“DAMN.,” Kendrick Lamar’s fourth major-label release, has been out for a week. Reviewing the album now has allowed the dust to settle, and boy was there a lot of dust. In the week since its release, there have been rumors of another album on Easter Sunday, a Coachella performance, and Kendrick debuting with the highest streaming numbers of 2017. Making matters worse, this is a Kendrick album, so I knew it was going to be dense, dark and confusing, so a week-long period to sit with the album seemed appropriate. This project, an eclectic mix of sounds and themes, is all over the place. The album cover and lead single “HUMBLE.” suggested a stripped back, raw version of Kendrick that we have never seen before. The finished product is vastly different, specifically the second half of the album, which features a song that would fit in any Drake album very comfortably. This album plays like a snapshot of Kendrick’s life in 2017, battling personal and societal demons, and that is exactly what great artists are expected to do. With “DAMN.,” Kendrick is facing the problems in his life, expressed simply in the song titles themselves, with a familiar combination: family and God. Kendrick finds a balance here between the philosophical (“FEAR.,” “DUCKWORTH.”) and the unabashedly beautiful (“LOVE.”), and gives a look into his mind (or death possibly) in 2017.
“DAMN.” deviates from his earlier releases with its lack of a clear story, or strong concept connecting the songs. His first major release, “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” told a coming-of-age tale in the span of one day in the rapper’s hometown of Compton. Kendrick’s next project, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” saw the rapper pen a note to Tupac as he learned to accept and love himself. With last Friday’s album, there are still threads that tie the album together throughout its stark and sonically diverse runtime.
Kendrick’s relationship to his past is a major idea throughout the album, and his father is referenced, or speaking directly, numerous times. This is first addressed on the biggest, most bad-ass song of the project, “DNA.” Here, Kendrick raps about both “royalty” and “evil” that he inherited from his ancestors, and this duality appears at many points on the album. At about the halfway point in the song, the beat switches and pure mayhem ensues, courtesy of Mike Will Made-It. This second beat on “DNA” could be the soundtrack to a huge street fight, riot, or stampede, and should not be played within fifty feet of Ron Artest. The album’s strongest song, “Duckworth,” bookends the project with a story about the varying paths Kendrick’s life could have taken if circumstances in his past had changed. This song is a story about the rapper’s two father figures; his actual father and his label head Top Dawg, and ends the album with a fantastic philosophical mic-drop. I would compare “DUCKWORTH.” to “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” the show-stopper on 2012’s “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” because they are both the high-points of their respective albums, and tell personal stories about the unexpected consequences of Kendrick’s music.
Religion has been front and center on Kendrick’s mind throughout his career, and “DAMN.” is no different. “FEAR.,” the epic homily on fear in multiple stages of Kendrick’s life, takes a very interesting view on the plight of minorities in today’s society. Kendrick equates the struggle of blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans to that of the Jewish people, and claims a loss of faith and a worshipping of false gods is what is causing problems for minorities in the United States today. This idea ignores many other aspects that lead to inequality for minority groups, but is a provocative societal comment that is trying to spur a conversation about an important issue.
As a whole project, the album’s sound mirrors its content with an extremely varied production. The song “LOVE.” particularly sticks out with its soaring melodies and sing-song vocal performance from Kendrick. The song, which features drums in the background that sounds eerily like the one’s from “Hotline Bling,” seems to be taping into the Drake demographic. This deviation from his comfort zone is not unsuccessful for Kendrick. The song is a beautiful love song, carried by a breakout performance by Zacari. “LOVE.” is immediately followed by “XXX.,” which deals with violence on a personal and societal level, and employs three wildly different beats within the song. The song begins with a minimal, laid back beat with a few record scratches, then transitions to an up-tempo section that is reminiscent of “Sound of da Police” by KRS-One, and ends with Bono singing over a hazy piano laden instrumental. The fractured sonic patterns on this album can be distracting at times, with multiple beat switches within songs, but overall it kept me guessing what was going to come next, and makes the album more interesting on repeat listens.
The most enigmatic aspect of the album was undoubtedly its use of reversed vocal or instrumental sounds. At the beginning of the album, Kendrick comes upon a blind woman on the street and is subsequently killed, and the album ends with a reversed vocal section that ends with the beginning of the blind woman story. This “Memento”-esc riddle begs more questions than it can answer. Is the album Kendrick’s life flashing before his eyes as he dies like this is the South Central version of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge?” The internet seems to think the album can be played forward or reverse, with “DUCKWORTH.” opening the album and “BLOOD.” closing it. If I’m being honest, I am yet to decipher what the reverse means. That is something that would take a couple months of sitting with the album to get a strong idea of what Kendrick is getting at.
This is album is a clear deviation from what he has done in the past, but with Kendrick, the only thing constant is change. “DAMN.” is more diverse, less organized, but ultimately powerful picture of the struggles facing the Compton rapper.
Must Listen Songs: “DNA.,” “Element.,” “HUMBLE.,” “LOVE.,” “FEAR.,” “DUCKWORTH.”
Missable songs: “YAH.,” “FEEL.”
Teddy Craven is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.