DISCLAIMER: This review may contain content that Kendrick Lamar fanboys could find offensive and distressing, aka actual criticism of his work. If you are expecting a 10/10 just because it’s Kendrick, then you’ve come to the wrong place I’m afraid.
Kendrick Lamar needs no introduction at this point. He is a 29 year old Compton rapper that has become the most culturally important artist of our generation; yes you read that right, not just the most important rapper, but artist too. His last two albums have defined an era in hip-hop music, particularly his last album, 2015’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ which was the most Grammy nominated project since Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ album. Two back-to-back timeless classics later and he’s back to bless us once again. ‘The Heart Part IV’ shocked us, ‘HUMBLE.’ prepared us, and now it’s time for the album. This is a review of Kendrick Lamar’s new album ‘DAMN.’.
One thing I look for in a Kendrick Lamar project is a concept, an idea that can be taken and ran with. ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ gave us the tale of a kid growing up in Compton around the wild world of gang violence and drugs; while ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ gave us a cultural phenomenon aimed at tackling racial oppression and discrimination. So obviously I was hoping for something similarly groundbreaking here, if anything I was expectant of it now due to what he has shown us before.
We do get a tale, the story of Kendrick’s death, comparable to that of a modern day hood Jesus, with the very first song showing him get shot by a blind woman. Other than that? We have to go to the last song (‘DUCKWORTH.’) to get any kind of masterful anecdote about Kendrick himself and that in fairness is fantastic. It tells the story of Kendrick’s father ‘Ducky’ and Top Dawg Entertainment (Kendrick’s record label) founder Anthony Tiffith meeting each other and nearly becoming involved in a gun fight, years before Tiffith even met Kendrick let alone signed him to the label. It’s a brilliant eye-opener of a tale and it keeps you fully involved all the way through. My concern is that the project as a whole just didn’t seem to follow any sort of narrative outside of those two songs, the opener and closer. ‘LOVE.’ and ‘LUST.’ were next to each other in the track listing but it’s a bit of a reach to say that they coincide together because apart from Kendrick saying “love or lust” at the start of one of the tracks, he doesn’t pay it any attention.
We’ve also been spun a tale by Kendrick stans that if you flip the album round and listen to it in reverse order, starting with ‘DUCKWORTH.’ and ending with ‘BLOOD.’ you get a different story? How can that be the case when there’s barely a story being told when it’s played the right way round?
The featured artists on both the vocal and production side of things do fantastic jobs in contributing to the album as a whole. Rihanna is back to her brilliant best on ‘LOYALTY.’ and she completely outdoes Kendrick on it who sounds a bit lethargic and lazy over an otherwise great beat. On ‘XXX.’ which is hands down the best song on the album, legendary Irish rock band U2 offer a very different flavour at the end of a boom blast hip-hop track and give a soothing instrumental for Kendrick to close the track with. Mike WiLL Made-It saves this album at times, his beat making on ‘XXX.’, ‘HUMBLE.’ and ‘DNA.’ is nothing short of majestic, they are some of the hardest instrumentals you’ll hear in a long long time I promise you. We are also blessed by BADBADNOTGOOD on ‘LUST.’ which has a smooth snap and snare to it as well as a deeply rooted jazz vibe beneath the hip-hop wobbles. We also discovered that Kendrick fancies himself as somewhat of a Ratboy admirer, using his vocals as a sample on the same track, easily the most surprising of all samples or features on this thing.
One of Kendrick’s greatest quality is not his strong relationships and connections with some of hip-hop’s best producers and beat-makers, it is instead his use of the most effective instrument of all, his vocal chords. This album is the blueprint of Kendrick’s vocal variety, demonstrating every possible side to his personality using simply the power of his voice. It can either work impeccably, like it does on ‘XXX.’ with his dreary but encapsulating tones, or it can fall flat on its face like it does on ‘YAH.’ where he sounds miserable and just plain boring. While we are on the topic of different voices, on ‘GOD.’ Kendrick opts for a style which I would describe as familiar, probably because it sounds like a Drake B-side. After all this talk from Kendrick about people stealing each other’s styles and a desire to be unique, he sure as hell isn’t showing any authenticity with this song because it sounds fresh out of the Aubrey Graham playbook.
This has been a fairly critical review so let me tell you the parts I actually like about it, which is a lot trust me. Kendrick finds a great balance between the arrogance of his celebrity lifestyle and his usual stance as a modern day prophet, putting Donald Trump and FOX News on blast on regular occasions throughout the project. The best example of this is ‘DNA.’ which is an absolute peach of a track and one which I’m sure will dominate my playlists for months to follow for the incredible energy K-Dot shows as well as that nasty beat switch up which is accompanied by some damning samples of FOX News broadcasts criticising Kendrick’s position as a musical activist. Kendrick’s bars on every single track are up to scratch but that’s never in doubt when somebody as talented as Kendrick gets behind the mic. Lyrically it is just about flawless in my opinion, there’s even time for some comedic lines such as the hook in ‘ELEMENT.’ which states Kendrick making slapping someone look sexy. After that line I am fully expecting Kung-Fu Kenny to go super sayan on the person he intends to slap.
I really enjoy the fact that Kendrick has taken more of an approach to make different styles of choruses and hooks on this album, sometimes even opting to sing in the hooks and show his diversity. ‘ELEMENT.’ could be my favourite of his hooks on this album but the softer tones of ‘LOVE.’ are also very enjoyable, particularly with the vocal assistance of Zacari. It, to me at least, shows a return to the days of GKMC where he produced so many incredible hooks that have stuck with us for years. With that being said, for every ‘LOVE.’ hook we have a ‘YAH.’ hook which is dull and painstaking. His different vocal performances and stretching of his chords are showing to me at least that he could perhaps be a modern day Prince, as he continues to use his voice as a weapon and an instrument rather than relying on other influence.
Best 3 songs: DNA., XXX., DUCKWORTH.
Worst 3 songs: YAH., FEAR., GOD.
So yes, Kendrick Lamar is human, he can release a project that isn’t a 10/10 instant classic, shocking right? It took me 10 listens of the album to fully get a feel of the project as a whole and I can now safely say it is my least favourite of his albums. How good must Kendrick be if this of all albums is his worst? Because this thing is far from shoddy, if anything it’s absolutely brilliant; it’s just not quite ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ and it’s not quite ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’, that’s all there is to it. Yes there are some of his hardest ever songs on here, but there’s too much filler for my liking, it’s the first Kendrick project where I’d say I’d skip more than one song in the tracklist. With that being said, it’s still great and leaves me with this conclusion.
Has the album harmed Kendrick’s credentials as an all time great? Absolutely not. Has the album slowed his momentum as he soars to the top? No way. Is it a step down from his previous work? In my opinion, yes it is.