Given how fresh and revolutionary Kendrick Lamars previous full-length album was, it is strange to think it’s been a full two years since To Pimp A Butterfly dropped. Many people’s album of the decade, he couldn’t top that, could he? Could he?
It was perhaps to be expected that we’d receive at least nods in a different direction from Lamar, and from the off everything has felt a little bit like we were travelling at a faster pace this time around.
If The Heart Part 4, the initial promo song, offered gentle nods to Kendricks new atmosphere, HUMBLE. sat you down and slapped you into a new world. This didn’t even sound like a Kendrick Lamar song, and just like with previous early singles Backstreet Freestyle and i for Good Kid M.a.a.D City and To Pimp A Butterfly respectively, there were fears the bar that Kendrick has set so, so high for himself would wobble, if not fall entirely.
Once again, there was nothing to worry about. DAMN. is an outstanding hour of music, delivered with verve, passion and an artist prepared to roll his sleeves up and really go for the throat. It attacks so hard there’s no reason for it to try and get on the back foot.
If To Pimp A Butterfly was Kendrick Lamar sculpting the crown that puts him as King of the rap game, DAMN. is him burning his castle down whilst bloodying the rest of the competition with his crown jewels.
After BLOOD., served as a glorified introduction, we are treated to the most direct case of this aggression from Lamar in DNA. Kendrick dissects himself purely to make a point against one single FOX News report over his single Alright, and its lines referring to police brutality.
Sure, the point made can be stretched to a broader ideology, but it was refreshing to see Kendrick truly put somebody on blast, particularly in the new age of subliminal and sly digs in hip hop, something that he oft partakes in himself.
His delivery for the final minute of that song, where he doesn’t even stop for breath, co-habitates with YAH in its alien feel. It warps here, there and everywhere and gives as an exasperated Kendrick, setting his story straight on his position as an artist and an icon.
It’s up for debate but with ELEMENT. following afterwards, in its more conventional format and addictive hook, we may have seen Kendricks best ever 3-song run of his career. The squirts and varnishes of Autotune within these songs in particular on DAMN. give the album an extra layer of depth and for me even go some way to removing people’s disappointment at a lack of top level features.
On that subject, however, it is very much a mixed bag. Kendricks production and lyricism allow Rihanna to flourish on LOYALTY., giving her a platform to be more heartfelt and more angry than we usually gets when she’s phoning in a guest verse. Both qualities she would be better served bringing to her solo work, but that is a different subject for a different time.
The intriguing (some would say baffling) U2 feature on XXX. it is difficult to be as complimentary about. It’s a flaccid chorus that could have performed by countless artists in one of the weaker, less engaging songs on the whole album. People, including myself, wondered what a rock band like U2 could bring to an album like Kendrick Lamars and unfortunately the answer is precisely nothing.
In fact, the final third of the album as a collective rather suffers from a lack of focus. Some of the beats and vocal delivery in XXX. itself but in particular GOD. can be viewed as lazy cuts that would be better served on a different project than this, with more of a relaxing feel to it.
In fact, the albums theme and message as a whole is altogether cloudier than on To Pimp A Butterfly. Where TPAB was and is a historical reference point for movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and the state of areas such as Compton in urban America, DAMN. is rather more scatter gun and informal in its approach with its issues. FEAR., while special, feels slightly bloated, and LOVE., pretty when it stands on its own, has come dressed as a princess to a suit and tie party.
It’s not to say that Kendrick doesn’t make his points well with genuine emotion and conviction, it’s more that the core intention of the album was chipped away at over time in its production so that Lamar could branch out and get everything across in its 14 tracks.
No track is positioned better than DUCKWORTH, however. It acts as the perfect final chapter of a draining and high-octane 54 minutes of music. Telling the never previously discussed origin stories of both Top Dawg Entertainment, and Kendrick Lamar himself across a haunting yet gorgeous gospel beat, it will be the track for me that will blossom the most with age more than any other on DAMN.
In terms of picking a favourite, it’s tough but I can’t look beyond LUST. at this stage. With its production levels being some of the best work BADBADNOTGOOD have ever touched upon, it sounds at times like four separate tracks on top of each other, all of them wonderful, all of them matching. Kendrick himself shows his full repotoire of vocal talents, rapping effortlessly and bumping hooks across the track at will.
We’ve seen two very different sides of Kendrick Lamar come together for this project. The hardcore aspects, gritty vocal performances and shoot first, ask questions later format of Good Kid M.a.a.D City have been coupled with the neo-soul and beauty of To Pimp A Butterfly to sew together something that sounds remarkably new.
Top his previous work? No, but if we’re honest, it’s not important and was near impossible for him to go down that road and get away with it again anyway. The criticism for trying to make a TPAB 2 would have been heavy and damaging for an artist such a Kendrick, and I’m certain he would have been aware of that.
Has he produced something fresh, exciting and challenging for an audience that has changed remarkably in just two years, though? Certainly. You can rank that alongside any previous accomplishments Lamar has picked up to date, as well.