Kendrick Lamar, DAMN. | Album Review
Kendrick Lamar delivers his best album yet with ‘DAMN.’ The profane title is the best way to characterize the spirited, deep new project.
The best way to characterize the new Kendrick Lamar album is to use the title itself – DAMN. It goes without saying that Kendrick is like a god among MCs and that any new album he releases is certain to be damn good, but DAMN. is truly extraordinary. The track list with one-word titles suggests K-Dot is taking a break from the conceptual, opting for more straightforward, accessible album. That’s not the case in the least. If anything, DAMN. is the most ambitious, and quite possibly the BEST album from the MC yet.
Expectedly, Kendrick Lamar packs a punch with brief opener, “BLOOD.” Following an intro sang by Bēkon, Lamar tells a story about offering to help a blind woman. Ultimately, she shoots him. After he is shot, excerpts from Fox News negatively discuss the rapper’s lyrics on police brutality.
After DAMN. kicks off with a bang, “DNA” bangs hard from the jump. K-Dot shares the composition of his DNA. Ultimately, lots of things characterize him. He raps in maddening fashion as he lists them. Highlights from verse one include:
“Realness, I just kill shit ‘cause it’s in my DNA / I got millions, I got riches buildin’ in my DNA / I got dark, I got evil, that rot inside my DNA / I got off, I got troublesome, heart inside my DNA.”
Continually tough as he flaunts his rap supremacy, a bridge divides the song into contrasting parts. The bridge addresses racism, a topic running rampant in urban music lately. The second verse is more ferocious, backed by a truly malicious beat. The wordplay is insane.
“YAH” has a tough act to follow, but Lamar remains on autopilot. Here, the MC celebrates his fame but doesn’t allow it to change him. “YAH” is characterized by its chill vibes.
“My mama told me that I’ma work myself to death / My girl told me don’t let these hoes get in my head / My world been ecstatic, I checked the signal that read // buzzin’, radars is buzzin’ / Yah, yah, yah, yah…”
He’s buzzin’ right now. In the second verse, he references Fox News (again), religion and spirituality, and the power of temptation.
“I don’t give a f*ck, I don’t give f*ck…” Kendrick Lamar exhibits toughness on “ELEMENT,” starkly contrasting “YAH.” Edgy, on the first verse, he asserts, “[I’ll] Put the Bible down and go eye for an eye for this shit.” On the second, he states, “I’m allergic to a b*tch n*gga.” By the end of the third verse, he confronts the change in demeanor:
“… Last LP I tried to lift the black artists / But it’s a difference between black artists and wack artists.”
The hook captures his approach splendidly:
“If I gotta slap a pussy-ass n*gga, I’ma make it look sexy / If I gotta go hard on a b*tch, I’ma make it look sexy…/ They won’t take me out of my element / Nah, take me out my element.”
“FEEL” is connected to “ELEMENT” by one line: “Ain’t nobody prayin’ for me.” The seminal line eventually becomes the chorus. “FEEL” feels like a reaction to the anger exhibited on “ELEMENT.” Literally, Kendrick Lamar expresses his feelings, repeating the titular lyrics throughout the verses. He’s still angry, but rather than taking action, he shares his emotions and thoughts.
“LOYALTY.” brings the first notable guest of DAMN., Rihanna. Among things that make “LOYALTY” sensational is the manner in which Kendrick Lamar and Rihanna perform the verses. Both combine for the third and fifth verses, as well as the choruses.
“It’s a secret society / All we ask is trust… / All we got is us / Loyalty, loyalty, loyalty.”
Loyalty, indeed, is the central theme. The secret society reference raises eyebrows, though it’s hard to tell if indeed the Illuminati plays a role on DAMN.
“PRIDE,” another meaningful song, is slow but powerful. DAMN. continues to be characterized by depth and a transcendent script. Faith is evidenced literally on the first verse:
“I don’t trust people enough beyond they surface, world / I don’t love people enough to put my faith in men / I put my faith in these lyrics, hoping I make amend.”
Beyond the literal use of faith, morality and immorality – spiritually-related things – play a role. Naturally, pride is considered a sin.
“Sick venom in men and women overcome with pride / A perfect world is never perfect, only filled with lies.”
From the jump, promo single “HUMBLE.” is energetic. Kendrick Lamar testifies about his come-up, but he’s not bragging – he’s thankful. He emphasizes being humble, with a brilliant, gimmicky hook. Possessing numerous meanings, some believe it’s a diss track directed to specific rappers. Most likely, it’s more transcendent than a cocky rapper. The best line references cellulite, though it runs deeper than such.
