Album Review: DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar

Album Review: DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar

Kung Fu Kenny's dammned face is the cover of a third studio album for a now Grammy-winning artist.

charlie-brown
Charlie Brown

Compton's self-proclaimed best rapper alive is back just two years after his critically-acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly, this time Kendrick Lamar is blessing us with DAMN.

For his fourth studio album Duckworth Lamar throws most of the funk and jazz that dominated a good portion of his previous album - or even going back to the mixtape days. Instead DAMN. has a more assertive but fierce sound. 

Fashionably shock-worthy, 'The Heart Part IV' stamped Lamar's authority on the rap game, whilst simultaneously breathing life into hype of a new album: "Y'all got 'til April the 7th to get y'all s**t together".

Not only did T.D.E's star-man create a buzz for a fresh and more-forthright sound with the loud and proud hit-single 'HUMBLE.', on release many were eager to believe that a 'NATION.' entitled project was going to accompany DAMN. - that hope was dashed after last Sunday came and went.

Even the track-listing provided a shock in the form of U2, while Rihanna also seems to have switched sides from the land of Drake collaborations. 

DAMN's album cover is simple yet affective; red bricks encase a depressed but raging Lamar and basic red font pops but offers up little in style - all of which could be easily linked to Kendrick's state and production on this project.

Kendrick's Ruthless Ways

We begin DAMN. with questions on 'BLOOD.': "Is it wickedness? is it weakness?" - this theme travels on throughout the album and defines each opposing ideal that Lamar fronts. For example 'PRIDE.' and 'HUMBLE', 'LOVE.' and 'LUST.' - we're supposed to question whether Kendrick is living wickedly, or in fear and weakness.

Lamar tells of a blind woman whose past convictions and wickedness have left her weak, vulnerable, but still not able to find the light as she fires for him.

Perhaps a metaphor for gun violence - which is talked about on 'FEAR.' - since people who cannot see past their own blinded ways will shoot anyone if it'll protect them, even innocent people trying to help. 

But mostly, this resembles Lamar's ongoing battle with finding faith, first introduced to us on Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (2013) through the lengthy 'Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst'. 

He further expanded on the concept of his faith and how the devil's temptation has plagued his rise to fame on TPAB, especially with 'How Much a Dollar Cost' - learning the true value of humbleness as his selfishness and Lucy/Lucifer pulls him away from the light of God. 

With BLOOD. we're hit straight away with the religious battle that exists in Lamar's psyche; his previous two albums used the latter half to dive deep into the mental struggle of finding faith. Not to say that this doesn't happen again on 'GOD.'.

A sample from FOX is so perfectly placed and paves the way for a wicked and aggressive left-hook on 'DNA.'. In an attempt to promote positivity with 'Alright', reporters instead chose to take one line from the song and shoot Lamar down for it. It's as if they're blind to the bigger picture and fire at a man willing to help the good cause - rings a bell.

Practically speaking, it's not possible to paint a better picture of second-track DNA. any better than Lamar does with the music video for it with Don Cheadle:  

Lamar and Cheadle battle each-other, mining lyrics, their contrast of emotions in moments is a sign of how your own DNA or personality can break or make you.

Mike WiLL Made-It's sonically-powerful beat not only hits hard once, but twice. On top of that, the second FOX news clip further winds up Kendrick's lyrical-performance into anger and frustration - with the deafening bass-drop it makes for one of Lamar's best singles to date.

DNA. isn't just a braggadocios track; Lamar questions his own persona and critiques parts of himself that lead to further weaknesses explored in DAMN.

"I got dark, I got evil, that rot inside my DNA

I got off, I got troublesome, heart inside my DNA

I just win again, then win again, like

Wimbledon, I serve".

It's a complete depiction of contrast as in many ways Lamar is proud of who he is, although he wishes that his aggressive and dark nature wouldn't arise -- but alas it has to as it's in his DNA. 

Where his confidence is bloated on DNA., it's brought down to realistic and somewhat depressive levels with 'YAH.'.

Lamar calls out FOX News host Geraldo Rivera directly while painting a picture of his humility and his family's perception of him: "My latest muse is my niece, she worth livin'/ See me on the TV and scream 'That's Uncle Kendrick!'"

The media's method of twisting his art to suit their story of an anti-hip-hop agenda leads to his closest family being lead astray, believing he's in the news for bad reasons. Especially at such a young age too, Lamar doesn't want his niece to grow up thinking of him as an "anti-hero".

It's nothing new that the LA-rapper wants to stay out of the public-eye; rarely do we learn about his personal life or hear from him in interviews and even for those he keeps it fairly simple. 

YAH.'s slow-moving beat coupled with woozy-notes matches the tone that is set throughout the lyrics and the song rarely ever ventures outside of this moody-melody either.

