Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar, a mere two years after the release of one of the most critically acclaimed albums of all time in To Pimp A Butterfly, releases yet another dense and conceptual collections of songs backed up by his outstanding technical skills and lyricism. DAMN. is Lamar at his most straightforward yet, abandoning the poetic and flowery verses set to freeform jazz for a more blunt and aggressive delivery set to radio-friendly trap beats. If anything, this angrier side of Lamar only conveys his messages to the listener better, even if some of the complex musical aspects which made Butterfly so great are sacrificed in the process.
Still, Lamar attempts to tackle some huge themes, reflected in the titles of these songs, and the creativity, artistry and musicality he reliably brings to the table at all times continue his hot streak. It looks like the general public has begun to catch on, if the projected first-week sales and streaming numbers are any indication. For such a short period in time between albums, it’s hard to believe just how good DAMN. is.
Lamar employs all of his collaborators perfectly, recruiting some obvious choices for the direction he chose, as well as some unexpected collaborators who fit in just as well. Outside of TDE in-house producer Sounwave’s contributions to many tracks, trap producer Mike Will Made-It contributes the three most energetic beats on the album in “DNA.”, “HUMBLE.”, and “XXX.”, while DJ Dahi, usually responsible for such beats, appears on four tracks as well.
Veteran experimental producers The Alchemist and 9th Wonder lend some old-school beats for Lamar to flex his storytelling muscles on, as he explains the concept of the album in its closing moments, while 2017 Grammy Producer of the Year Greg Kurstin (Taylor Swift, Adele), helps him cross over to the pop world on “LOVE.”. On the mic, Lamar and Rihanna trade bars effortlessly, TDE artist Zacari provides a thematically blissful chorus, and Bono’s eerie vocals complement the world Lamar paints on “XXX.”.
One of the best things about Lamar’s albums are his running themes, and the biggest one here seems to be dealing with the shock of his rapid critical and commercial success after Butterfly. He comments on people revering him as a sort of saviour or prophet figure, but repeats “nobody praying for me” on a few tracks, and states he was afraid of losing it all. As he examines these themes, pairs of songs serve in stark contrast to each other – “LOVE.” vs. “LUST.”, “PRIDE.” vs. “HUMBLE.” and so forth.
If anyone can tackle these broad concepts in a single song, it is Lamar, and his lyricism is once again top notch here. One of his greatest new tools is the emphasis of a message through repetition, used previously on one of his greatest verses ever – Butterfly track “Momma”s second. “FEAR.” uses this best, as he pens three dense verses outlining his greatest fears at ages 7, 17 and 27, repeating the same words at the beginning of every line – his mother’s “I beat yo ass” at 7, and being convinced “I’ll probably die” in numerous ways at 17, before explaining the theme of the album in the third verse with his feelings after Butterfly‘s success. The insane true story he tells on closing track “DUCKWORTH.”, of how his father was nearly killed by eventual label boss Anthony Tiffith, is captivating as well.
Lamar’s poppier tracks are a nice deviation from his past, making catchy melodies more endlessly replayable than say, a monster like “How Much A Dollar Cost”. “LOYALTY.” and “LOVE.” may not be the best tracks on the album, but I’ve certainly played them more than any other. “DNA.”, on the other hand, might be Lamar’s best track ever, as he sounds more urgent than ever before on his most energetic beat of all time. I couldn’t comprehend what I was hearing the first time the thunderous bass hit as the track switches into its second half and Lamar’s performance kicks into another gear.
Some aspects of these instrumentals are so beautiful that they deserve mention as well, such as the woozy and intoxicating chord progressions of “PRIDE.”, complete with a falsetto chorus that complements it perfectly, and the creeping guitar melody that introduces Lamar’s unnerving chorus and thematically appropriate dead-eyed verses on “LUST.”.
A few of these songs do fall a bit short musically with the shift closer to radio-friendly territory, but the reasons for the sound are all understandable within the full narrative context of the album. After a track like “DNA.”, “YAH”‘s failure to assert itself at the forefront of the listener’s consciousness feels a little underwhelming, while “GOD.” is the least developed of the pop tracks despite its instantly quotable hook.
As the album ends with the same gunshot that scared me half to death on opener “BLOOD.”, the album rewinds, and Lamar repeats the album’s first line, I realized that Lamar had released a cohesive and conceptual masterpiece once again. This stretch of three studio albums is the best hip-hop trilogy since Kanye’s first three, and Lamar has firmly established himself as a leading visionary artist and a voice of his generation. Believe the hype, DAMN. is damn good.
Favourite Tracks: DNA., PRIDE., FEAR., LUST., LOVE.
Least Favourite Track: YAH.