“I’m so fuckin’ sick and tired of the Photoshop / Show me somethin’ natural like afro on Richard Pryor / Show me somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks…”
“LUST” shows how powerful, dangerous, and dirty that lust is. Kendrick Lamar makes lustfulness sound like the ultimate. Much of it is sexual, but he expands the scope on the bridge:
“Lately, I feel like I been lustin’ over fame / Lately, we lust on the same routine of shame / Lately, lately, lately, my lust been hidin’ / Lately, it’s all contradiction.”
He goes on to reference scripture during the bridge (James 4:4). The chorus pads down the religious elements of DAMN.
“I need some water / Somethin’ came over me / Way too high to simmer down / Might as well overheat / Too close to comfort / As blood rush my favorite vein / Heartbeat racin’ like a junkie’s / I just need you to want me…”
“LOVE.” follows, featuring the smooth tenor of up-and-coming singer, Zacari. If “LUST” sounded filthy, “LOVE” sounds beautiful. Clearly, there is more dedication, showcased by Zacari’s celestial vocals and Kendrick’s thoughtful rhymes and questions for his bae.
The biggest surprise of DAMN. As a whole is that U2 are featured guests on “XXX.” Continuing to be the master of connection, Lamar relates the harsh conditions of the streets and the country as a whole. The first verse has more of an overt, hip-hop sound, as Kendrick tells the tale of a father who lost of his son because of “insufficient funds.” Kendrick proceeds to adhere to “an eye for an eye,” asserting he’d do the unthinkable if such a thing happened. The second verse is slower, mellower, greeted by a memorable chorus sung by Bono:
“It’s not a place / This country is to be a sound of drum and bass / You close your eyes to look around.”
K-Dot raps about the state of the union, over a more soulful, urban-rock backdrop.
“Homicidal thoughts; Donald Trump’s in office / We lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again / But is America honest, or do we bask in sin?”
The intro of “FEAR” once more makes Biblical reference, this time, Old Testament scripture Deuteronomy 28:28. Verse one sounds as if Lamar’s mother is warning him of the consequences for a variety of actions. Essentially, she’s instilling fear into him should he do something wrong:
“I beat yo ass, keep talkin’ back / I beat yo ass, who bought you that? / You stole it, I beat yo ass if you say that game is broken / I beat yo ass, if you jump on my couch…”
On the chorus, he throws in some escapism, wishing he could “smoke fear away” because it’s destructive and detrimental. On the second verse, the key lyric is “I’ll prolly die…,” a different take on fear. The focus is 27 years of age on the third verse, as he looks toward 30. On a fourth verse, the key moment is, “I’m talkin’ fear…” The key word on the bridge is goddamn, which has multiple meanings contextually.
On “GOD.,” Kendrick Lamar addresses the overconfident notion of god status. The chorus is the ultimate flex-fest, with celestial, triumphant production work to match:
“This what God feel like, huh, yeah / Laughin’ to the bank like, ‘A-ha!’, huh, yeah / Flex on swole like, ‘A-ha!’, huh, yeah / You feel some type of way, then a-ha! / Huh, yeah (a-ha-ha, a-ha-ha).”
“DUCKWORTH” concludes the album sensationally. Musically, there are numerous beat and background changes, which keeps the record captivating. Beyond that, however, the lyrics are compelling as Kendrick Lamar tells a wild story involving Anthony, Ducky, and ultimately Kendrick Himself. It ends up being a true story, depicting how Anthony (“Top Dawg”) planned to rob Ducky (Kendrick’s father), a KFC employee. Ultimately, Top Dawg Entertainment, distributed by Interscope, signed Kendrick Lamar.
“Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence? / Because if Anthony killed Ducky / Top Dawg could be servin’ life / While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight.”
What else can be said about DAMN. but damn! Kendrick Lamar has clearly outdone himself, managing to somehow best two hip-hop classics, not to mention a respectable disc of B-Sides. DAMN. takes several listens to digest and analyze, but once the magic is revealed, it’s clear Kendrick Lamar is one of the most creative and greatest artists of our time. Come February 2018, maybe he’ll finally walk out of the Grammys holding a Grammy for Album of the Year.
Gems: “DNA.,” “ELEMENT.,” “LOYATY.,” “HUMBLE.,” “LUST.,” “XXX.,” and “DUCKWORTH.”