Album Review: Kendrick Lamar - DAMN. | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Album Review: Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

DAMN. is more evidence showing just why, Kendrick Lamar is the greatest rapper alive. Thom Dent explains

The main impression that the world got, when Kendrick told us on recent non-album single ‘The Heart part 4’ that we had ‘till April 7th to get our shit together,’ was where does he go from here? His last album, 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, was widely lauded as his magnum opus. Showered with praise from its first day of release, the record was a potent, superb essay on the modern African American experience – specifically, Lamar’s experience as a successful black artist; the guilt and responsibilities that come with such fame, with a conclusion of self-acceptance as moving as any great work of literature.

So when K-Dot announced a new record, the world was left on tenterhooks as we collectively wondered what on earth he could possibly be doing to try and top Butterfly. The expectancy laid on DAMN.’s shoulders was enormous, far greater than at any other point during Kendrick’s career – as arguably the most talented musician of his generation, would he be able to rise to the occasion?

reversed guitars slowly creep into the mix, developing the song into a uniquely gorgeous affair.
The album certainly starts on an intriguing note. ‘BLOOD’ opens proceedings with a parable about being shot by a blind old lady, the album starting with the question ‘is it wickedness or is it weakness?’ Lamar’s fictional death, occurring just ninety seconds into the record, only adds to the intro’s intrigue. He recovers well from his murder though on second track ‘DNA’, a brash, blistering slice of gangster rap. Trap hi-hats and booming sub-bass underpin the plethora of production trickery which embellishes Kendrick’s vocals, while a jungle-esque ‘gimme some ganja’ sample is cut creatively into the mix, somewhat at odds with Lamar’s claims to divine power and ‘royalty’. The next track tones down the bravado a fair few notches: instead, ‘YAH’ has K-Dot mumble moody Bible-indebted lyrics about Deuteronomy and Israelite identification, atop a chilled beat, warbling synths and reverb-soaked backing vocals. ‘Don’t call me black no more – that word is only a colour,’ Lamar sings, as reversed guitars slowly creep into the mix, developing the song into a uniquely gorgeous affair.

Naturally, this being Kendrick Lamar, a lot of DAMN. takes a dark tone. On ‘ELEMENT’ a horror-film piano chord is looped incessantly on top of slow, polyrhythmic beats as Lamar muses on jealousy and perceptions of the celebrity; the bizarre bossanova-led track ‘FEEL’ meanwhile conjures the image of immorality and Christian isolation amidst sombre vocoders and lonely synths. The worries culminate later in the record with the aptly-named ‘FEAR’, Kendrick exploring the fears of a young victim of child abuse, a teenage gangbanger afraid of dying young and ‘anonymous’, and a 27 year old rapper fearful of responsibility and being judged for their fame – the same age and emotions that To Pimp a Butterfly dealt with. Heavy stuff.

Thankfully, DAMN. also has a definite sense of fun. For ‘LOYALTY’ Rihanna makes an appearance, probably a purposefully ironic title and collaboration considering Lamar’s current beef with Drake, and her history with the Canadian. On paper, Rihanna seemed a slightly odd choice of collaborator, considering To Pimp a Butterfly went for slightly more ‘patrician’ choices in Thundercat and Bilal etc., but she does a good job here of carrying the chorus, duetting with Kendrick and even spitting a few bars. Later, ‘LOVE’ takes the Drake digs further with a beat that could have been taken straight from ‘Hotline Bling’ – it’s debatable as well which track is a better pop number. Here the sweet androgynous vocals of Zacari meld well with tuneful bars from Kendrick, the result endlessly catchy and, for maybe the first time in K-Dot’s career, genuinely romantic. Lovely stuff.

Not even Bono is allowed to ruin this record. On ‘XXX’, an equally controversial-on-paper collaboration between Kendrick and U2, Lamar gets properly political and nihilistic. Atop a submarine beat Kendrick preaches bassy verses about kids not wanting to go to school because ‘books ain’t cool’, police sirens arriving with looming synths and huge, crisp drums as the song picks up pace. The first two and a half minutes are classic Kendrick, and you’re left wondering what hand U2 actually had in this song. When the Irishmen do finally appear however it’s in a half-time balletic outro, which actually sounds a lot better than you’d expect. Thankfully, Bono isn’t allowed to permeate the track too much. ‘Is America honest or do we bask in sin?’ asks Kendrick as he laments Obama’s legacy and the ascension of right-wing white-centric politics in the US.

Every song on the record seemingly has an opposite twin: ‘BLOOD’ and ‘DNA’; ‘LUST’ and ‘LOVE’ etcetera
‘HUMBLE’ naturally stands out, and is just as great on the record as it was on its own when Lamar released it at the end of last month. Does reappraising it in the context of DAMN. redefine it at all, a la To Pimp a Butterfly’s lead single ‘i’? Not particularly – the beat is just as instantaneous, the eclectic verses are just as amusing… if anything, all that’s changed is that the ‘sit down, be humble’ chorus is more obviously directed at Drake. The bravado also does seem a little more hollow in comparison to other, more introspective songs on the album, in particular ‘PRIDE’, a fact obvious just by comparing the songs’ respective titles. Every song on the record seemingly has an opposite twin: ‘BLOOD’ and ‘DNA’; ‘LUST’ and ‘LOVE’ etcetera, a feature which I’m sure music critics worldwide will have great fun discussing to death for the next few weeks.

This dichotomy climaxes at the end of the album, with K-Dot’s pomp and bravado coming to a frankly ridiculous head on the track ‘GOD’ – a self-explanatory title, really. Musically this song is so heavily synth-oriented that it sounds in parts like one of Kevin Parker’s wet dreams. The flip side is ‘DUCKWORTH’, where a vintage ballad opens the track before being interrupted off-kilter by Kendrick and a hip hop drumbeat. Semi-autobiographical, ‘DUCKWORTH’ talks about an altercation between Lamar’s father and a young Anthony Tiffith (head of Kendrick’s label Top Dawg Entertainment), K-Dog musing on the potential consequences of that argument and concluding that he owes both his career and his life to it. ‘If Anthony killed Ducky,’ Kendrick claims, ‘Top Dawg could be doing life, while I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight.’ Cue gunshot, and the single coolest piece of production you’re gonna hear this year as the album folds back on itself. 

Lyrically, DAMN. is full of moments that will make you say its title out loud.

Lyrically, DAMN. is full of moments that will make you say its title out loud. Death and religion loom over the whole record, making it (typically for Kendrick) a pretty intense listen. Fortunately it’s handled so deftly by Lamar and his production team that, rather than becoming an impenetrable mess, the result is a very accessible and immensely entertaining album. It’s probably unfair to ask if this record is on par with To Pimp a Butterfly, as neither seem to be a complete work of art. In that case, DAMN., rather than a separate narrative, is just another brilliant chapter in the ongoing story of the greatest rapper alive.

DAMN. is out now via Top Dawg Entertainment.

I like music and writing. You can see why I'm here. (@thomdent)


15th April 2017 at 10:00 am

Last Updated

8th December 2017 at 12:17 pm

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