Kendrick Lamar opens his first album Section.80 with a powerful message: “Fuck your ethnicity”. 6 years and 3 projects later, he’s coming with a much different message. The opening to DAMN. exhibits Kendrick being murdered by a blind woman, likely symbolizing justice, spliced Geraldo Rivera’s characteristically tonedeaf criticism of Kendrick’s lyrics. This is immediately followed by “DNA”, possibly the hardest song Kendrick has made, dismantling his critics and claiming unmatchable genetic pedigree. Racial divides are too strong to simply brush aside and disregard ethnicity and DAMN reflects that.
Kendrick’s last effort To Pimp a Butterfly featured layered jazzy production which a superstar team behind the boards, it’s very smart social commentary delivered like a thesis to the world. DAMN. is a much more personal project highlighting Kendrick’s innermost thoughts. Also Kendrick trades the layered jazz for in-your-face Rick Rubin-esque beats, including three from ATL trapstar Mike Will Made It. Other notable producers on the project include TDE collaborators such as DJ Dahi (“Money Trees”, “Hell of A Night, “Tree of Life”) as well as their in house producer Sounwave. Ominous choral sections are threaded throughout the project courtesy of Bekon. While Mike Will’s beats would be obvious choices for the record’s best, James Blake-produced “Element” just barely trumps “DNA”, “XXX” and “Humble”. One interesting decision made with production on this record is the inclusion of U2, whom perform surprising well on their portion of “XXX.”
Lyrically, this album sits between To Pimp A Butterfly complexity and GKMC’s straight forward story telling. The most impressive songwriting on the albums comes in the form of a story with a mind-blowing ending in which Kendrick reveals that his label owner and mentor Top Dawg could’ve killed his father in a robbery, leaving Kendrick without a father or a mentor to die in a gunfight. As far as strict poetic devices, the repetition on “FEAR” is perfectly and almost effortlessly executed. From “I beat your ass” to “I’ll prolly die” to “I’m talkin fear” each repetitive can almost be read as the thematic center of the verse from age 7 to 17 to 27. Kendrick shows his versatility, rapping over just about anything thrown at him, from James Blake to Mike Will to U2.
Kendrick also shows off some of his flaws on this record. On “GOD”, the singing is very off-key, it’s a very poppy song that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Big Sean album, in fact, it wouldn’t even be the highlight of said hypothetical Big Sean album. It’s not terrible, but it adds nothing to the album. Other low points on the record appear closer to the middle in “LOVE” and “LUST”. “LUST” has a lot going for it, with DJ Dahi and BADBADNOTGOOD on the boards, the beat is stellar, as is the flipping of RAT BOY’s “Knock Knock Knock.” Despite all of that, it’s still difficult to Kendrick’s creepy ass “let me put the head in” hook. Finally, if Kendrick wants to be the best rapper alive, he has to accept that he’s just not good at love songs: “No Make Up”, “Poetic Justice”, and now “LOVE.” This iteration of the Kendrick Love Song isn’t particularly bad, but it’s a fairly poppy Zacari song, it’s “Studio” or “Overtime” to Schoolboy Q, it’s “You Owe Me” to Nas, it’s just not Kendrick’s lane. A better iteration of the Kendrick Pop Song is seen on “Loyalty”, rather than being as hamfisted as “LOVE”, Dahi, Kendrick and Rihanna show great chemistry trading back and forth. It’s just a good example of how Kendrick should execute a crossover *cough* fuck a Maroon 5 *cough*
All in all, while the dust has yet to settle on where DAMN. stacks up in Kendrick’s discography, it’s a perplexing record that adapts as you listen to it. It’s a nice short listen unlike To Pimp A Butterfly or many of the behemoths of albums released these days such as Drake’s More Life playlist or Future’s 2 nearly 20 track albums. Kendrick’s shown remarkable growth since O(verly) D(edicated). One thing that he absolutely cannot be criticized for is playing it safe, as he has demonstrated time and time again with each album drop.