Arts album review

DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar

Kung Fu Kenny’s latest project contains continued artistic prowess with added pop sensibilities

Kendrick Lamar
Top Dawg Entertainment
Released Apr. 14, 2017

When I’m asked about this album, my response is instinctive — it doesn’t feel Kendrickesque. Yes, this answer deserves the many eyerolls it has elicited, but it’s also a good conversation starter for those familiar with Kendrick Lamar’s artistry. After all, what does it mean to be “Kendrickesque?” In 2012, his major label debut Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was a potent narrative told through the eyes of a young man possessing good intentions and a bad blunt. The songwriting was honest, the production was phenomenal, and the story was as personal as it was critical of the sunny Compton afternoon in which Kendrick was hopelessly swimming. After penning music’s most haunting bildungsroman, Kendrick Lamar switched gears entirely with his release of To Pimp A Butterfly in 2015. Consisting of jazz, soul, and funk, this album meditated on black life in America, but its stunning emotion made it a universal anthem of empowerment and self-love for all. It was as impactful and brilliant as any album released this decade, and listening to it today continues to leave me in awe. Despite their thematic and musical differences, both of Kendrick Lamar’s major albums scream one commonality — they both have something to say.

DAMN. certainly has some of these moments. In the track “DNA.,” Kendrick’s lyrics are coupled with the heavy bass and rattling hi-hat that rage relentless against those who doubt him. The bars “I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA/I got hustle though, ambition, flow inside my DNA” showcase the pride and the acceptance that he has for himself and for those that grew up around him. This bravado builds intensity throughout the track until it climaxes for a Earth-shattering transition, where Kendrick speeds up his flow and unleashes all of the anger and emotion running through his veins, reminiscent of “The Blacker the Berry” on To Pimp A Butterfly. Kendrick is a very conscious rapper, but tracks in which Kendrick’s fervor is unbounded are his most inspired.

A similar track is “HUMBLE.,” which features a very simple bass line and a looping piano riff where Kendrick stands tall upon the hip-hop throne and commands those to “sit down/be humble.” The irony here is brilliant, and building a braggadocious, trap-influenced song into the album makes his insecure moments more tangible. Those moments show up in tracks like “FEEL.,” in which he raps, “I feel like I’m losin’ my focus/I feel like I’m losin’ my patience/I feel like my thoughts in the basement” over a calm, swirling beat. A lack of focus is dangerous in Kendrick’s world where temptations exist at every corner, as heard on the track “YAH.,” when he says, “I know he walks the Earth/But it’s money to get, bitches to hit, yah.” He is as quick to declare his vices as he is to declare himself a god-like figure. This juxtaposition between separate parts of his personality makes Kendrick feel realistic and his music relatable.

A few of the tracks on DAMN. emphasize pop balladry as opposed to a more conceptual nature. “LOYALTY.,” featuring Rihanna, is catchy with its use of G-funk synths and straightforward lyrics, but is also so cut and dry in its theme that it adds nearly nothing to the album. As the title implies, Kendrick and Rihanna emphasize the importance of staying loyal to loved ones, but there is no added depth to justify this hip-hop cliché. Simply repeating a character trait is surprisingly dumbed-down for a Kendrick Lamar song. The track “LUST.” falls into a similar trap, as Kendrick criticizes meaningless, dopamine-inducing activities over a cheap, lazy beat. Kendrick isn’t wrong in his analysis, but the track is such an easy, one-sided argument that he comes off as preachy. The track “LOVE.” sounds like a Jeremih song, and that is by no means a compliment. All of these songs are void of the storytelling that makes most of Kendrick’s music so phenomenal.

The expectations for Kendrick Lamar are as high as those for any artist today, and most of moments on this album show why Kendrick continues to be the best hip-hop artist of his generation. However, the inconsistencies in the songwriting along with weaker concepts prevent DAMN. from being the great album it was expected to be.