Photo courtesy of Batiste Safont via wikimedia commons
Two years ago, rapper Kendrick Lamar released To Pimp a Butterfly, which was received wonderfully by critics and fans, including tjToday. It combines powerful existential questions with passionate performances and jazzy beats to create one of the best records of the decade, across all genres. Last Friday, he followed up this masterpiece with DAMN., which takes a much more different approach to rap. Does it live up to the bar the rest of Lamar’s discography set? Let’s dive into this album.
There are a lot of aggressive cuts mixed with calmer tracks on this album, similar to Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city album. Lamar hinted at a change in his sound on the two singles released prior to DAMN., “The Heart Part 4”, a freestyle sounding song where he fires endless clips of shots at one of his competitors, and “HUMBLE.”, another aggressive song that took the charts by storm and fires more shots. Only “HUMBLE.” made it onto this album, and overall I like it, but I’m not in love with it. It’s hard-hitting, features great wordplay, and a polarizing verse where Lamar says women should try to look more natural, which he’s rapped about before. Some people thought the message was very positive, while others said women shouldn’t need empowerment from men. The best part about this track is that Lamar takes other rappers’ styles, using “aye” between his bars, and does it even better than his competition. However, the flow and beat just got repetitive after listening to this song constantly waiting for this album. The track changes within the context album though, it acts as the yang to the ying of “PRIDE.”, which I will get to later on in the review.
The album starts off with “BLOOD.”, a skit where Lamar casually narrates a story where he attempts to help a blind woman find something she lost, but she takes his life, and it’s just as shocking to listen to as it sounds. It left me with chills and a lot of questions. The next song, “DNA”, is really hard hitting, and Lamar goes off over a stellar beat. Despite the fact that the beat and flow are both so good they’re distracting, there is a pretty powerful message as well. Lamar embraces the stereotypes of his culture, and also calls out his enemies over their “weak dna”. People speculate the song calls out rapper Big Sean, and his line about genetics on “Bounce Back”. “DNA.”, along with “BLOOD.” and “YAH.”, samples a broadcast by Fox News criticizing Lamar’s song “Alright”. The reporter in this clip even claims “hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years”, which is absolutely infuriating to hip hop fans like me. Lamar uses these three songs to mainly call out Fox News, and it will be interesting to see how this conflict plays out.
“ELEMENT.” is also a trap banger, like “DNA.” I especially like the beat on this song. The piano chord progression is very unsettling and eerie. The third chord on the hook’s progression especially stands out. Overall, the production on this album is great. It’s definitely not the same type of production as the jazz rap, neo soul beats of To Pimp a Butterfly, but the quality is still on par with Lamar’s last album. Even though there are trap rap songs on this album, and trap rap is considered to be repetitive, Lamar called on the right trap rap producers. The beats constantly change and develop on a lot of the songs, making them more layered than other rappers’ instrumentals. The production credits on this album are very impressive, from soul sampling producers like The Alchemist, British R&B singer James Blake, and trap producers like Mike WiLL Made-It. The album’s instrumentation credits are great as well, like bassist extraordinaire Thundercat, who provides great bass lines on “FEEL.”.
And then there’s “XXX.”, which features rock band U2, who have not made much noise recently. The song starts out with a rock inspired beat over some auto-tuned vocals. This segment stops abruptly and Lamar pops in with a laidback flow over a minimal, eerie trap rap beat. He speaks on killing people to take revenge for his loved ones, and a boy named Johnny, who represents children pulled into the street life thanks to black stereotypes. After about a minute, the beat explodes, with Lamar yelling about his “street accomplishments”, with wailing sirens and a flurry of other sounds in the background. And just when I’m getting used to this flow, the beat abruptly changes to a piano rock sound, Lamar says “we’re gonna talk about gun control”, and Bono from U2 comes in for a short, but sweet chorus. The rest of the song is more traditional, laidback conscious rap about the state of America, gun violence, and of course, Donald Trump. The contrast between the topics of both halves of the songs is a way Lamar calls out his own hypocrisy, and the hypocrisy of people that condemn violence in public but would harm others for revenge or to get themselves out of a pressuring situation. The line “ain’t no Black Power when your baby killed by a coward” really got me thinking. At the end, the chorus cuts itself off mid sentence and the song “FEAR.” starts, an incredibly subtle way of mentioning how fear stops people from speaking their mind. The way Lamar executes this track is incredibly clever, all parts of this song are engaging, and the feature was good as well. Overall, this track is an absolutely stellar, 10/10 song, and is my favorite out of the tracklisting.
