Kendrick Lamar is in the middle of one of the greatest runs in hip-hop history and shows no signs of letting his foot off the accelerator. His latest full-length, DAMN., is yet another masterstroke. Waiting for Kung Fu Kenny to slow down or fall off? Then get comfortable, friend; you might be waiting for a long, long time.
My first thought after listening to DAMN. was that it seemed much more straightforward than Kendrick’s last record, the phenomenal To Pimp a Butterfly; the heavy jazz leanings and loose song structures are gone, replaced by production that hits harder and louder. But repeat listening revealed that DAMN. is every bit as complex and nuanced as its predecessor. Certain characters, lyrics and themes repeat throughout the record, making it feel like a cohesive statement as opposed to a random selection of songs. That thing i said about the songs hitting harder and louder, though? It’s still true. This album does not mess around. Heck, I don’t think anything on To Pimp a Butterfly rattled my bones as much as a few different songs here do.
And I love the variety of themes Kendrick explores throughout the record: Life, death, resentment, fear, love, passion, anxiety, fate, religion, race, war, politics, and so on. DAMN. is like the hip-hop equivalent of the Great American Novel; call it the Great American Album, I suppose.
DAMN. opens up with an introduction of sorts, “BLOOD.” Kendrick offers a blind woman help and is rewarded with a bullet. The rest of the album, then, can be heard as his entire life flashing before his eyes. Or maybe it’s just his own reflections from the afterlife? Each listener gets to decide this for themselves. You don’t get to think it over too long, though, because “BLOOD” is followed up by one of my the most inspired, energetic tracks of Kendrick’s entire career: “DNA.”
“DNA” is a clear highlight on an album full of them. It’s as if Kendrick decided to finally bless the world with a sequel to good kid, m.A.A.d city’s “Backseat Freestyle,” and we’re all invited to the most apeshit party imaginable. The beat change, the Fox News clips, the brain-splitting intensity of Kendrick’s opening I GOT, I GOT, I GOT, I GOT … this song really does have it all. Mike WiLL Made-It, you did it again!
“YAH,” ELEMENT” and “FEEL” are next, and they were probably my least favorite songs on the album my first time through. I didn’t dislike any of them, of course, but I wasn’t knocked over in my chair or anything. Now, though, I’ve listened enough that every little detail is clicking and things are coming into focus. I’m finding something to love about each and every song, even the ones I had to warm up to after a few listens. “YAH,” for instance, is a perfect slice of zoned-out funk, with Kendrick spitting one red-hot line after another. And “ELEMENT” features Kendrick copping a Juvenile-like flow and then delivering some of my favorite rhymes on the entire album: Most of y’all throw rocks and try to hide your hand/ Just say his name and I promise that you’ll see Candyman/ Because it’s all in your eyes, most of y’all tell lies/ Most of y’all don’t fade, most of y’all been advised/ Last LP I tried to lift the black artists/ But it’s a difference between black artists and wack artists.
On “FEEL,” Kendrick just lets his emotions flow over a stirring Sounwave beat, hitting on a number of topics while barely stopping to even take a breath. He brings up his hero, Tupac, about halfway through, and it’s a powerful moment: Streets is talkin’, fill in the blanks with coffins/ Fill up the banks with dollars/ Fill up the graves with fathers/ Fill up the babies with bullshit/ Internet blogs and pulpit, fill ’em with gossip/ I feel like this gotta be the feeling what ‘Pac was/ The feeling of an apocalypse happening.
We then arrive to “LOYALTY,” which features a bonkers beat—credited to Top Dawg CEO Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith,Terrace Martin, Sounwave and DJ Dahi—and is the best Rihanna feature
since “Take Care” ever. When the DAMN. tracklist was first announced, a lot of people assumed “featuring Rihanna” meant this would be a radio-friendly single. We should have known better, though; she isn’t singing a hook here at all! She’s here to rap, dammit, and the way that song unfolds is one of the most exciting moments of the entire album.
“LOYALTY” builds a hell of a mood, one most artists would likely explore for an entire record, but Kendrick moves on quickly to “PRIDE,” where he slows things down to a crawl and spits rhymes over a beat crafted by Top Dawg and The Internet’s Steve Lacy. Dig what Kendrick does here near the end of the second verse, going full circle by beginning with “perfect world” and ending with “perfect, world”: See, in a perfect world, I’ll choose faith over riches/ I’ll choose work over bitches, I’ll make schools out of prison/ I’ll take all the religions and put ’em all in one service/ Just to tell ’em we ain’t shit, but He’s been perfect, world.
