At this point in contemporary music culture, it’s no radical idea that Kendrick Lamar is considered by most to be the best rapper alive. Numerous articles, video essays, and even prominent artists have revered the man in almost every way imaginable, almost to the point of cliché.
Regardless of whether or not Lamar has become a cliché, it is futile to try and discount his work for being anything less than outstanding. His course from Section.80 all the way to To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB) has been a rapid ascension of his talent and writing that every artist in the world should aspire to mimic in their rate of progression.
The problem with releasing such a monumental hip-hop album such as TPAB arises when you sit down and think about the sheer amount of effort it must take to best a work that already appears to be near perfect. Obviously, an artist wants to say that a new record will be better than the last but anyone and everyone know that eventually, creativity begins to wane at some point or another.
In early hindsight, DAMN was an essential album to release at this point in Lamar’s career. Going back to the claims made at the beginning of the article, Lamar had already established himself as the greatest rapper alive at the peak of his last record’s limelight. That being said, his last album was also VERY narrative heavy and required a small amount of patience to get through the interlude and spoken word moments before one could enjoy the music. To casual music listeners, this could be considered off-putting and provides unjust fruit for potential arguments such as, “Drake had a catchier hook” or “That BIG SEAN track went way harder than ‘How Much a Dollar Cost'”.
These are obviously outrageous hyperboles and comparisons but everyone knows ‘that guy’ who would fill this stereotype and the massive numbers of people out there that continue to follow this illogic. DAMN is Lamar’s answer to the pop calling that the masses have been coaxing him towards.
Yes, DAMN is Lamar’s pop album without any doubt. It’s been a strong thought in my mind ever since I heard ‘HUMBLE’ and the appeal that it had among hardcore and casual listeners of his music. Unlike previous records, Lamar leans light on the inclusion of a narrative between songs and focuses more on blending a story into the music itself.
‘BLOOD’ starts the album with a Western-inspired instrumental, creating a sense of calm unruliness as Lamar narrates a seemingly nonchalant encounter with a disoriented woman. As he helps the woman, he finds that this situation is actually a trap and he is immediately gunned down without warning. Many speculate what exactly this woman represents but for the sake of the narrative, being gunned down is Kendrick’s alternate fate had he not have entered the rap game through his connection with Anthony ‘Top Dawg” Tiffith. The track also poses the premise of the whole album through the single-word song titles that are either the spawn of wicked or weak nature.
This album design fits in with the nature of other conceptual ideas in Kendrick’s past but feels like the most fragmented address he has ever made. On the surface, it’s intuitive that Lamar uses this method to add variety between his heavy; gritty deep cuts and some of his softer more melodic centered pieces but deep down, I feel like this could be an excuse to insert more pop elements throughout; some of which work flawlessly and some that stick out like a sore thumb.
‘LOYALTY’ and ‘LOVE’ are two culprits for this example. Both songs include a highly interesting fusion of top 40s pop elements twisted with Lamar’s conscious lyrics for a medley that has not been seen on any of his solo releases yet. These tracks add a great amount of reach potential for Lamar’s growing audience but fall flat compared to a majority of the better tracks featured here. Rihanna’s feature track starts out with a neat mashup of Lamar’s niche ‘reverse’ effect but her singing portion doesn’t amount to anything remotely outside of her typical role on songs like this. Zacari was a fantastic choice for the type of song ‘LOVE’ aspires to be. My issue with this track lies primarily within the placement and substance of the song. It feels forced when put between the two exceptional songs ‘LUST’ and ‘XXX’ and lyrically could be Lamar’s most surface level release to date. I understand that the appeal here is to be a catchy pop tune but something feels very off about this song in retrospect to the rest of the album.
Ignoring the two or three outlying songs on this album, the rest of the release is nothing but pure goodness. ‘PRIDE’ is a total dreampop/ hip-hop crossover that is full of lyrical gold, “I can’t fake humble just because you’re insecure” being only the tip of the iceberg.
‘LUST’ takes the cake for having one of the sickest beat drops on the album, as well as clever lyrics painting the metaphor for Lamar’s ‘thirst’ ex. “I need some water”. The song also diverges into a Euro grime section once or twice, even furthering the genre range of this album. It’s almost as if Lamar wrote each track on this piece to appeal to a variety of bodies, furthering the number of people that can possibly appreciate at least one or two songs provided here.
The production on DAMN is up to par with previous releases. The sample dropping in ‘DNA’ on the second verse pairs nicely with the aggressive flow happening in the vocals, along with a dirty bassline that must be enjoyed on a quality home speaker system to understand its true glory. One of my few complaints lies within the song ‘XXX’, the U2 featurette where Bono’s grunting vocals can be heard around two minutes into the track. To me, this feels like one of those moments that was meant to sound really cool but truly comes off as corny and pseudo-edgy. Having said that, this isn’t a terrible issue but only distracts from an otherwise decent song.
It would be an understatement to say that there is a lot happening on DAMN. Kendrick takes the theme of weakness or wickedness down many different paths, each with their own ideological message that can be taken or left, but at least respected nonetheless. He does all of this while creating some of the deepest accessible music that can be found on the top charts and does it all with the same grace his fans have come to know and love. For me personally, I view this album as Lamar’s answer to stubborn listeners that weren’t sold on the lyricism and musicality behind TPAB or those that still think Drake is still the best rapper. Lamar has offered a variety of different sounds for fans to pick and choose what they love or hate, which explains why everyone seems to have very differing opinions about which tracks are hot or not. I believe DAMN is a good album and could arguably be Lamar’s most important album from a business viewpoint but it most certainly is not his best. I can understand those that think this album is flawless but specific areas listed above keep me from being completely sold. My honest opinion of this album is a 7.5/10.