Kendrick Lamar- DAMN. Album Review
(By: Thomas Rodriguez)
Kendrick Lamar releases a tour de force on the flaws of man, government, and himself.
When your next project is a follow up to the album that many have lauded as the greatest hip hop album of the 2010’s, where the hell do you go? Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar seems to have given us an answer to this seemingly impossible question with his most recent album, DAMN. (released April 14, 2017). Already being heralded by many as the king of mainstream hip hop with his powerful lyricism, cinematic storytelling, great beat selections, and release of a few modern classics, Kendrick Lamar’s career has been one of consistent quality and excitement. After creating his first modern classic in 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, Lamar followed up with an equally stunning album in 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, all but confirming to the music world that, yes, K-Dot is one to watch. DAMN., in comparison to To Pimp a Butterfly, is an almost-complete reversal of Kendrick’s previous sounds. Instead of soft, jazzy, and funky sounds, we find Kendrick rapping over modernized methods of trap and pop production, along with some surprising uses of guitar. Although Lamar is rapping in a conceptual way, as he did in his previous studio albums, he is changing the formula here again. Instead of telling a story from one end of DAMN. to the other, as he has in the past, he instead uses this new album to talk about a few general, hard hitting themes through individual songs and their counterparts in the track list (“LUST.” followed by “LOVE.” for example). On DAMN., Lamar not only makes an album that flexes his true power over ever other MC, but analyzes the faults of the world we live in, its citizens, and Kendrick himself.
Before discussing the more basic parts of DAMN., it’s important to understand it’s various sound and themes. For every banger, you can have a lowkey or introspective moment; for every moment of braggadocio or hedonism, we can find a moment of wisdom, or insecurity. Although the sounds themselves are consistently more modern than previous Kendrick albums, the sounds still match the words he rhymes, and are usually pretty great. This is due in part to the producers that worked on this album, all of whom are today’s biggest hit makers in the mainstream and underground: Mike WiLL Made-It, Sounwave, James Blake, and The Alchemist (a list that would make any rap fan squeal with joy). Whether it be the absolutely breathtaking strings and guitars on “FEAR.”, or the hollow cacophony on “FEEL.”, almost each beat is another color with which Kendrick can paint his canvas (the instrumental on “GOD.”, as sacrilegious as it may sound, is the only true snoozefest on the record). And the painting on Lamar’s canvas is vivid. Kendrick covers various topics throughout this album, all relating to one common thing: damnation of everything. By comparing different subjects of the human element, namely the contradiction of humanity in its actions and beliefs, Kendrick shows that the flaws of humanity aren’t beyond his realm; he is human after all. By discussing his personal love, pride, laziness, cockiness, and fears, Kendrick reveals that not only is humanity screwing itself over, but he is screwing himself over. He’s not perfect, and according to his cousin Carl (whose philosophy is splashed throughout the album in a few key lines or voicemails) God is punishing humanity for not following him due to our personal wickedness or weakness. Will our faults harm us, or should we ignore Carl, accepting our human flaws? Kendrick doesn’t have the answers, but his lyrics in covering these subjects are consistently clever, catchy, and thought provoking. If damnation is as good as Lamar’s lyricism, then maybe it won’t be that bad after all!
DAMN. as a project, because of its dependence on its individual songs and styles, could definitely have fallen into its own damnation, as now the project needs to have standalone highlights to propel its quality forward. However, as stated before, Kendrick mostly succeeds in doing this. Granted, there are a few dull moments in the tracklist, such as the aforementioned “GOD.”, with its boring beat and flat out annoying “ahah” vocals, or the cut featuring Rihanna, “LOYALTY.”. However, even on “LOYALTY”, with its misplaced sample and mediocre performance by Lamar, listeners can still enjoy Rihanna’s outstanding rap performance (she not only bodies Kendrick here, but shows she can beat out any modern MC if she wanted to). Even the intro skit to the album, “BLOOD.”, which lacks any semblance of a song or beat, is still a moment I listen to every time I replay the album, as Kendrick’s monologue on his death is equally fascinating and borderline shocking. It just adds to the incredible mythos around the album. As the album loops all the way back to this skit after the standout closer ”DUCKWORTH.”, which tells of the circumstancial meeting between Lamar’s father and his future boss Top Dawg in Compton, we realize that after this moment of clarity, Kendrick is killed. And we’re drawn to the album all over again, like metal to a magnet.
As the individual highlights go, they arrive in spades, despite the rare low points. Lead single “HUMBLE.”, an absolutely monstrous brag anthem that simultaneously tells Kendrick’s competitors and his ego to be humble, is instantly catchy, well produced and just hilarious (the grey poupon line gets me every time). “DNA.”, the album’s true fiery opener, is an incredible three minute auditory experience; Kendrick raps about his pride in his heritage over a hard trap beat for the first half, and continues his amazing flow over a great Rick James sample in the second half. “FEAR”., a stunning seven minute opus on three stages of fear in Kendrick’s life (fear of his mother, then of death, and finally of losing all success), has sublime production and is equally eye opening to the concept of fear. Even on songs where Lamar plays around with pop beats, such as on the silky smooth “LOVE.”, he shows he can make a better love song than most modern rappers (Zacari’s hook on this cut is so sweet, it’s like auditory candy). However, while one may claim that the differing styles of lyrics, story, and instrumentals throughout the album make it less consistent, Kendrick has a song to summarize DAMN.’s mission statement. “XXX.”, simply put, is a masterpiece. Beginning with a skeletal trap beat and Lamar’s cutthroat flow about the rise of gang life, then hard transitioning into an incredible police siren beat as Kendrick raps about his will to kill others who hurt his family, to a dejected drum and bass beat backing up Kendrick’s depressed verse on the horrible state of America, “XXX.” showcases the conflict in Kendrick and the world around us. Even U2’s feature on the song, something that should not have worked in any rap song ever, works extremely well. Damn!
Although there are a few musical bumps in the road on the way to the end of the album, listeners should give Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. a listen. It’s my contender to win album of the year at the Grammy’s, and is definitely one of the most important albums of the newly passed 2017 year. Kendrick has succeeded again!
Tracks to Save: “DNA.”, “FEEL.”, HUMBLE.”, “LOVE.”, “XXX.”, “FEAR.”, “DUCKWORTH.”
Tracks to Skip: “LOYALTY.”, “GOD.”
Did you like this album? Any comments or criticism? Comment down below and let me know! I’d love to hear what you think!