Gorillaz, Kendrick Lamar, and a Darker Chapter of Hip-Hop

This year is kicking into high gear with tunes that are more and more suited to the rainy bleak weather that’s been hanging around most of this spring. Kendrick Lamar’s Damn and Gorillaz’ Humanz exemplify this move into a darker, more self-aware theme that is emerging with artists of the hip-hop genre delving into deep emotional places. Spinning songs out of depression, rage, and the questioning of one’s place and legacy in the world.

Humanz album cover

Parlophone UK

Damon Albarn of Gorillaz dances to and through these questions and emotions by working in the mythology of his characters, taking them on a horrific journey that provides an allegory for the political times, the interludes especially here with mechanical voice leading a speech (“The Non-Conformist Oath”) in pledges of individuality. Ironically, the speech cuts off after the new robotic leader says, “I pledge not to repeat things other people say.” This tongue-in-cheek criticism blasts those both in and out of political spheres; by merely repeating the words of the past the future is doomed, a theme prevalent throughout Humanz. Albarn has spoken in interviews about the inherent darkness and dark turns this album takes the listener down.

With “Hallelujah Money,” we step deep into the more thought-evoking work that isn’t merely a reference but a full-on criticism of the capitalist societies we live in. Backed by the somber vocals of Benjamin Clementine we are pulled into a stark picture of reality and forced to realize that we are in fact in deep trouble. This focus leads from the universal and metaphorical to a much more realistic and personal place.

Damn album art

Top Dawg Entertainment/Aftermath Records/ Interscope Records

Where Albarn dances through darkness, Lamar in Damn fights demons, specifically his own. The recurring theme of artists in the hip-hop genre in recent years is the attainment of success and then the purging and battling of the demons that come with that. Lamar addresses the most prevalent of these in the track “Fear,” in which he expresses how afraid of his success and losing all that it has brought: “My biggest fear is bein’ judged.” This struggle to be at the same time an idol for black communities and the entertainer that the world is clamoring for has forced a dichotomy onto Lamar that brings with it new challenges. In this album he is inviting us into that world and his mind in a deeper personal fashion than ever before, and it is dark.

Lamar expresses not only his own fears but the fear of an entire people, giving off a litany of all the things young black mothers and black communities are afraid of—how their children can be so quickly lost, especially the line, “I’m probably gonna die ’cause that’s what you do at seventeen.” As Anthony Fantano of the Needle Drop has stated, in this album Lamar is at his lowest; the slow tempo of his music serves to put you in a much more relaxed and empathetic state. By the time “God” comes up on the track list and he’s pleading “Don’t judge me . . .” while listing off all the faults of his life we see truly just how close he still is to the life he has come from and that the past has never left him. The dichotomy shows itself again halfway through the track when he begins talking about how the world can’t hold him back, that he himself is the enemy that he should be fighting, but that it took all this fear and fame for him to get there. That enlightenment comes through, and from the darkness before, and together here he meets Albarn.

Together, these two both exemplify the darkness that is coming through music and this world emotionally, and how to get through it, which is the real key to their success this time around.

My opinion on the tracks that help bring out the best of these albums are “Ascension,” “Saturnz Barz,” “Charger,” “Andromeda,” “She’s My Collar,” and “The Apprentice” from Humanz; and “DNA,” “YAH,” “LOYALTY,” “PRIDE,” “LOVE,” and “HUMBLE” from Damn.

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