Kendrick Lamar’s first three albums mark one of the strongest winning streaks in hip hop this century, perhaps even in the genre’s entire history. The debut LP from the MC, 2011’s Section.80, although displaying a young rapper still finding his voice, was a fantastically strong first effort, on which Lamar planted the seeds for what would grow into his own innovative and definitive brand of conscious jazz rap on his sophomore record, good kid, m.A.A.d city, released the following year. With the rapper’s hometown of Compton, California acting as the bedrock on which this album’s lyrical themes were constructed, Lamar exhibited an almost unparalleled illustrative ability with regards to the intricacy and eloquence with which he explored the record’s narrative, proving himself to have a keen eye for the finest of descriptive details. If Section.80 was the seed and good kid, m.A.A.d city was the flower, Lamar’s previous album, To Pimp A Butterfly, was the fruit of his labours. The phrase ‘instant classic’ is thrown around far too much and is clearly oxymoronic in nature, but few albums have defied the logical discrepancy of this remark like To Pimp A Butterfly, as now, only two years after its release, it is already regarded not just as one of the greatest hip hop albums of the decade or the century, but of all time, and for good reason. Lamar’s storytelling capabilities conveyed on his second album blossomed into an even more meticulous, introspective and cogent exhibition of analytical dexterity on To Pimp A Butterfly, an album that is as constructive as it is deconstructive. What’s more, the forceful yet classy West Coast jazz rap instrumentation accompanied the rapper’s vivid ruminations perfectly, playing into the album’s narrative to an emotional and sonically descriptive degree, as if it were the score to a piece of cinema. Just as impressive as his individual records is the consistently high level of quality of every project Kendrick Lamar has put his name to thus far in his career, with the rapper not solely growing with each release, but also reinventing some aspect of his musical identity in one way or another. Of course, having set such a high bar for himself — with even untitled unmastered., an album of leftover recordings from the To Pimp A Butterfly sessions, being amongst the best hip hop releases of last year — following up any of his records would prove an arduous feat, but this is even more true of the musician’s third album. After all, how exactly does one conceive the successor to a masterpiece? Many artists may choose to try their hand at a completely new avenue of creativity, whilst others may simply take a step back from the grand undertakings of their previous work and embrace a more collected and pragmatic approach to their craft. Kendrick Lamar’s fourth full-length studio album, DAMN., falls into the latter category. In this sense, DAMN. retains the most pop appeal and general accessibility of any Kendrick Lamar project thus far, pulling instrumental influences from the more mainstream derivatives of rap more so than his usual hardcore hip hop and jazz rap stylings. Moreover, with regards to the overall scope of DAMN., Lamar surely intended for this record to be much less grand and much more self-contained than albums like good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp A Butterfly, with the recurring themes of the album being less overtly conceptual in nature, rather they are much more disjointed and even occasionally conflicting. Indeed, upon my first listen of DAMN., its most striking quality was just how blatantly conflicted it is, almost to the point of inconsistency at times, although not necessarily to a fault. Lyrically, Lamar covers many subjects that have appeared in abundance on his previous projects, but whilst displaying some obvious internal conflict, particularly with regards to his relationship with his devout Christian faith. In this sense, the dishevelled disposition of DAMN. comes across almost as if it is a deliberate ploy by the artist that he manipulates at his will in order to suit his discrepant narrative, although there are instances in which Lamar seems to lose his grip slightly, exposing some cracks in the album’s execution. Nonetheless, even amidst much of the chaos that ensues on his latest release, Lamar manages to display an acute attention to detail in the direction it takes, resulting in DAMN. being no less intriguing than the rapper’s previous output, if noticeably more fractured.
