Music Reviews

DAMN. Review: “Kendrick Lamar is unrivalled”


Now that you’ve had the long weekend to digest Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. it’s time to be taken through the album, and to see why Kung Fu Kenny is still the best in the game.

“The very nature of the album is different to his other works”

Honestly, I’d be lying if I said you’d get the full picture of the album from this review, or from any review that’ll be written about the opus. For the sake of not writing an endless essay on each aspect of the meticulously crafted fourteen tracks, I’ll start with a summary:

The album is musically toned down when compared with To Pimp A Butterfly. We don’t see dynamic clashes where soaring jazz and raw bars shout above each other. We’re given backdrops that provide atmosphere and context to support the bars and lift them into something purely emotive and insightful – we’re not lectured, we’re brought into conversation.  

This isn’t to say that the state-of-the-nation protest at the heart of the monumental To Pimp A Butterfly has actually passed – we don’t pass through introductory track ‘BLOOD.’ without seeing reference to ‘Alright’ and its voice against police brutality, which became the anthem of a wave of black lives campaigning and saw Kendrick (rightfully) compared to some of the most culturally important black musicians of all time.

“If we’re going to talk rap for rap’s sake – this album is on another level”

The very nature of the album is different to his other works. The tracks’ titles offer a one-word summary of the story and lyrical content in the tracks. We’ve gone from music aimed to be played from the White House down, to a stripped and raw attack aiming to revolt from the bottom and up.

The production on the album is also startling. The way ‘BLOOD.’ shoots its way into ‘DNA’, which gives ‘DNA’ a momentum that stomps an onslaught of thumping bass and cut-throat bars. This can be heard over extracts from Fox News’ comments about Lamar: “hip-hop has done more damage […] than racism”. Damn.

DAMN. isn’t just a new section of Kendrick’s purposefulness though: if we’re going to talk rap for rap’s sake – this album is on another level. Since NAS’ Illmatic there have only been a handful of hip-hop albums that have both seen the heights of musical fame and been actually outstanding. They include Kanye’s The College Dropout and My Dark Twisted Fantasy, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, To Pimp A Butterfly… and DAMN.

In terms of the tracks themselves, there is immense variation. The list of collaborators on the album is also incredible given how stripped back the album is. They’re not overindulgent either. ‘LUST.’, for example, features the modern jazz outfit BadBadNotGood, but you wouldn’t really know by listening to it. They add an understated moody influence that takes the track from good to great.

‘DNA.’ is a devoted and aggressive nod to Lamar’s upbringings, whereas ‘LOVE.’ sounds more like a (far too) contemplative (for) Drake track than a piece of K. Perhaps the song is his play on the commercial, heartbroken hip-hop that has rocketed Drake into the mainstream. However, the track features Zacari. Don’t know him? No, don’t worry, I didn’t either. He wrote fishing guides and had less than 10,000 followers on SoundCloud until recently.

“Just for the record, it slays anything Drake has made…”

Lamar’s commitment to creating tracks is unrivalled in the hip-hop scene and probably beyond it; when you consider that he has sourced and contemplated people from Rhianna and U2 to Rat Boy and Zacari to make the tracks exactly how they are (and just for the record, it slays anything Drake has made).

‘FEAR.’ is possibly the more intriguing track in terms of composition. Shimmering falsetto Gospel melodies sing against a deep, dissatisfied spoken word which asks “Why god do I gotta suffer? / Earth is no more when you burn this motherfucker”. There’s an abundance of muffled layers and samples in the track too, though much of it can’t be heard well enough to comment upon (beyond the atmosphere they create).

The track is strange: it feels like a passage of time in itself. Yes, it’s the longest track on the disc, but it doesn’t really feel like one track. It doesn’t feel like multiple tracks either – it’s a structure-less, meditative backdrop. It mentions the names of many of the “fourteen tracks” around the five-minute thirty mark. It’s a truly self-referential piece, which then also follows a tangent into the wider world through a tinny spoken word about God and the United States of America.

“I’m not sure DAMN. will hold up to the same cultural legacy – but I’m also sure it wasn’t supposed to”

My favourite track is ‘DUCKWORTH.’ It might be due to the 70’s soul influences (including The Fatback Band), the biographical content (the title is his surname and “Because if Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg could be servin’ life/While I grew up without a father and die in a gun fight” is the summary of a moving story about K’s early life, towards the end of the track) or the immensely satisfying conclusion it brings to the album.

In my opinion, To Pimp A Butterfly is going to remain held as one of the most important albums in hip-hop, forever. I’m not sure DAMN. will hold up to the same cultural legacy – but I’m also sure it wasn’t supposed to. What the album does do is elevate Kendrick as a genius.

To be able to release an album (and possibly a second, if rumours are correct?!) just two years after a disc like TPAB is impressive; for it to be as insightful, playful, contemplative, beautifully crafted, deeply layered and referential as it is, singles him out to be the most impressive artist of the century so far – and I’m not just talking about music there.

Rhys Thomas

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