While many Lamar fans are probably angry about the mainstream change in Lamar’s sound, there are a lot of lyrical miracles on DAMN. as well. The album provides its first “traditional” Lamar song with “FEEL.” This song mostly mentions Lamar’s bad feelings he’s had ever since he’s found fame. He talks about his loneliness, claiming “nobody’s praying for him.” Near the end of this track, Lamar starts shouting aggressively for a brief moment, and it’s one of the most vulnerable moments of the whole album. Although many casual listeners will think he’s just angry, you can really hear the pain in Lamar’s voice during this part of the song. The beat also is great, smooth, and soulful on this song. “PRIDE.” is another interesting cut off the album. There’s a really dragged out, guitar beat that accompanies Lamar as he sings and raps along with Anna Wise and Steve Lacy’s background vocals. I was really happy to hear Anna Wise’s voice on this track, as many songs she’s done with Lamar in the past have been great, and “PRIDE.” is no exception. The vocals on this song are some of the most interesting on the album. The pitch of Lamar’s vocals are rise and lower throughout a large chunk of the song, and it actually works out.
The song “LUST.”, which appears about halfway through the album, is a really dark turn for “DAMN.” Lamar raps and mocks the lifestyle of famous rappers. The character Lamar talks about stays home, does drugs, and hangs with women all day. The dark, moody, atmospheric beat helps give the lyrics Lamar spits a dark tone. I like the backwards, pulsing percussion on the beat. Lamar says “I need some water” throughout the song, meaning he needs God to set his life straight. He mentions the same concept on his past song, “Sing about me, I’m dying of thirst”. The repetition of lines on this track really emphasizes his point that rappers are reliving the same day over and over and rapping about it in their songs. “FEAR.” uses the second beat of “The Heart Part 4”, a great, jazzy beat that would’ve went to waste without this song, and is the most raw, meaty cut off the album, being seven minutes 41 seconds long. Lamar talks about the concept of fear through three stories at the age of 7, 17, and 27, respectively. It’s mostly simple and clear storytelling rap, followed by a pretty harmonious vocal outro, followed by a strange bible passage which I will discuss later, and it’s a highlight of the tracklisting. This song and “XXX.” feel like the core of the album.
The album ends with another storytelling cut, “DUCKWORTH.” (Lamar’s last name). It tells the pretty hilarious story about how Lamar met Top Dawg, the leader of Lamar’s label, TDE. Basically, Top Dawg, aka Anthony would’ve killed Lamar’s dad in a KFC robbery, but because Lamar’s dad would always give Top Dawg extra food, he was spared. If Lamar’s dad was killed, Top Dawg would be in jail and Lamar would’ve died on the streets. The optimistic, inspiring beat of this song is reminiscent of the soul sampling hip hop Kanye West was doing on his first three albums. The song starts ending with a quick rewind of the album, and concludes with the same words Lamar first spoke on the album, “so i was taking a walk the other day.”
Although a lot of the tracks on this album are great, there are still some tracks I found mediocre or even bad. Lamar sings A LOT on this album, much more than he sings on his other albums. It’s not that I think his singing is awful, he can sing much better than most rappers, it’s just that he does it too much, and his nasally singing voice gets annoying after a while. The songs “YAH.”, “LOYALTY.” (featuring Rihanna), and “GOD.” are prime examples of this. My problem with “YAH.” is that it’s just straight up boring, Lamar simply puts zero effort into his delivery. It doesn’t sound “chill” or casual, just lazy. I was very excited for the RIhanna feature on “LOYALTY.”, and I was disappointed. It just sounds like the pop trash RIhanna put out before her album ANTI. She doesn’t do anything interesting, I was really hoping she would showcase her amazing vocal range. “GOD.” sounds similar to “LOYALTY.”, and both of the songs I previously mentioned use these dreamy synthesizers that are very poorly mixed with the vocals. I also don’t really care about lyrics or a message of a song if it’s not sonically pleasing. However, Lamar uses his singing usefully on “LOVE.” (featuring Zacari). It’s a sensual, calming contemporary R&B song that talks about, well, love, and addresses the concept of loyalty better than the song dedicated to loyalty on DAMN. Lamar sings over a lush, arpeggio loaded beat. It sounds a lot like the classic 50 Cent song, “21 Questions”, with it’s many rhetorical questions. The refrain is extremely catchy and harmonious, and I can potentially see this becoming pretty big radio hit. The only negative thing I really have to point out is that the feature, Zacari, literally sounds like a carbon copy of The-Dream, and I would’ve preferred the real thing. I’m sure a feature from The-Dream is not out of Lamar’s reach.
