In one of my English classes in college we were discussing short fiction, and my professor framed the difference between two storytelling methods as such; one is like a box, and one is like a window.
A box-like story is contained, a world in itself that the audience can enter and see in its entirety. On the other hand, a window-like story is merely a glimpse into another world with lives and stories that exist outside the audience's view.
Kendrick Lamar's latest album DAMN. illustrates the tensions between these two narrative approaches, one contained and one uncontainable. Even the (strange, confrontational) album art illustrates this, the blocky, oversized text and Parental Advisory sticker pushing at the edges of the cover, drawing one's eye to what may exist outside the frame.
The album itself exists as a contained story. Kendrick, who emerged as a "best rapper alive" conversation with his day-in-the-life debut album good kid, m.A.A.d city, winds his narrative even tighter, restricting his album to exist in one moment. The moment in question is when a blind woman shoots Kendrick to death in the street, and this moment opens up the rest of the album into a world of introspection. What appears as a box, a contained narrative, instead reveals itself to simply be a window into Kendrick's interior world.
This interior world proves to be rich and vast, to somewhat biblical proportions. As evidenced by the blunt song titles ('LOVE.', 'LOYALTY.', etc.) the subject matter is ambitious, and Kendrick wades through it with the dexterity and confidence of someone who is better at his job than anyone in the world.
However, the response from listeners in days since the album was released has not been restricted to the typical Shock and Awe of new virtuosic Kendrick album . There was also rampant speculation of a second album on the way. Kendrick outfitted DAMN. with some lyrical trap doors that, when coupled with some vague tweets from TDE producer Sounwave, fueled speculation that Kendrick would drop a second album on Easter after DAMN.'s Good Friday release.
It's now past Easter and there is no second album, leaving one to feel that perhaps fans fell prey to a bit of the franchise syndrome that permeates superhero movies and the like. Often, the game of speculating on the next thing can overshadow the thing at hand. However, the critical praise of DAMN. and the fanboy theories of a DAMN. sequel work pretty damn (sorry) well together.
Even without the Easter album, the Easter eggs (sorry again) that fueled that theory remain. Primarily, they deal with resurrection or the destabilisation of the finality of death. For example, in 'ELEMENT.', probably my favourite song on the album, Kendrick both proclaims he's "willing to die for this shit," while also threatening to "fake my death, go to Cuba, that's the only option." The central point of the narrative, Kendrick's death at the beginning of the album, is thrown into question, as death is not necessarily definitive. The album's ending in reverse, sonically backpedalling to before that fateful moment, seems to confirm this.
And this idea, that a moment of death is not final or definitive, is not contained, rings true in life as well. 'Duckworth', the album's final song and its thesis, chronicles the lives of TDE leader "Top Dawg" Tiffith, and Kendrick's father "Ducky" up to when they meet. It itself is a contained narrative, following each man as they lead rich, complicated lives, ultimately meeting in a moment where, instead of killing Ducky and robbing his restaurant, Top Dawg takes a liking to him and lets him live. Top Dawg goes on to found TDE, Kendrick grows up with his dad, and as they say, the rest is history. Kendrick raps,
"Pay attention, that one decision changed both of they lives
One curse at a time
Reverse the manifest and good karma, and I'll tell you why
You take two strangers, and put 'em in random
Predicaments, give 'em a soul
So they can make their decisions and live with it"
So many small things had to go right to simply allow Kendrick Lamar to be Kendrick Lamar. Life, like death, is unstable, dynamic, and chaotic, each moment containing a spectrum of possibility, each life containing more life (hey Drake). Kendrick shows that these are how communities are built and enriched, contained individual lives colliding and growing into one another.
A story, or a life, is a contained narrative but also a window into all the narratives that could be, an existence hampered by race, poverty, and circumstance, but also rendered infinite by our capacity to choose, as well as sheer luck. DAMN. is a statement of condemnation, or resignation. But it is also an exclamation of wonder.