Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. is all about the struggle – the struggle within, the struggle to belong, the struggle to survive.
By design it’s an insular album, focusing on our hero in his post-fame, post-Trump mindset giving it an initial feeling of alienation. Where To Pimp a Butterfly was a widescreen journey through funk and jazz by way of hip-hop, DAMN. at times sounds downright cold, only hitting full stride on “DNA.” And “HUMBLE.” That being said, it’s a rich album, with a prickly, claustrophobic production by a number of producers, including Sounwave and Mike Will Made It, complementing Kendrick’s lyrical dexterity.
We start with the dreamlike “BLOOD.” This spoken word tale finds Kendrick in an almost contemplative state, debating about good or evil before helping a blind woman find a dropped item. His kindness ends in a gunshot, spiraling into FOX News commentator Geraldo Rivera disparaging Lamar before the booming “DNA” hits. Under a Mike Will Made It beat, the song finds Kendrick taking on the FOX empire, calling them out for misunderstanding his BET appearance. His anger seeps through his bars, making “DNA.” sit as both a call to arms and a defense of his own words as they’re twisted to satisfy someone else’s political agenda.
FOX News and Geraldo loom large over the album, with Lamar at times directing his anger towards the network and at other times to himself for allowing them to get to him. It’s a conduit for Kendrick’s frustration with the predominantly conservative, white audience that will never listen to his music on their own, yet deride him due to someone else’s misinterpretation. Where “DNA.” is full-blooded anger, it’s follow-up “YAH.” dials it back, becoming an internal monologue to God on faith, politics, ego, and the soul. “ELEMENT.” takes this even further, where Kendrick declares that he’s “willin’ to die for this shit,” as he flexes his agility as a lyricist and a rapper, verbally hopping like a skipping stone over Sounwave’s production.
Putting two songs like “YAH.” And “ELEMENT.” next to each other could bring an album to a halt, but Kendrick turns the low tempo into a dialogue between songs that feels closer to a great novel with its callbacks and internal strife. At one point, he laments lost friends on “PRIDE” mere moments after demanding loyalty from his circle on “LOYALTY.” Even “LUST”, with its “something came over me; way too hot to simmer down” comes after the trap beats of “HUMBLE.”, doubling as a nod to the boasts of that previous track and the coming eroticism of the current song. In the age of the curated playlist, it’s a joy to see an album so carefully sequenced.
Obviously, Kendrick is the star of the show here, but the deftness of the production on display here makes the album pulsate. On a lesser album, Mike Will Made It’s two contributions, “DNA” and “HUMBLE” would stick out like sore thumbs. Here, they slide between Soundwave’s overarching sounds of isolation, showcasing small glimpses of Kendrick’s fire in between the quiet storm. Even the guests shine – Rhianna is excellent on “LOYALTY.”, holding her own with Kendrick, while U2 and Bono, who have seen a decline in critical fortunes, fit perfectly on “XXX”, underlining the tension and violence on display with quiet contemplation.
“XXX” takes us closer to the finish line, underlying the themes of black power in the face of white supremacy and police oppression. “Is America honest or do we bask in sin?” asks Kendrick, bringing to mind a culture where people watch the news not to learn or help, but to thrill through the pain of others. “FEAR.” takes this notion further, centering on the pressures of everyday life through the prism of terror. However, “GOD” finds us some respite, some joy for Kendrick as he cashes his cheque despite the turmoil. It’s a brief moment of relishing in ones glory, to sin in the eyes of God. Notably, it’s also one of the few moments where he just lets himself be.
Then there’s the closer, “DUCKWORTH.” which takes the idea of good versus evil that has permeated throughout the album. Kendrick tells the story of his own father, his label boss Anthony Tiffith, and a chance encounter that if it had gone wrong, would’ve meant Lamar never existed. It’s in-keeping with his tradition of ending an album with strong, solid songs, but this one has a kicker of an ending that makes the listener want to immediately play the album all over again.
There’s going to be an urge to compare DAMN. to Lamar’s previous efforts, but try to resist that urge. Instead, marvel at an artist at the top of his game who still continues to expand his arsenal of sound and lyrical fury; pushing his cohorts into new directions, while maintaining his own artistic integrity. In an era of albums coming and going from the public consciousness, Kendrick Lamar continues to discover new ways to not only keep his audience engaged, but to keep them coming back for more.
Check out all the stream/buy links for Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. LP here.