Iconic DJ Kid Capri introduces us to "new Kung Fu Kenny" - a fitting name for someone so raunchy in approach when it comes to dissing other rappers in recent years.

'ELEMENT.' doesn't hold back either, as Lamar 'puts the bible down' to go 'eye for an eye' with other artists - possibly to his own detriment since the faith he craves wouldn't look down so easily on these rash actions. 

None of us are complaining though and ELEMENT. is a trap/soul infused banger, Lamar's lyrics as clear as they are layered. Similarly to The Heart Part IV, Kendrick is clearly charged up from shots thrown at him, whether that be Drake or Big Sean, someone has clearly sparked a fuse.

Unlike those rappers, Lamar believes he can make his music appealing no matter what, whether its metaphorically slapping down the competition or building a concept - he's gonna make it look sexy

Later on his tone and the song's mood switches when he bemoans that he's "damned if I do, damned if I don't". Almost as though the choice to make conscious or accessible music doesn't matter because collectively people won't agree with it, especially those people on FOX News.

It explains why Lamar's following verse is slightly more aggressive than reflective; he talks of a general perception of him being out of touch, his competition not being all that real - the same ones who couldn't make it onto his last LP because they're "wack".

ELEMENT.'s outro is slowed down and at first glance just to lead into the more-mellow 'FEEL.'. Kendrick doesn't do anything without reason;  those opening lines of "ain't nobody praying for me" come full circle. In the beginning he uses it as an excuse to gloat and put down other rappers, except this isn't how he's feeling at the end of ELEMENT.

A voice so cocky and perky on every chorus rendition apart from the last, perhaps Lamar is feeling as though his style, DNA and element are what people want to see, but it's damaging his feel on earth: "Y'all know what happens on earth stays on earth"

This would explain why FEEL. starts with many voices whispering "ain't nobody praying for me", the basis of this fifth track is Lamar changing his scope from the word to just himself.

Self-improvement needs to happen in order for him to be in his element; you can't have one without the other. Previously he may have been praying for others, but Lamar has never stopped turning to think "But who the f*** prayin' for me?".

Similarly to 'U' on TPAB, we're seeing an artist at their lowest point; both songs explore a troubled and depressive mind due to the ever-growing pressure of life. Troubles that the listener can relate to, anyone can feel: "Feel like removin' myself, no feelings involved"

FEEL. also contradicts his last album in some ways, since Lamar strongly feels that while it's great that he has the platform to express and stand up for society, who's looking out for his problems?

That predicament rolls straight into 'LOYALTY.', where Kendrick is asking for trust and, of course, loyalty in a relationship. On the previous song we're lead to believe that no-one is there for him, but the people who are close to him can't be trusted: "I feel like friends been overrated? I feel like the family been fakin'"

Despite the melody of LOYALTY. being a catchy and upbeat one, both Lamar and Rihanna are on the backs of their people, in truth. By remixing Bruno Mars' '24K Magic' to create a melodious backing-track, it's possible that Lamar wants us to question whether our lovers are truly there for us or the money (those 24 karats). 

Rihanna delivers a couple of surprisingly quality verses along with the hook with her new teammate. This is their first collaboration and seriously makes a good case for more; Kendrick's volatile attitude perfectly matches Rihanna's righteous-rhythm.

With a summer coming up, there's no doubt that LOYALTY. will be one of the favoured tracks for radio stations in the U.S and even the U.K. 

'Love's gonna get you killed -- But pride's gonna be the death of you and me" - once more, PRIDE. starts out questioning the last song.

Lamar is weak, solemn in fact, wrapped up in a blanket of fear and seemingly void of any pride. It's almost scary to think the same artist can be so boisterous on tracks like DNA. and ELEMENT yet undeniably depressed on PRIDE. 

Either he's blaming himself or crying out for other artists to have pride but with lines such as "hell-raising, wheel-chasing, new-worldly possessions" conflicting "flesh-making, spirit-breaking, which one would you lesson?" it's more likely a question to himself. 

FEEL. poses the two scenarios you can have in life: spiritual or material wealth - comparable to wickedness or weakness.

Lamar is doubtful on DAMN.'s seventh instalment: he goes back on his own word of "I surely was there" by saying "maybe I wasn't there".

Distorting his own voice on here is, in a sense, a literal and metaphorical distortion of his pride. Perhaps in his mind he's been changing so much, so out of touch, that to other people his image has been twisted. 

The pride he once had in his own voice has gone and instead he'd rather use another to get his point across, due to the weakness that has overcome him.  

Lows that are hit on PRIDE. flip on their head for hit-single HUMBLE. On here a hard-hitting piano melody crashes against trap-beats and flashes of sirens - all making for a loud-and-proud sound. Quite the polar opposite to PRIDE. 

