DAMN. is a beast of an album. Clocking in at 54:54, Kendrick Lamar’s newest opus is his most expansive and intimate project to date. If To Pimp a Butterfly was Kendrick’s Electric Ladyland, DAMN. has K-dot playing guitar solos with his teeth, upside-down.
Take ‘FEAR.’ for example. A verse played in reverse, rapid fire list raps (I’ll beat yo ass, I’ll prolly, I’m talkin’ fear), and an outro by Louis Farrakhan. Who else could pull that off? Who else could take a song with U2 and turn it into something that could’ve been on AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted?
Lamar’s playfulness is natural – he’s in his element. Those expecting a concrete narrative akin to good kid, m.A.A.d city or To Pimp a Butterfly are sure to be surprised. It feels more like Kendrick is letting his raps build the album from the ground up, using the central themes of death and damnation to guide his hand. Consequently, the constant change ups can feel a bit awkward. ‘HUMBLE.’ now feels like an outsider sandwiched between the breezy ‘PRIDE.’ and ‘LUST.’ The autotune-heavy ‘GOD.’ fits the theme of the album well, but its tone is a massive departure from the rest of the tracklisting.
Lyrically, this might be Kendrick at his finest. Varied flows on every track, vivid storytelling and some of his best quotables yet: “I don’t do it for the ‘gram, I do it for Compton,” “that grey poupon, that evian, that TED talk.” He always seizes the center stage. ‘DUCKWORTH.,’ the album’s closer, is a story about a chance encounter between Kendrick’s own father and a young Top Dawg that can best be summarized by ‘God works in mysterious ways.’
The production on DAMN. leaves absolutely nothing to be desired. Beat changes on just about every track – a song might turn into a banger at any moment. Mike WiLL Made-It (‘Move That Dope,’ ‘Formation’) crafts three earth-shattering tracks in ‘DNA.,’ ‘HUMBLE.,’ and ‘XXX.’ DJ Dahi (‘Money Trees,’ ‘Worst Behaviour’) touches on about half of the tracks; TDE veteran Sounwave adds his signature west coast vibes to a majority of tracks and handles the contemplative ‘FEEL.’ all by himself.
Hip hop heads will probably rejoice at the younger guests in the production notes – BADBADNOTGOOD, KAYTRANADA, and the Internet’s Steve Lacy all have their time to shine. James Blake shows up to provide some keys, vocals and atmosphere to ‘ELEMENT.,’ somehow fusing his sound with a drilling beat and Latin guitars courtesy of DJ Dahi and Sounwave.
Finally, industry veterans The Alchemist and 9th Wonder add an old school touch with two masterful tracks, ‘FEAR.’ and ‘DUCKWORTH.,’ respectively. While the beat on ‘FEAR.’ will be familiar to those who heard ‘The Heart Part 4,’ on the album it’s been extended to nearly 8 minutes and it never gets old. A luscious guitar, chopped-up soul samples and strings fit Kendrick’s introspective rap to a T. 9th Wonder ups the ante by taking his soothing sound to a whole new level. He sounds like he’s producing the last record he’ll ever touch with heavenly vocals, twangy guitars and traditional boombap, shifting gears about four times in four minutes.
However, this album isn’t without its misfires. Kendrick has upped his hook writing, but his weakness in this area shows on ‘YAH.’ and ‘ELEMENT.,’ otherwise strong songs. The tracks ‘LOVE.’ and ‘GOD.’ will give you some time to breath, but as standalone songs they feel like underwritten pop-crossovers. At the same time, the listener is left wondering what singer Zacari adds to his track in terms of personality – an album-changing feature like Rapsody’s on TPAB is notably absent. And again, this album will leave you with a change up or transition that doesn’t always fit.
The concept is there, its execution is great, but the non-sequiturs sometimes feel like they could have been fleshed out to a greater extent. Kendrick absolutely slaughters his foes, but still offers listeners a side of himself that is as intense as it is genuine. A third classic? We’ll see. But until then, DAMN.