I don’t really know how to approach this review, as DAMN., the latest album from Kendrick Lamar, is one of his most perplexing to date, which was a bit of a surprise for me in all honesty.
When the album’s first single, “HUMBLE.”, came out at the end of March, I was underwhelmed at first. The song, produced by hip-hop mega producer Mike WiLL Made-It, was extremely minimal. The song is only really made up of Kendrick’s raps, some unusual piano chords, snares and hi-hats, and some subtle blaring synth flourishes throughout.
After some of the dense arrangements on his last album, To Pimp A Butterfly, it was weird to see Kendrick make a solo song so blatantly commercial. But after a few listens, I grew to love it. It’s essentially Kendrick Lamar making a modern 2Pac song, with some hard-hitting bars, instant quotables, and an absolutely killer hook. And as a bonus, it has one of the best music videos this year.
So going into DAMN., I was expecting the album to be a much less conceptual affair than his last two albums. Of course I expected wrong and this album is his hardest to unravel yet, but we’ll get to the narrative a little later on as I want to talk about the music.
Now, this album does feature some of his most mainstream-focused work yet, as songs like “LOYALTY.” feat. Rihanna and “LOVE.” ft. Zacari were practically tailor-made for the radio. But surprisingly, these songs work incredibly well within the context of the album, as both tie into some of its most major themes.
DAMN. on the surface seems like a Kendrick Lamar album with lower stakes than his previous work. He isn’t detailing the story of how and where he grew up or paying tribute to all of black music and trying to uplift black artistry in general.
Kendrick has always talked about his mental health and some of the turmoil he’s gone through in dealing with fame and how it relates to his initial surroundings, but on DAMN. things feel different now.
He isn’t trying as hard as to uplift like he used to. Not to say that there aren’t inspiring moments on the album, but DAMN. sees a much more introspective Kendrick, almost selfish at times.
Before a chopped and screwed outro, the song “ELEMENT.” ends with the lines “Last LP I tried to lift the black artists / But it’s a difference between black artists and wack artists”, which doubles as a diss to his competition but also one that showcases his sour mood on the album.
The most blatant example of this is on the next track, “FEEL.”, in which Kendrick lays out the most negative aspects of his fame and the paranoia and even suicidal thoughts that come with it.
While the album does see Kendrick on fairly bitter streak, that isn’t to say the album is depressing the whole way through. In fact, there’s still moments of hope and most definitely hype.
Take the album’s second track, “DNA.”, which essentially kicks off the album (since “BLOOD.” isn’t necessarily a song and more of a skit) with a massive bang. This is one of three tracks produced by Mike WiLL Made-It and it’s possibly his best production work yet.
Kendrick is absolutely going in for the entirety of the song, bouncing off of Mike Will’s grimy production and calling out his enemies, establishing his dominance in and outside of the rap game, and dissing Fox News to boot.
And I say this is the best thing Mike Will has made yet because of the absolutely insane beat switch that comes after a sample of Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera saying that “hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years” in relation to Kendrick’s performance of “Alright” at the 2015 BET Awards.
There’s such vile to Kendrick’s performance that perfectly bounces off the filthy drums and a live Rick James sample that is probably my favorite musical moment of this year thus far. Just absolutely insanity.
Getting back into the album’s narrative, there really isn’t one compared to his last two albums but there’s a lot of recurring elements. The most notable two are the repeated mentions of his new moniker, Kung Fu Kenny and the various appearances of Kid Capri acting as the album’s DJ.
I personally still have some questions behind these elements, especially the appearances of Kid Capri. As far as I can tell, it seems to be a parody/send-up to the mixtapes Kendrick grew up on, but also his appearances seem purposefully out of place and morbid at times. He fits on the album, but there’s still a lot of mystery to me on why he’s here.
One of the album’s best tracks is the outro, “DUCKWORTH.”, which wraps up the narrative presented at the beginning of the album on “BLOOD.”, in which Kendrick attempts to help a blind woman but is shot by her in the process.
Despite the song being named after Kendrick’s legal surname, the track mostly tells the story of Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, the founder of Top Dawg Entertainment, the first label Kendrick signed to when he was only 15 and is still signed to today.
The track takes a turn through as the song then focuses on Kendrick’s father, Ducky, who works at the KFC drive-thru and has hopes that his son (Kendrick) will make it to college, working hard to give him a life that he wasn’t able to get for himself. He gets on the good side of Anthony while working there, as Anthony has robbed the store in the past.
This decision ends up not only saving Ducky’s life, but also Anthony and Kendrick’s as the final lines say “Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence? / Because if Anthony killed Ducky / Top Dawg could be servin’ life / While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight”
Before Kendrick can finish rapping the final word, a gunshot interrupts him, triggering the album to play in reverse before ending on the beginning of Kendrick’s story about the blind woman on “BLOOD.” Just incredible.
DAMN. is another amazing release from Kendrick that fully cements himself into the rap legend books. There is absolutely no one today in hip-hop, let alone music itself that is doing the things that Kendrick is doing. His music is thoughtful, bleak, inspiring, and ground-breaking all at once. He is the voice of our generation and I hope he still has much more to say after this.