Kendrick Lamar: DAMN.

Kendrick Lamar: DAMN.

The Best Rapper Alive Returns With a Patchy But Strong Fourth LP, Once Again Affirming His Legendary Status


Listening to DAMN. over the course of the Easter long weekend, I couldn’t help feeling similarly to how I did two years ago when To Pimp a Butterfly dropped. Though there’s very little in the music here like the exploratory jazz and funk leanings of that album (and it’s also about 25 minutes shorter than that release), DAMN. is full of the same dizzying wordplay, frantic flows, dense content and brutal contradictions as TPaB. All of which is to say I haven’t fully gotten my head around it yet.

With that in mind, here’s what I can say fairly definitively: DAMN. is not as good an album as To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s by no means bad, or even less than really fuckin’ good most of the time, but it doesn’t quite clear the bar set by Kendrick Lamar’s previous album, though it’s greatest strength may be in that it doesn’t ever really seem to be trying to do that. Whereas TPaB, even after only one or two listens, managed to cohere what could have been a sprawling mess of influences, far-flung notions and ideals into a potent, singular vision, DAMN. in direct contrast hones its focus to act as a more specific and much less bombastic release.

In broader hip hop terms, DAMN. is to TPaB what Yeezus was to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: the less ambitious, narrower follow up that tends to succeed a masterpiece, in which the artist is free to explore a few particular sounds and concepts without the incumbent pressure of having to live up to the hype of previous achievements. This is even reflected in DAMN.‘s barebones, stark album cover, compared to the heavy, provocative artwork for To Pimp a Butterfly. Indeed, if doubling down on TPaB‘s grandeur and pomp is the equivalent of flooring the accelerator, Lamar has instead elected to fang a handbrake turn, taking us off the scenic route into a lavishly detailed avenue (ok, that metaphor got a little messy, yeah, but talking about cars even a little makes me pretty nervous).

So look, when DAMN.’s good, it is properly enthralling stuff, most especially in regards to Lamar’s delivery and hungry approach to the material. First off, there’s the beast mode stomp and holler of tracks like “DNA.“, where K-Dot eviscerates anyone down-talking at his own or his community’s expense with a flow like a crazed gymnast, and the previously released “HUMBLE.“, using a dank beat and soldier’s stance to craft what might be the greatest boast track of the decade. Elsewhere, on “YAH.” and “GOD.“, Kendrick pushes his melodious capabilities further than ever before, deploying a lowkey sing-sing cadence for the former and whipping out a joyous “Aaaaa-haaaaa!” on the latter that (honest to God) made me wonder what a vocal jazz album from this dude would sound like (with a Young Thug duet, naturally).

Are there some kinda standard, less-inspired flows here and there? For once in Lamar’s case, yeah, but almost a decade into his tenure, it’s hard to expect him not to retread a little. “ELEMENT.” in particular – while a good track in its own right – has what you might call a “typical” Kendrick flow, even as it varies throughout or gets broken up a little in the third verse by those catchy “Yaaaaah” adlibs. What “ELEMENT.” does well though, and what only a handful of other musicians alongside Lamar are capable of doing (I’m thinking Beyoncé, Drake and even Taylor Swift on occasion) is introduce what’s sure to be a ubiquitous new phrase into the musical lexicon, with the hook’s assurance of all the tasks he’ll perform and be sure to “Make it look sexy.” Think back to “Boo boo!” from “Hood Politics” or “Ya bish” from “Money Trees“, to say nothing of “Surfbordt“, “Becky with the good hair” and “Running through the six with my WOES!” Yep, that’s basically what we have on our hands here.

On other tracks like “LOVE.” – which is, once again, still pretty strong – Lamar delivers his most earnest romantic pledge this side of “untitled 06 l 06.30.2014.“, marred only somewhat by a fairly toothless, whingey Weeknd-derivative hook by newcomer Zacari. Honestly, if you’re going for the sound of a lilting, adolescent whimper with just enough life in it to offset brain death, just go the fuck ahead and actually get The Weeknd in the studio, ’cause there’s no way this could have been any more stultifying with the dude himself actually laying down his signature vibe of “self-pityingly horny”.

As you might expect, much of the content on the album centres on fairly well-tread ground for Lamar, from the influence of one’s environment on their actions on “LUST.” to myriad biblical and other such religious references throughout. Perhaps the best lyrical excursions on display are the lengthy “FEAR.“, a powerful distillation of the way our insecurities warp and alter as we age, and “XXX.“, a truly excellent, startlingly honest look at morality and hypocrisy in modern day America. Incidentally, “XXX.” compounds its achievement for having the most inexplicably successful feature on the album, with U2’s Bono singing the intro, chorus and outro with a suitable weariness and forlorn apathy. Whoever bet Lamar he couldn’t pull that one off owes him double the wager that was staked on the collaboration.

As mentioned, none of these tracks indulge in the same spacefunk-addled whimsy of To Pimp a Butterfly, choosing instead to adopt a darker, more ominous sound leavened with some sparkly, upbeat tracks along the way. “DNA.” is buzz-your-colon heavy on the 808s, while “XXX.” veers from NWA scratches and ghetto blasts to a nimble bassline and gust of live percussion. “LOVE.” is a sparse synth scale and smattering of alternating drum beats, “GOD.” is a cushion of giggly trap and “LOYALTY.” – with its glitchy, funneled sample – had me checking the credits for Drake’s go-to producer, Noah “40” Shebib.

In the end, the album caps off with “DUCKWORTH.“, an origin story of when Anthony Tiffith, the head of Top Dawg Entertainment (Lamar’s label), first met Lamar’s father, Ducky, and almost killed him… were it not for the free chicken the dude gave him. True story. It’s a poignant note to end on, a long-overdue beginner’s tale from the world’s most prominent musical wordsmith who somehow, after all this time, hasn’t managed to even accidentally tell it before.

Ending on such a personal and formative anecdote, the sentiment Lamar leaves us with is one he’s been cultivating for all of DAMN., and maybe his whole career. Whether it’s admitting his new priorities as he gets older on “YAH.” (“My latest muse is my niece, she worth livin’; see me on the TV and scream: “That’s Uncle Kendrick!”) or the limits of his compassion and forgiveness on “XXX.” (“If somebody kill my son, that mean somebody gettin’ killed.”), the throughline is clear: God status or no, this is ultimately just the story of one man. Praise be to King Kunta.


DAMN. can be purchased on iTunes.

2 Replies to “Kendrick Lamar: DAMN.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *