buzz factor: 8.5/10
best tracks: “XXX,” “FEAR,” “DUCKWORTH”
worst tracks: “GOD”
verdict: Lamar is the best. This album isn’t trying to be a social movement or awakening, but a more personal piece of artwork about his emotions, his life. Of course it still works.
On his newest album, Kendrick wants you to know one thing — he’s not a savior. After a string of world-beating, genre-redefining releases, Kendrick has finally fallen back to Earth, to walk among us as a mortal man. Luckily for us, he is still the best rapper alive, and “DAMN.” is a testament to that.
When I say that he’s fallen back to Earth, I don’t mean that he has lost ambition. If anything, the songs on “DAMN.” are more varied and experimental than his other releases. Gone are the jazz-splattered creations of “To Pimp a Butterfly,” but the production is still fantastic for the most part, while utilizing more traditional beat-making methods.
The songs here switch beats and flows so often it can be dizzying. They sometimes come across as hulking, stitched-together beasts, like on “XXX” or “FEAR”.
This isn’t exactly new for Kendrick — “Art of Peer Pressure,” “Hood Politics,” and “Untitled 07 | Levitate” are all important touchstones, the daring beat changes on those songs cropping up all over the place on “DAMN.”
But it’s not just the songs themselves that are more chaotic. “DAMN.” may be Kendrick’s most musically varied album since Section.80.
He hits so many different moods — the jugular-ripping “DNA,” and “HUMBLE,” the funky, squawking “YAH,” the somber “PRIDE” and “FEEL,” the saccharine R&B “LOVE,” and whatever you want to call “XXX.”
The constantly shifting moods allow Kendrick to flex some of his strongest bars to date. “DNA,” “FEEL,” and “FEAR” all dazzle with Kendrick’s insane lyricism and technical ability, and there’s really no song that doesn’t have at least one certified classic line.
But this intense variation sometimes tends to make the album seem scattered, or maybe more like it pursued a style that doesn’t work as well as others explored on the album.
The most glaring misstep is “GOD”— coming after the mind-blowing, nearly 8 minute “FEAR” and before the intensely personal closer “DUCKWORTH.”
“GOD” drags on, with the only bad melody on the album (Kendrick’s singing works on “LOVE,” but his cries of “Don’t judge me!” here come across as comical). It’s almost like a repeat of “good kid m.A.A.d city’s” “Real,” an alright song on its own, but one that is hurt drastically by its place on the album.
The scattered nature also prevents the songs from reaching the heights of emotional intensity that, say, “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” or “Mortal Man” had.
So what do I mean when I say he’s back on Earth?
Maybe it has something to do with the way storytelling is so ingrained in his music. “good kid, m.A.A.d city” was billed on its cover as “A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar,” and “To Pimp A Butterfly” seemed to be part of one long, overarching poetic structure. Even “Untitled, Unmastered” had a sort of narrative throughout it, being castoffs of “TPAB,” sure, but it had its own musical motifs.
Both of his previous full lengths seemed to exist as a way to tell a specific story — “GKMC” as a way to tell about Kendrick’s childhood, and “TPAB” as a sort of State of the Union address on what it means to be black in America.
With each album, Kendrick’s place in hip-hop became loftier — he went from a skilled young rapper to the one who would bring “real hip-hop” back (whatever that means) after Good Kid dropped.
And with “To Pimp a Butterfly,” he seemed poised to transcend that even — he was determined to affect real change through his music.
He made headlines for his provocative award show performances. “Alright” became an anthem for Black Lives Matter protesters. He met with Obama, for God’s sake, to talk about the problems facing inner city kids. Across the entirety of “TPAB” he compared himself to black leaders — he wanted you to love him like Nelson, he wanted to be the next Pac.
On “DAMN.” he seems to have lost that desire.
He no longer wants to speak about the experience of all people of color in America. “It was always me vs. the world,” the beginning of “DUCKWORTH” explains.
“Until I found it’s me vs. me” It seems that, to him, the most he can do is speak on his own life.
The album opens on a scene of isolation and reflection, and ends with a retelling of Kendrick’s own family history, going back before he was even born. The songs focus on subjective feelings: “PRIDE” and “HUMBLE,” “LUST” and “LOVE.”
That’s not to say he’s turned a blind eye to the issues of today. He still addresses brutality and injustice, but it’s no longer his focus.
This isn’t the radical beat-poet of “To Pimp a Butterfly” or the desperate, now-or-never Compton escapee of “good kid, m.A.A.d city.”
He sounds a little more beat down here. It might be the vitriolic election that’s done that, or it might be the fact that he’s just getting older and can’t change the world every time he drops an album.
It was easy to see people reaching for the same type of message that “Good Kid” and “To Pimp a Butterfly” had when “DAMN.” first dropped: there were conspiracy theories galore about how the whole album was a massive puzzle, a hint about another, forthcoming album.
It wasn’t, but the idea that his work needs to be a part of some lofty canon of “albums with messages” was a powerful one that was embedded in a lot of people.
I’m reminded of a sentiment Kendrick shared on “Ab-Soul’s Outro” from “Section.80″:
“I’m not the next pop star, I’m not the next socially aware rapper. I am a human motherfucking being over dope ass instrumentation.”
With “DAMN.” he seems to have gone back to that mindset. Of course, he is still a star (maybe not pop, but hip-hop for sure), and he is still a conscious rapper. But he’s not trying to be.
He’s just an incredible rapper, working out his own problems over dope ass instrumentation. Which is just fine, because he’s still the best.