If there is one defining dichotomy that encompasses the conflict Kendrick Lamar faces on DAMN., it is laid out in the very opening words of the album from anonymous producer Bēkon: “Is it wickedness? / Is it weakness? / You decide / Are we gonna live or die?” Wickedness and weakness, along with the religious connotations consistently present in this binary, are the primary concerns of Lamar on this new project. Not only could one draw a clear-cut line between the tracks on the album that reflect the rapper’s weakness and those that demonstrate his wickedness, Lamar teeters between the two even on a song-by-song basis, seemingly as a means of embodying the constant confusion and frustration suffered by the artist across this collection of songs. Indeed, whereas Lamar has always been vocal about his Christian beliefs, DAMN. comes across as being almost centrally focussed on the conflicted feelings regarding his faith in recent times, hence the division between wickedness and weakness. The salient message of the Book of Deuteronomy is one concerning the relationship between Israel and Yahweh, with God promising the Israelites blessings in return for their obedience to him (i.e. weakness on their part), or damnation should they disobey his teachings (i.e. wickedness). Similarly, just as the choice between life and death is mentioned during the opening moments of DAMN., a great deal of Deuteronomy is dedicated to Moses pleading with the Israelites to submit themselves to God, thus choosing health over plague and life over death. In this regard, the listener seems to be faced with a similar choice, in that DAMN. plays out differently depending on how one chooses to listen to it. The introductory skit of BLOOD. depicts Lamar being shot by a blind woman as he offers to help her, whilst the closing track, DUCKWORTH., details a series of events that ensure the rapper lives. Throughout the latter track, Lamar tells the story of a man named Ducky who works at a KFC drive-thru, and another man, Anthony, who once robbed the restaurant at gun-point and plans to do the same again. Ducky makes sure to treat Anthony to free food whenever he visits the restaurant, fully aware of who this man is and his previous burglary, as a means of getting on his good side and preventing him from repeat offending. In the final lines of the track, Lamar reveals the KFC worker to be his father — with ‘Ducky’ being a shortening of the artist’s legal surname, Duckworth — and Anthony to be Anthony Tiffith, or Top Dawg, founder of Top Dawg Entertainment and the man who signed a teenage Kendrick Lamar to his record label and kickstarted his career. This is disclosed as Lamar acknowledges that, if his father had not extended his kindness to Anthony, he very well could have been killed by Top Dawg, thus completely transforming Lamar’s life, in that his future employer would be in prison, with the rapper himself being left young and fatherless to “die in a gunfight”. With this final line being interrupted by a gunshot, the significance of this story is lifted beyond just an amusing coincidence by Lamar. In making numerous references to putting things “in reverse”, with Bēkon once again appearing at the beginning of the track to say, “We gon’ put it in reverse”, and with the cut ending with the audio being reversed and the rapper repeating the first line of his introductory skit, both outcomes of the life-death dichotomy are reflected. If DAMN. is played forwards, Lamar lives, but if played in reverse, he dies. Of course, as impressive as Lamar’s intricate detail when fleshing out this abstract concept is, its meaning is ultimately uncertain, although it is arguably up to the listener to decide. In this sense, DAMN. is far less decisive and well-defined than Lamar’s previous two records, being riddled with confusing contradictions, which is itself a contradiction, given how much more accessible this album is musically speaking. Although the extent to which all of these discrepancies and conflicting themes are controlled by the artist and employed to convey some grander concept is unclear, it can be safely assumed that much of the speculation surrounding the significance of the album’s narrative is out of his control. Ironically enough, this engenders some conflicting feelings within myself regarding the success of this album’s narrative.