This album is also probably Lamar’s most gimmicky album. The album cover and title are quite atrocious, and the track list format is unnecessary. All the track titles and the album title are made of one fully capitalized word with a period at the end. It’s like the musical equivalent of a teenager trying to create a matching “feed” on Instagram. Traditional titles would’ve been more powerful. Also, this album is stylistically messy, but not to the extent of an album like Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. Although the sounds of the album change constantly, Lamar does pretty clever things to organize the tracks, like putting “BLOOD.” and “DNA.” together, along with pairing “PRIDE.” and “HUMBLE.”, and “LOVE.” and “LUST.” Also, Lamar makes “GOD.” and “DUCKWORTH.” both four minutes nine seconds long, which could be a subtle way of saying Lamar is equivalent to a God, or that the only reason he’s alive is due to God.
But this album’s greatest downfall is the new moral direction Lamar steps in. He’s seen this Fox News broadcast and how it completely misinterprets his messages, and he’s in a sense given up on being the good, peacemaking rapper he was on To Pimp a Butterfly. In a way, he’s taken this as a challenge. He decides to rap on aggressive, banger beats, to be the bad guy, as shown in the first half of “XXX.” But the worst part comes on the intro and outro of “FEAR.” It’s Lamar’s cousin Carl, a religious extremist, reading and interpreting Deuteronomy 28:68, a verse from the bible. Basically, Carl is saying that the Blacks, Hispanics, and Native-Americans are the “Israelites”, or true children of Israel, and because they have not followed God’s commandments or have worshiped other Gods, the terrible things that has happened to them in the past were God’s punishment to them, for not living up to this “Israelite” status. This is such a twisted and racist way to interpret the bible, and I don’t agree with it at all. Blaming mass genocide, slavery, just to name a few events, on the will of God and saying they were meant to happen is a terrible mentality. I don’t mind it when music references religion, but I despise it when music forces religion down the listener’s throat, which is what this is doing.
This appears to be presented without comment and harmlessly on one track, but this is actually one of the main ideas this album revolves around, along with self-hatred, and we need to go back into the tracklisting to connect all the tracks to this theme. Lamar blatantly references this message from his cousin on the early track “YAH.”, claiming Lamar is already cursed because he’s an “Israelite”. And on “FEEL.”, Lamar claims “nobody is praying for him”, and lists out the bad things that have happened to him since fame. And even on a harmless sounding track like “DNA.”, Lamar also claims that all these terrible and stereotypical things are in his DNA, and can’t be changed, further leading to the extremist thinking on the religious themes of “FEAR.” Overall, the album seems to be full of Lamar’s paranoia that since he’s strayed from God’s light, his life is going to fall apart, and blaming what’s already happened to him on God. To be clear, I do not follow Christianity, but I am not attempting to talk down on it. I just find this way of thinking to be foolish. And the reason this horrendous sample appears on the track “FEAR.” is because Lamar’s greatest fear is of God. Although it’s almost twistedly clever, this is where the album stoops to its lowest for me. However, I tried not to let this affect my opinion of the sound of this album, but this is how I interpreted the overall theme of the album, which I find to be not as politically correct as the other themes Lamar has presented on his other albums.
Overall, this is a good album. Lamar changes up his style on a lot of songs and it really pays off. He also sticks with his old sound on some tracks and creates great, vivid stories. Like his other albums, he makes very strong political statements which is what makes him stand out from other artists. The production is mostly good and varied throughout the album, it’s heavy-hitting at times, and it helps cradle the bars Lamar spits. The songs are a lot more radio appealing than To Pimp a Butterfly, which many old school hip hop fans would get upset over, but I personally don’t mind it. Like other Lamar albums, this album will take multiple listens to digest. It’s similar to good kid, m.A.A.d city in that Lamar dives into his past to paint vivid pictures and to shine light on the issues of the present. However, the topics have changed due to the fact that Lamar is very self aware that he is one of hip hop’s best right now, for the better sometimes, but mostly for the worst. He goes through these not-so-simple one word concepts with great detail, and changes his voice and delivery to match the tone of the topic at hand. Some of the songs are very emotionally charged, and some sections are goosebump-inducing. However, DAMN. isn’t as thought through and doesn’t show as much effort as To Pimp a Butterfly did in about every way, except for vocal energy at some spots. There’s no gradually growing poem, no interview with Tupac, no extra pizzazz that makes this a masterpiece. My favorite tracks are “DNA.”, “ELEMENT.”, “FEEL.”, “LUST.”, “LOVE.”, “XXX.”, “FEAR.”, and “DUCKWORTH.”. My least favorite track is “LOYALTY.”. I would have to give this album a strong 7/10. In conclusion, this album shows how fun, yet inconsistent Lamar can be when he tries something new.