Following modern classics “good kid, m.A.A.d city” and “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Kendrick Lamar has returned with another challenging and intense album. “DAMN.” is a concept album: on the intro, which sounds like the beginning of a 70s blaxploitation movie, he dies. The rest of the record details him surveying his life, what he did right and what he did wrong. Throughout, Kendrick struggles with his relationship with God and the seduction of fame and materiality that puts it in jeopardy.
The entire album is a battle between what Kendrick calls “wickedness or weakness,” essentially vice or virtue. Songs with titles relating to deadly sins (“PRIDE.,” “LUST.”) are pinned up against song titles relating to holy virtues (“LOYALTY.,” “HUMBLE.,” “LOVE.”). Kendrick talks about his connection with God, or, at times, lack thereof. “Ain’t nobody prayin’ for me” he repeats throughout the album. It is full of introspective epiphanies. “It was always me vs. the world/Until I found it’s me vs. me,” a voice sings on “Duckworth,” the final track, titled after his real last name.
It’s difficult to talk about “DAMN.” without comparing it to “TPAB” because the former seems like a reaction to the public’s reaction of the latter. The album is very rap-centric. This may disappoint the hipsters enamored by the exuberant funk on “TPAB.”
If “TPAB” was the righteous optimism under the Obama administration that a post-race revolution was achievable, then “DAMN.” is the stark slap of reality brought by Trump that these deeply-ingrained societal hierarchies still exist and likely aren’t going anywhere soon.
On “GKMC” and “TPAB” Kendrick was heralding the greatness of music in the past, classic west coast hip hop and jazz respectively. On “DAMN.” he is paving the way for the future. The sound has been described as dystopian pop. The chords lack romantic warmth. The drums are either groggy or piercing, no in between. On songs like “DNA,” Kendrick sounds pissed and it’s awesome. It seems like he is drifting away from hope and devolving into chaos.
The songs are fractured in a postmodern sort of way. The album lacks a consistent rhythm. He wants to prevent listeners from getting swept up in the groove. Many of the album’s themes and questions remain unresolved, leaving the listener to make up his or her mind.
He is so far ahead of any other popular rapper in terms of rhyme structures, wordplay, lyrical depth and poetic imagery. Multiple different ideas, points of view and characters battle with one another. He tells vivid stories, like one of apathy and sex on “LUST.”
Kendrick uses his features to their fullest. While most rappers would hire Rihanna to sing a generic hook, “LOYALTY.” has her rapping along with him and she lays down some dope bars. “XXX.” features U2 (yes, that U2). After two and a half belligerently experimental minutes of visceral beats painting pictures of graphic violence, Bono serenades over ethereal piano.
While the album is mostly personal, Kendrick can’t help but comment on the current political landscape. “We all woke up, tryna tune to the daily news/Lookin’ for confirmation, hopin’ election wasn’t true,” he says on “LUST.” Several times he calls out Fox News for taking the lyrics from his song “Alright” out of context for their own sensationalization. He even samples Geraldo Rivera saying “Hip-hop has done more damage to young African Americans in recent years than racism.” “Fox news wanna use my name for percentage,” he says on “YAH.”
Kendrick is proof that great music is still released. I keep waiting for him to disappoint, but he hasn’t. He purposely switches up his styles and themes enough each time that it’s impossible to compare his work. The only thing to do is sit back in awe and appreciate a true genius. At this point, he can’t lose. With “DAMN.” he solidifies himself as the most important artist of our generation.