The time has finally come. I am reviewing a Kendrick Lamar release. How did we get here?
Well, I guess the easiest answer is to start in 2011 with Section.80, the Compton rapper’s debut studio album which, while it hasn’t gone down as a classic, got good reviews at the time, and there’s something to say about Section.80 as a debut. While it is not classic and probably doesn’t deserve to be considered as such, it’s an album that showcases the talent of its young artist. Despite it being sloppy on execution and feeling a little jumpy because it’s an album that’s less than an hour long but has 16 tracks, it at least showed the potential that Kendrick had, and luckily, it did not take very long for that potential to materialize in the form of two well-loved albums, 2012’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d City and 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, the latter of which is one of my favorite albums of all time.
Another thing we should’ve gotten from Section.80 is that Kendrick is particularly good at commentary or at least speaking about things that seem very important to him, and then consequently become important to the listener. While the album shouldn’t be hailed as a modern classic, there are songs on here that should get more attention than they do, like “Hol’ Up,” “Ronald Reagan Era” and “Rigamortus.”
Good Kid, m.A.A.d City was most people’s introduction to Kendrick Lamar as it peaked at number 2 on the Billboard Hot 200 and spawned his first top 20 hit, “Swimming Pools (Drank).” The intense, gritty look at life struck a chord with many listeners (including me) and gave Kendrick the push to the mainstream he needed to totally breakthrough. But even more than that, it showed that Kendrick has the exciting quality and talent to put himself among the great modern rappers. The last half of this album, particularly the epic “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst” show not only Kendrick’s ability, but his drive to go one step beyond for his art. However, while it did not include a hit as big as “Swimming Pools (Drank),” I think many would agree that Kendrick’s artistic peak to this point has been his third album, the impeccable To Pimp a Butterfly.
It’s hard to strip back the years of praise and acclaim and judge To Pimp a Butterfly independently from all of that, but if you think back and remember the first time you heard “The Blacker the Berry” or “How Much A Dollar Cost” or “Alright,” you’ll remember that this album, both as a whole and in parts, is one of the quintessential great modern-era rap albums. Kendrick’s raw talent balanced with his poignant societal observations and consistently incredible production made To Pimp a Butterfly an absolute monster of an album, and people took notice. And if you thought “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst” was epic, you should hear “Mortal Man.” To Pimp a Butterfly hit number one, received unreal amounts of acclaim and elevated Kendrick to the top tier of artists in today’s rap scene. So, needless to say, his follow-up has been highly anticipated, and everyone has been clamoring to see how Kendrick could possibly answer to the post-TPAB buzz.
Okay, we sort of got a follow-up with untitled unmastered. but only in the sense that it was the next release from him. It wasn’t a full album, really more of an EP or compilation album, but it was also just demos that didn’t make To Pimp a Butterfly. Thus, it wasn’t really meant to be a follow-up to his last album because the songs were actually recorded during the making of that record. Nonetheless, it’s pretty alright. It’s not To Pimp a Butterfly, but it’s a Kendrick project after all, and in the end, we’ll take what we can get.
But even more than that, in April 2017 we could use a new Kendrick album because there’s been a surprisingly small amount of exciting rap albums during the first third of this year. I mean, you have Culture by Migos, I Decided. by Big Sean (review here) and those two Future releases, but other than that mainstream rap has basically just consisted of an underwhelming Lupe Fiasco album and a completely unnecessary Fat Joe and Remy Ma reunion.
But finally, Kendrick is back with a new album entitled DAMN.. And what do I think of it? Well…
DAMN. is drastically different than anything I’ve heard before, including anything from Kendrick. It is especially different from To Pimp a Butterfly, which is a hip hop album, but inspired by many different albums. DAMN., however, is more of a straight hip hop album than To Pimp a Butterfly. Really this is something we should’ve seen coming, especially considering the lead-off single, “HUMBLE..” “HUMBLE.” is phenomenal and made me even more excited for this album, but I was interested in its direction. And the album itself proves it — this is a hip hop album through and throughout.
I’ll tell you, the thing I was most worried about going into this was the production. There are three Mike Will Made It-produced tracks: “DNA.,” “HUMBLE.,” and “XXX..” As someone who has absolutely never been a fan of Mike Will’s work, this made me cautious for this album, especially because such a big part of all of Kendrick’s albums have been their production. But to my relief, this whole album is expertly produced, including the Mike Will tracks; in fact, “DNA.” is easily one of my favorites here, although only part of that is due to the production.
The entire album is produced by many different people, 18 by my count. That can be a little bit of a bad sign too, although all of Kendrick’s albums are like that. Sometimes it can cause the album to lack cohesion and not work as a piece altogether. That does not happen here. Every track meshes with the ones around it. This album really sounds like a fine-tuned machine. Sharp snares and prominent percussion push this album, but that’s to be expected from Kendrick, and it works fabulously well. There’s a lot of atmosphere to this album, I particularly like the intro to “LUST.” which kind of works as a cool-off after “HUMBLE.,” and it works really well. The whole album hits hard. No complaints.
On this album there are three listed features. The first is Rihanna on the song “LOYALTY..” I will say that this song is not Rihanna’s best work, but “Kiss It Better” is my favorite song of last year, so don’t take that to mean too much. Rihanna knocks it out of the park on “LOYALTY..” It takes someone really into it to match Kendrick’s passion, but Rihanna does it. Her verse is great; her contributions to the chorus are perfect. She’s exactly what the song needed. The second feature is Zacari on “LOVE..” Zacari is more unknown, he is a soul singer/songwriter from California. As someone who was not familiar with Zacari before listening to DAMN., I was very impressed with what I heard. He sounds nice and smooth on “LOVE.,” and the way he and Kendrick play off each other during the hook is an interesting concept. The third is the big one; U2 appears on “XXX..” Bono sings the refrain towards the second half of the song and does a great job. He matches Kendrick’s emotion and adds the emotion to the hook that it needed.
But now it comes down to what really matters about a Kendrick album: Kendrick himself. How is he? Do his bars compare to To Pimp a Butterfly and Good Kid, m.A.A.d City? Is his flow as good as usual?
It should come as a shock to literally nobody that Kendrick confirmed that he is the best alive with DAMN.. There’s a lot of fire moments on this record, for instance, on “DNA.,” “ELEMENT.” and “HUMBLE..” When he needs to calm it down, he excels at that too, like on “PRIDE.,” “YAH.” and “LUST..” His flow is obviously unmatched, and considering a lot of the album is about Kendrick’s status as rap royalty, he needed to show that he is exactly what he says: the best in the game. Yes, I know he says he stays modest, but literally a minute earlier he says “If I quit this season, I still be the greatest” so.
What he’s saying is changing from To Pimp a Butterfly. In fact, a lot of the songs on DAMN. are in response to criticism he received for his last release, specifically by right-wind news outlet Fox News. There’s even a sound-byte of Geraldo Rivera used on “DNA.,” where Kendrick response to accusations that hip hop is more damaging to young African Americans than racism is. “DNA.,” as well as “ELEMENT.,” “HUMBLE.” and a lot of others on the album also talk about Kendrick’s status and place in hip hop, and “FEEL.” touches upon that while he is at his professional peak, that is no compensation for his emotional state. The line between financial and emotional success is often pointed out, but it’s really well-suited for a Kendrick album, and “FEEL.” hits hard because of it. But much like To Pimp a Butterfly and most of Kendrick’s work, there are a lot of references to social issues in America.
After the 2016 Presidential Election, America officially entered the Donald Trump era of its existence, and boy, does Kendrick have some things to say about this. The first explicit reference to Trump happens on “LUST.” when he says, “Tryna tune to the daily news, looking for confirmation, hoping the election wasn’t true.” He goes on to describe the nervousness that has plagued not only him but his community because of these events. The second half of “XXX.” is an even more straight-forward response to the election of Donald Trump. It attempts to create a stark contrast between Obama’s America and Trump’s America, and I think it does a sufficient job. Shockingly enough, Kendrick’s response to Trump wasn’t the most hard-hitting response to Trump I’ve seen in rap music since he announced his candidacy in 2015, but I do appreciate everything here, and “XXX.” has great lyrical moments.
But even besides the specifics, this album is very focused on race and racial issues in America. It, like the Kendrick albums that came before it, speaks on the different ways society has affected the African American community in ways it hasn’t affected the white community. The specific messages change from song to song and are different from those presented on To Pimp a Butterfly, and the presentation slightly changes, but the message remains the same. And many of the comments he has on race are as poignant as To Pimp a Butterfly‘s were in 2015. The outro to “FEAR.,” although it starts a little too goofy in my opinion, finishes in a very poignant and thought-provoking way. And like “FEAR.,” there are tons of lyrical moments on this album that just make you think a little bit.
One of my favorites comes from “BLOOD.,” the album’s opener. It tells a story about a blind woman who suddenly turns from weak to wicked, and I cannot be the only one who looks at it as a metaphor for police brutality in the African American community. The album is pretty much book-ended by very interesting political statements, as the album’s closer, “DUCKWORTH.,” which tells the story of Top Dawg, the man who signed him to his record label, and his father, who had a violent interaction before Top Dawg signed Kendrick. But then something really interesting happens:
It plays a bunch of audio that sounds like the album in reverse. Then, the first line of the album is replayed. This idea illustrates the repetitive nature of the things Kendrick sings about, and how the way Kendrick sees it, none of these problems really have definitive ends.
But another topic Kendrick deals a lot with on this album is religion. This is not the first time a rapper has dealt with religion this year, and while Big Sean dealt with it with more grace and nuance than I ever expected him to, it should be no shock to anyone that Kendrick probably tops him when it comes to thought-provoking discussion of a complicated issue. “PRIDE.” is a great example of the religious themes that appear throughout DAMN.. On “PRIDE.,” Kendrick speaks on pride as a deadly sin, and what pride really means in relation to the concept of a God. The chorus even makes explicit reference to the concept of rebirth. Although the concept of religion comes up throughout the album, the other obvious song to mention here would be “GOD.,” for sure. “GOD.” is similar to “PRIDE.” in that it speaks on Kendrick feeling too much like God. He says on “PRIDE.” that pride is considered a sin because a human with pride can replace the concept of a God. “GOD.” further develops this theme by saying that when he is doing well for himself, he feels like God does, but from “PRIDE.” we know that is not a 100% positive feeling from what Kendrick has been taught.
DAMN. is a complicated record (that I probably did not do justice to), but a DAMN. good one. My issues are minuscule; there are minor things on some songs I had issues with, and I would’ve ordered it a bit differently. To Pimp a Butterfly built up to its huge, intense climax, which is “The Blacker The Berry,” the 13th track. The big climax of DAMN. feels like “DNA.,” which is only the 2nd track. That’s only a minor detail, and I must reiterate that DAMN. is just a great experience all around, from the production to the lyrics to Kendrick’s great flow.
BEST SONGS: “DNA.,” “DUCKWORTH.,” “XXX.,” “HUMBLE.,” “LUST.”
WORST SONGS: “YAH.”