However, ultimately, the potency of DAMN. transcends simply a clever exhibition of dualistic themes, rather Lamar seems to be demonstrating a self-awareness of the implications of his position at the top of the rap game on cuts like ELEMENT. and the ironic HUMBLE., whilst lamenting the fact that many casual listeners of his music have either overlooked the messages he has tried to put across to them on his previous records, or actively misinterpreted them. This is epitomised by the fact that BLOOD. ends with an excerpt of a FOX News broadcast in which Lamar’s performance of Alright at the BET Awards was misconstrued as being hateful, despite the message of the song clearly being one of strength and hope. The frustration felt by the musician, having seen his art be misunderstood and maliciously distorted, provokes the fragmented nature of this record’s narrative, acting almost as a retaliation to those who have not made the effort to appreciate his work, perhaps epitomised by the fact that, on numerous tracks on DAMN., Lamar seemingly plays the character of the stereotypical, violent, black rapper that FOX News smeared him as being. In fact, the FOX News segment on BLOOD. bleeds into the succeeding track, DNA., in which Lamar rattles off stereotypical rap clichés of “sex, money, murder” in an explicitly provocative fashion atop a hard-hitting trap beat, seemingly as a means of giving his critics from the right side of the political spectrum what they want when they defame him as being a violent rapper. Specifically, the MC is firing back at FOX News host Geraldo Rivera for his comment that “hip hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years”, which is sampled during the song’s bridge, with Lamar even directly naming Rivera on the following track, YAH., reminding him that even rappers are real people with families who are affected by having the media spread falsehoods about them. This reproach of FOX News is one of many intertwining arcs across the course of the record, none of which seem to ever be wrapped up in the way that the themes of good kid, m.A.A.d city or To Pimp A Butterfly were, but this almost seems to be the point; DAMN. is less concerned with closure more than it is with the drive to find closure. With all this considered, therefore, DAMN. is, in a sense, the most complicated narrative Lamar is yet to work with, largely arising from just how scattered it is. Whilst not all of its complexities are a conscious creation of the rapper, he nevertheless manages to construct a compelling conceptual framework, within which he effectively conveys many of the conflicting emotions that have recently plagued him, and the confusion that ensues as a result, with the listener being forced to interact with these feelings and frustrations themselves.
The music of DAMN. is equally disjointed and fragmented, albeit not always to the same effectiveness as the fractures in the record’s narrative. Not only are the instrumentals on Lamar’s latest effort more accessible to a broader rap audience, making use of trap-influenced beats, DJ drops and sung hooks, but they also lack the coherent and recurring musical themes of a project like To Pimp A Butterfly. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with this in principle, the production of DAMN. is far less dense and extravagant than the stylings that have come to be associated with Kendrick Lamar’s brand of jazz-tinged hip hop. This stylistic change is executed surprisingly well for the most part, but it doesn’t come without its hitches, most notably on the tracks GOD. and LOVE., both of which see Lamar deliver some sung hooks which, with his nasally inflection, don’t go over well at all. What’s more, both tracks feature rather bland instrumentals that sound closer to something Drake would be appearing on rather than Kendrick, and make for the two worst songs the artist has yet to release, especially considering that neither add anything particularly profound or pertinent to the record’s narrative, beyond their general subject matter, at least. Also, the aforementioned YAH., whilst not as egregious sonically as GOD. and LOVE., really offers little of instrumental significance, with even the MC’s flow being far sleepier and less inspired than his usual exuberant performances, in a way that doesn’t especially suit him. Outside of these moments, however, Lamar accommodates this shift to a more mainstream rap sound with a great deal of success. DNA. is undoubtedly amongst the strongest and most cruelly cold moments on DAMN., with the booming, bassy trap beat and icy guitar lines perfectly complementing what stands as one of the rapper’s fiercest performances to date, which is itself an apt reflection of Lamar’s frustration regarding the track’s lyrical topic. HUMBLE., despite having slightly underwhelmed me at first, is far more at home in the broader context of DAMN. and becomes a far better cut as a result, with the powerful piano bass lines and searing synth leads bringing a dark and oppressive atmosphere to Lamar’s authoritative bars. Despite these tracks lacking