For the majority of HUMBLE. Kung Fu Kenny''s lyrics aren't humble, but this is the rapper we've come to know. 

Many have conspired that this song is about other rappers, in particular Big Sean, but on the contrary, it's most likely about Lamar himself.

Dave Meyer's masterpiece of a music video for the headliner gives it away since Lamar can be seen doing everything to not be humble - most notably towards the end where he is the only one wearing a white suit. 

This white is so powerful in the grand scheme of things since Lamar wants to be holy and accepted by God as an Israelite.  

What's most telling about the video is actually how it finishes: Lamar walks alone behind the crowd and the image becomes pixelated. Almost by not following his people he has been lead astray and will just fade to black if he doesn't change.

Change is something that Lamar is missing on LUST.; the monotony of life and lust has lead him, or perhaps us, to be stuck in "our daily programs".

On top of that, the need for sexual pleasure in Lamar's living has damaged him - the unsure and dizzying instrumental matches desperate and uneasy lyrics. 

A thirst for physical intimacy is on K dot's mind, once upon a time he was dying of thirst, now he's become so lustful that each chorus begins with "I need some water"

Fame can affect many in that sense, it's common to find out that someone has cheated on a partner in the limelight and Lamar blames it on the lust

But as is the case with DAMN., we're met with another comparison, beginning track ten LOVE. with "love and lust". Previously Lamar seemed regretful and despairing with lust, but on here just simply in love.

Making full use of a simple-but-soothing vocals from Zacari and an equally simple beat, it's easy to understand where this track is heading -- straight to the radio. 

Not to say that it's unneeded; in an album full of introspective slow movers LOVE. picks it up somewhat. A hook of "I wanna be with you, aye" could've been looked at, though.

The weakness of LOVE. is subdued and overhauled by XXX. - possibly the coolest song on DAMN.

Not only do we get three(!) different and original instrumentals, U2 pretty much surprise everyone by coasting through with a beautifully-enriching feature.

Each X seems to be according to a separate stage of the song, with the first oozing in and hitting hard, tapping into another dazzling beat that transcends into the next stage. 

You're going to have to enjoy this with a speaker if anything; the banging-bass knocks everything out the park in similar fashion to Lamar's assertive lines.

As if we're over the night that was, resting by the ocean with birds chirping, U2's self-proclaimed ruling drum and bass clashes ever-so-gently against spacious-vocals.

The only way to describe it is laying on a peaceful sun-bed with an external band in the distance playing your favourite song - XXX. is an example of Lamar's ability to create any sonic atmosphere. 

For the first two verses Lamar addresses political issues of young African-Americans having limited opportunity, to growing up having to be a shooter in life.

But ultimately he comes full circle (again) in the final verse as he puts down his weapon to talk about gun control, even calling the government hypocritical - similar to how he called out himself for hypocrisy on 'The Blacker the Berry'. 

Old-school ending

FEAR.'s old-school feel flows through, produced by The Alchemist, it's a beat that suits Lamar.

Its west-coast influences are blatant and perfectly match vivid lyricism of Lamar's journey so far in life; we leap into his world of sound and story. 

DAMN.'s 12th track culminates all the emotion that has been explored across the board, with a voicemail from cousin Carl Duckworth to explain the motive to make the album too. 

Furthermore it gives what you'd have to call the biggest 'Easter egg' with the strange backwards singing - reversed it reads "every stone thrown at you, resting at my feet, why God why God, do I gotta suffer?"

It's interesting to note that FEAR.'s chorus is Lamar reaching, saying if he could smoke fear away he'd 'roll up', on LUST. it was the repetition of smoking taking away from life itself. 

With each verse Kendrick advances us into his fears from the ages of 7, 17 and 27 (two years ago) - the disparity in what he fears is scary, but interesting. From his mother threatening him to stay out of trouble at a young age and installing that fear inside to experiencing fear of losing life as a teen on the streets. 

In the third verse he admits that his biggest fear at 27 is being judged, while the wealth that he holds is bound to leave him eventually in his mind.

What really brings all of DAMN.'s varying introspective subjects together is the final few lines from Lamar:

"I'm talkin' fear, fear of losin' loyalty from pride,

'Cause my DNA won't let me evolve in the light of God,

I'm talkin' fear, fear that my humbleness is gone,

I'm talkin' fear, fear that love ain't livin' here no more,

I'm talkin' fear, fear that it's wickedness or weakness".

It screams of a man who is clearly conflicted in life, and as DAMN. progresses these lyrics serve up an explanation to the song titles.

