elevate things, either. “Love” is typical, as is “God” – these songs could be from anyone, and that they’re from Lamar is disappointing.

Here’s an example of the sloppiness that I keep coming back to. “Fear” is, for most of its running time, a lyrical masterpiece. Lamar revisits his own life at seven, 17, 27 and now at 29, illuminating what he feared most at each age: an abusive father, facing death as part of his gang life in Compton, losing what he’d earned, and not living up to his responsibility as a voice for his people, respectively. It’s stunning, but what keeps tripping me up is the repeated “life’s a bitch, pull them panties to the side” in the chorus. It means nothing there. It feels like a rough draft, like syllables. I can see a possible “I will dominate the world” interpretation, but that doesn’t stick with me. It mars an otherwise tremendous song.

Normally I would not be so picky, would not scour these lyrics like Sherlock Holmes looking for clues to deeper meaning. I would excuse a few less inspiring tracks, and would focus on the good parts of what is, after all, a pretty strong outing. But Lamar has trained me to expect better from him. Butterfly was so intricate, so well-considered and so strong that I’m conditioned now to look for that intricacy, consideration and strength in everything he does. And so much of Damn is so good that the too-often moments of laziness and sloppiness stand out.

Lamar does leave us with a stunner, one that redeems much of what came before it. “Duckworth,” titled after Lamar’s given surname, tells the unlikely yet true story of a fast food clerk and the gangster who made a choice not to kill him. In the kind of twist only real life throws at you, that clerk was Lamar’s father and that gangster grew up to be Anthony Tiffith, the head of Lamar’s label Top Dawg Entertainment. “Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence, because if Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg could be serving life while I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight…”

That the album then loops back around to the start, a skit in which Lamar does die of a gunshot wound, only serves to drive the point home. We all have choices, and those choices create ripples in reality, spreading out around us, affecting things we don’t even understand. I love this message, and I wish Lamar had spent more of Damn delivering it. As a raw document of perhaps the world’s greatest rapper doing whatever he damn well pleases, this album is mostly great. It only suffers in comparison to his greatest work. And he doesn’t owe us anything, of course, but now that we know what he’s capable of, it hurts to hear him fall short of that. Damn is fine. It’s good, even. But I was hoping for better than good.

Wow, that’s a lot of words. Next week, either Mount Eerie or Gorillaz. Or both, if I’m feeling particularly ornery. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.