Kendrick Lamar, like many of us, remains weary of the world, suspicious of its false progression—and of his own. He feels incapable of trust: in the system, in friends and family, in himself, he tells us. And amid this uncertainty, he’s anxious about intimate relationships, too, searching for certainty somewhere. His versions of love songs on his albums tend to talk around the subject. But on “LOVE.,” one of the best songs on DAMN., he endearingly embraces simplicity. Feelings of dread make people lean on constants like love. People in love, in turn, push for an (often destructive) unconditionality that might make them feel secure, despite the reality that love is not guaranteed and, by design, a source of anxiety. This is the idea, I imagine, behind “LOVE.,” a song where Kendrick wonders if the thing will stick around.
On an album where Kendrick spends the majority of the time undressing his nerves, “LOVE.” seeks relief. The song is arguably his most commercial record, so thoughtfully sweet that I felt corny playing it on repeat in the dark, on the night DAMN. was released, and singing along to it accordingly: “Don’t got you, I got nothing,” which feels like the truest statement in the world now, when we seem to inch ever closer to becoming nothing. I’m aware this sounds mushy to say and even mushier to write. In a genre that’s evolved to value emotionally naked records in the mainstream—an assembly line of Drakes—the subtext is the assumption that there’s an audacity to men expressing emotion. The best rap songs about love still answer a basic question: How does this person make you feel? If the song works, then that sentiment magically transfers to the listener. The best of these records, while falling into that vulnerability, good or bad—LL Cool J’s “I Need Love,” Method Man’s “You’re All I Need”—favor a basic desire for affection rather than, in the long tradition of songs about ride-or-die women, simply show gratitude for a woman’s loyalty in spite of bullshit.
“LOVE.” bears the sound of a formula, but it’s still a very Kendrick song. Its tenderness is grounded by a little known artist named Zacari singing its Weeknd-like paranoid chorus (“Would you still love me...?” in succession), while Kendrick nervously poses questions to his “homie for a life”: “If I minimize my net worth, would you still love me?” He believes the answer to be yes all around, in line with the undercurrent of confidence throughout the album, yet he’s compelled to ask anyway, just to check in. Kendrick has been with his wife, Whitney Alford, since high school, long before he was widely recognized as the best living rapper. Two years ago, he told Billboard, “I wouldn’t even call her my girl. That’s my best friend. I don’t even like the term that society has put in the world as far as being a companion—she’s somebody I can tell my fears to.”
The way Kendrick raps about love, a concept few artists and even fewer regular people understand, has been largely through the concept of self-love or through the lens of paralyzing topics (“These Walls” on To Pimp a Butterfly doubles as an allegory about physical and symbolic walls in life). Within that, he’s prone to fumbling his complex expressions about black women as a whole, like his Photoshop dig on “HUMBLE.” Here, it’s refreshing to hear him slow down, say what he means, and leave the rest of his exceptional album to addressing concerns about the complicated world around him and his precarious place within it. There’s a risk in the simplicity of “LOVE.”—which comes in sequence after the impurity of “LUST.”—being read as a surrender to radio, but that isn’t the case in context, and the song is more representative of the album’s smooth contours than anything.
As a complement, there’s “LOYALTY.,” another standout where Rihanna and Kendrick rap back-to-back about relationships as a secret society. Again, reliability is their basic requirement. Kendrick is constantly perfecting the art of brevity. The hardest thing in the world is distilling your mental bustle into something succinct. The hardest thing about a relationship, many times, is simply saying what you mean: “Just love me, just love me, just love me.”