To complete the song, Lamar's cousin explains to him why he amongst others are suffering. On YAH. it's the first sign of Lamar's Israelite nature coming through: "I'm an Israelite, don't call me black no more" - something that hasn't cropped up in projects gone by. 

Carl, and Hebrew Israelites alike, believe that people of colour experience the most pain on Earth because they have abandoned their Hebrew identity. 

This explains why Lamar's tone on his fourth studio album is so pessimistic, almost to a point of guilt, he seems to have changed views since his last project - maybe due to this voicemail.

If that's so, then To Pimp a Butterfly is a failure to Lamar, by directing all his attention into the divide that lives between the people of America. Instead he has been told to preach the words of his fellow Hebrew Israelites.

Despite its obvious flaws (see Lamar's singing voice) GOD. provides us with a relocation and acceptance of one's self - for the first time we're hearing from a positive Lamar, not aggressive or misdirected. Similarly to 'Real' from GKMC

Two verses compare the lives of Lamar and God himself, in the start the Compton rapper brags about his wealth and living. Then to remind himself, Lamar's next verse is clearly spoken from the viewpoint of God:

"Everything in life is a gamble, Nothin' in life I can't handle

 Seen it all, done it all, felt pain more

 For the cause, I done put blood on sword".

All before Lamar comes to conclusion that he's still feeling pretty damn good about where he is right now, maybe in comparison to where he was a couple years ago - after all this album is so detailed, who's to know the time-span of these life lessons?

GOD.'s an uplifting solo-track, and smoothly ushers us into the self-entitled closing track.

'DUCKWORTH.' puts it in reverse, or at least that's we're told -- but it's true. Lamar spins a soul-filled-sample over another old-school beat as his storytelling talent is on full show.

Coincidence is key in the story of Lamar's father, how his generosity served up empathy to a man who was planning on robbing his chicken store. Later in life it turns out that the criminal was Top Dawg, head of T.D.E, who would eventually sign Lamar to his label - one he's still firmly a part of. 

DAMN. then spins in reverse as Lamar's fate could've never been up to him, without his father he would never be the man we see, his DNA would've been affected.

For anyone, having their father shot down by someone would change their make-up, make them blood-thirsty, but his father's good-nature instead lives on in him, and also in Anthony (Top Dawg). 

A compelling story and one that Lamar only tells us to help us understand the bigger picture in life; gang-banging and War are no match for humility and compassion.

Stories like this could never be told if the world keeps heading down a treacherous path, with countries ready to out-spend one another due to fear but unwilling to challenge the paths laid out and perhaps accept and better themselves from within.

Any of us can control our own destiny but some things are down to coincidence, you just have to follow that path, turn that "walk the other day" into a better one, without the gun fight - this is the true message of DAMN.

A damn good album?

DAMN. ultimately is a realisation of Lamar's own fears, struggles and failure - perhaps his most downplayed album to date, yet fierce and wonderful as always.

Not just that though, the knowing that you could've almost never existed is one that many have never experienced, Lamar hopes to breathe life into that notion. 

Telling his own mistakes and own fears gives us lessons on living too; it feels good be humble once in a while and it's detrimental to live in a repetitive cycle, never challenging yourself.

It's also okay to have fears, if the biggest artist of this generation has them and bleeds it out into the studio for us to know, then it's only human nature.

What DAMN. goes against is the grade of worrying about things that don't affect us or don't even matter - for example the 'perfect image' on HUMBLE. or what makes you humane on DNA.

We all have flaws but first we have to accept them; it's one of many lessons to learn from listening to DAMN. In a way it's ironic that this album will receive differing reactions and its place in Lamar's discography a bigger mystery. 

From front to back it's well-rounded, with moments of raunchy-rap on DNA. and ELEMENT., to down-beat slow-ballads FEEL. and PRIDE., alongside pop-flavoured bangers like LOYALTY. and LOVE. -- this thing has it all. 

FEAR. and DUCKWORTH. spill over with intriguing lyrics, while their overall messages may be religious and spiritual, it doesn't take away from the beauty that Lamar tells them with.

With XXX. Kendrick is able to switch out a heavy-bass and loud sirens for a cooling vocal performance from Bono, almost effortlessly, it works.

Moments that won't stand the test of time can be found in the choruses on GOD. and LUST. - although to some extent the latter is catchy. While YAH. also doesn't offer up much and is one of those songs you have to really listen to with the whole album - which is often an issue with Lamar projects.

Where TPAB is a classic in modern hip-hop, it's hard to digest, DAMN. doesn't feel that way, akin to its predecessor you want to go back and find things you failed to notice on the previous listen -- except it doesn't take you far over an hour to do so.

Kendrick told the world he was going to set the whole industry on an ice pack, and he wasn't wrong; DAMN. will make for a third classic album in a row. Or four, if you count Section 80.

 

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