Kendrick Lamar released his 3rd major label album, DAMN, after much hype and a week delayed release. Following a modern masterpiece like To Pimp A Butterfly (read our review) is never easy. However, expectations from his fans were extremely high and understandably so. DAMN could not be any more different as K. Dot, once again, decided to switch up his style. Instead of reprising the jazz/funk influenced instrumentals from TPAB and Untitled Unmastered, this time Kendrick’s sound is more jagged than it’s ever been which helps the album’s theme of conflicted duality. This is his darkest album lyrically to date. DAMN is anger, insecurity and anxiety in audio form.
The album opens up with his own murder as he’s trying to help a blind woman, this is layered over vocals of Geraldo Rivera’s criticizing his BET Award’s performance for Alright. This chaotic introduction gives way for the rambunctious DNA, one of the most aggressive cuts that Kendrick has ever recorded. His flow and wordplay are near flawless as he maneuvers through the two bass heavy beats back to back. ELEMENT has Kung Fu Kenny challenging his peers and forcing them to call him out by name: “Most of y’all throw rocks and try to hide your hand/ Just say his name and I promise that you’ll see Candyman.”
It’s not all high energy bangers and battle raps. Kendrick questions himself on FEEL, one of the album’s most emotionally powerful tracks. Even with a repetitive rhyme scheme that starts most of his bars with “I feel like…” , he delivers complete honesty and vulnerability through some of his least complex raps. This introspection is taken one step further on one of DAMN’s best compositions, FEAR. Throughout a beautifully arranged Alchemist opus that spans 7 minutes long, Kendrick displays his fears at certain ages: Fear of getting beat at home at age 7, fear of dying because of hood related issues at age 17 and finally fear of losing everything that he’s worked for at age 27. This is anxiety personified and one reason why Kendrick is one of the greatest artists of this generation. His ability to interpret his distressed feelings are truly second to none. These two tracks seem like therapy to a troubled mind.
Through out the album Kendrick attempts to make counter points and apply dichotomy in different ways such as LUST and LOVE. In LUST, Kendrick recreates a monotonous day in an individual’s idle life with excess at its source, may it be drugs, sloth or sex. This day is flipped to the perspective of a female without changing it’s meaning in the second verse. Meanwhile, LOVE is dedicated to his fiancé and their loyalty to one another. PRIDE is a laid back instrumental by The Internet’s Steve Lacy as Kendrick questions his desire to sacrifice his own pride in order to make the world better: “Now, in a perfect world, I probably won’t be insensitive/ Cold as December, but never remember what Winter did/ I wouldn’t blame you for mistakes I made or the bed I laid.” This is made in contrast to his lead single, HUMBLE, performed over a loud and in your face instrumental provided by Mike Will Made It. HUMBLE‘s lyrics are anything but, showing off some of Lamar’s most braggadocio raps in his catalog. Lamar’s duality is best shown on the U2 featured XXX. In this track, one of Kendrick’s friends calls him with news that his son was just murdered, to which Kendrick replies with anger and calls to violence right before speaking to kids about gun control. Once again this is contrasted in the second verse where he touches on America’s treatment of young black men “It’s nasty when you set us up/ Then roll the dice, then bet us up/ You overnight the big rifles, then tell Fox to be scared of us.”
The album closes out with DUCKWORTH, one of the most interesting tracks on DAMN. In it K. Dot tells the story of the unlikely meeting between his father and his label head, Anthony “Top Dawg” Liffith, back when Kendrick was still a child. DUCKWORTH serves as a reminder to Kendrick that every action has a chain reaction as he summarizes the story “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.”
The only negative aspect of this album is it’s disjointed production. Not bad by any means but more disorganized than his previous concept albums (but that helps its theme as well). Kendrick managed to do what other artists, including Kanye’s TLOP (read our review here), attempted to do in gathering chaotic elements but organized it more successfully than his predecessors. DAMN also seems to serve as a grand therapy session for him. Through out the album Kendrick questions his surroundings, friends, weaknesses, strengths, and spiritually. This is the work of a man who feels abandoned by his faith, a cornerstone of his music, yet he holds on to hope with comparisons between himself and the biblical character Job: “All this money, is God playin’ a joke on me?/ Is it for the moment, and will he see me as Job?/ Take it from me and leave me worse than I was before?”
As someone that has struggled with anxiety, Kendrick’s experiences and ability to interpret himself made this album all too relatable. It’s still hard to get through on a full listen. But even with this album having a personal impact on me, do I personally think this is Kendrick’s best album? Not by a long shot. But that says more about Kendrick’s discography than the quality of this album. It’s hard to top two incredible projects such as Good Kid M.A.A.D City and To Pimp A Butterfly so it was never expected for him to do so. Even with it’s flaws DAMN is another championship title in Kendrick Lamar’s trophy case. Another great addition to a man successfully claiming the title of this generation’s greatest rapper.