in the lavish production value of the artist’s previous material, they are certainly solid forays into mainstream crossover. Other tracks find a middle ground between Lamar’s previous jazz rap stylings and the general poppier sound of DAMN.. PRIDE. is perhaps the prime example of this, boasting the bubbling bass licks and shimmering guitars associated with the style of production brought to the table by Thundercat on To Pimp A Butterfly and untitled unmastered., whilst the somewhat slurred crooning throughout the cut and the rapper’s curtailed flow come across as a lot more palatable to a more mainstream audience. If any cut from DAMN. evokes the previous, more progressive artistry of Kendrick Lamar, it would have to be XXX., a track that instigated a strong reaction before it had even been released, due to the surprise surrounding its feature from Irish rockers U2. In the song’s first half, Lamar rides a hard beat of pulsating bass and whirling siren sounds, up until the point of revelation in the song’s lyrics, in which the MC highlights his own hypocrisy in being prone to desiring revenge against those who mistreat his family, by interrupting his vengeful tirade to talk to a group of children about gun control. The fact that this change of heart comes at the time of forceful beat-switch, wherein a sluggish, jazzy instrumental enters to support Bono’s surprisingly successful soulful singing, the artist is attempting to actively call attention to his own duplicity as overtly as possible. Ultimately, despite the one obvious, glaring flaw of DAMN. being its spotty production and occasional questionable instrumental choices, the degree to which this impacts the record is evident, but limited. The jazzy passages don’t quite ring as brightly as they did on To Pimp A Butterfly and the trap-tinged beats could go a bit harder at times, but the greatest success of this record’s production is how well it reinforces, and sometimes directly interacts with, Lamar’s lyricism, to the extent that cuts like XXX. and DNA. are, in a sense, dependent on their respective instrumental arrangements to solidify their core conceptual principles. Once again, this adds another layer of detail to Kendrick Lamar’s abilities as a storyteller, giving DAMN. an edge that redeems it substantially from its significant low points.
As for the place of DAMN. within Kendrick Lamar’s discography, despite being his messiest and most inconsistent project thus far, it is no less essential to the development of his musical identity as a result. In fact, one could argue that the album’s lack of obvious coherence is what makes it so pertinent to Lamar’s back-catalogue, given that it reflects a confusion, frustration and perhaps even depression that the artist has yet to convey this explicitly and in such abundance. Drawing any conclusions from the narrative of DAMN. is an arduous task for the listener, and it seems to be rather difficult for Lamar himself, but again, this is perhaps the point of the album’s overall arc. Of course, this makes critical analysis of this project particularly hard, with any specific strand of thought concerning any aspect of its narrative likely leading to an interminable tangent that is never quite resolved. However, it should be reiterated that DAMN. comes across as being almost centrally concerned with the means of finding answers, rather than the answers themselves and, with this in mind, the rapper certainly does an admirable job of constructing an effective framework for harbouring these thoughts. Unfortunately, the strength of the album is offset slightly by the most obvious chink in its armour, that being the production. Thankfully, there are only a few instances of particularly poor stylistic choices, but the album, as a whole, could certainly have provided some more accommodating arrangements for the change in direction Lamar takes on this latest effort of his. This being said, the most impressive musical moments on DAMN., although occasionally rough around the edges, play not only to Lamar’s strengths in terms of his flow and delivery, but also his storytelling and analytical abilities, in a way that only some of his previous material has. So, overall, does DAMN. continue Kendrick’s winning streak? Yes and no. It is most definitely the first studio album of his not to improve on all fronts from its precursor, and it is arguably the first record on which some rather substantial issues arise. On the other hand, the complex, yet somewhat self-defeating, narrative displays a side of the artist that he hasn’t shown quite to this extent and quite with this much urgency, and perhaps summarises the entire philosophy behind the stylistic shift on DAMN., with Lamar wanting to take a step back from the unparalleled critical and commercial success of To Pimp A Butterfly to reflect and expose some of the cracks in his character. In this sense, therefore, DAMN., imperfections and all, surely adds more to the legacy of Kendrick Lamar than not, and is a pivotal moment in his saga.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7.5/10