“HUMBLE,” the only song from DAMN. Kendrick released in advance, is next. I’ve probably heard this song 30 times by now, and it still gets me fired up every time, with Kendrick going all in over yet another earth-rattling Mike WiLL Made-It beat. And there are so many phrases here that have already gone on to become catchphrases of sorts (Sit down, be humble!, My left stroke just went viral! and so on). Coming in at under three minutes, “HUMBLE” is actually a bit like some of the better tracks from Kanye’s The Life of Pablo; it’s so short that I often just play it back to back before moving on. (It’s also worth noting that “HUMBLE” featured one of the best music videos I’ve ever seen. Remember when it felt like music videos still mattered? Kendrick does.)
After “HUMBLE,” Kendrick hits us with “LUST,” one of the stranger tracks on the entire record. It clocks in at over five minutes long and it needs every last second to fit in all the different things going on. “LUST” definitely would have fit right in on To Pimp a Butterfly, especially the different voices and cadences Kendrick plays with and that spooky siren sound that starts to get louder and louder in the final minute.
As music nerds all over the globe were starting to spend more time with DAMN. this last weekend, I noticed people coming out against “LOVE,” the downtempo R&B jam that features singer Zacari on the hook. Me? I love it. The beat is smooth, yet not too smooth, and the way Kendrick plays off Zacari’s hook on the verses is fantastic. I don’t necessarily crave a whole album that sounds just like “LOVE,” but at this point, I trust Kendrick to play with any genre he wants for at least a song or two. When a dude literally does no wrong, why not just let him go wild?
And then we have the U2 collaboration, “XXX,” which really just sounds like a dope Kendrick track with a cameo from Bono. The big surprise here is that this album has me listening to Bono in 2017; I haven’t liked anything U2 has done since 1997’s Pop, so this really is quite an achievement. Random U2 comments aside, though “XXX” hits hard. Kendrick raps multiple verses in a row, changing the tone of his voice as the beat shifts again and again, and the production—credited to Top Dawg, DJ Dahi, Sounwave and Mike WiLL Made-It—is immaculate. The best moment comes about three minutes in, after Bono’s voice fades away, when Kendrick rattles off one of the best verses on the entire record. Here it is in its entirety:
Hail Mary, Jesus and Joseph/ The great American flag/ Is wrapped and dragged with explosives/ Compulsive disorder, sons and daughters/ Barricaded blocks and borders/ Look what you taught us!/ It’s murder on my street, your street, back streets/ Wall Street, corporate offices/ Banks, employees, and bosses with/ Homicidal thoughts; Donald Trump’s in office/ We lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again/ But is America honest, or do we bask in sin?/ Pass the gin, I mix it with American blood/ Then bash him in, you Crippin’ or you married to blood?/ I’ll ask again—oops—accident/ It’s nasty when you set us up/ Then roll the dice, then bet us up/ You overnight the big rifles, then tell Fox to be scared of us/ Gang members or terrorists, etc, etc/ America’s reflections of me, that’s what a mirror does
Insane, right? I don’t know how he does it, guys, but what I do know is that we’re witnessing an all-time great here.
“FEAR” comes next, and if this isn’t my favorite song on the album, it’s a close No. 2 right behind “DNA.” “FEAR” is a true work of art, with Kendrick rapping about what he was scared of at different stages in his life over phenomenal production from none other than the Alchemist. For the first verse, he’s 7 years of old, scared of his mother’s anger. The second verse finds him 17, scared of being murdered on the streets by a gang member, a drug addict, a cop, or something else entirely. In the final verse … well, let’s hear from the man himself: At 27, my biggest fear was losin’ it all/ Scared to spend money, had me sleepin’ from hall to hall/ Scared to go back to Section 8 with my mama stressin’/ 30 shows a month and I still won’t buy me no Lexus.
“FEAR” is serious both in its composition and its subject matter, so it’s fitting that Kendrick follows it up with a more casual, mellow track like “GOD.” “GOD” is yet another highlight and one of my favorite songs on all of DAMN. There’s something about this track that puts a big ol’ smile on my face; as Kendrick starts singing the hook, I imagine people dancing in slow-mo to this song or kids riding their bikes down the middle of a street without a care in the world. This what God feel like/
Laughin’ to the bank like, “A-ha!”
And then, friends, it comes to an end. “DUCKWORTH,” the record’s final track, is named after Kendrick’s actual last name and tells the tale of a chance meeting between his father and Top Dawg himself. It’s a great ending to a better-than-great album, and my favorite thing about “DUCKWORTH” is that the beat comes courtesy of 9th Wonder, the legendary producer who crafted beats for practically everyone in the mid-2000s. At his peak, 9th Wonder’s sound was the sound of underground hip-hop, and he inspired countless young musicians to go out and try to duplicate his sound. I had never even considered that we’d ever hear Kendrick on a 9th Wonder beat, and now that it’s happened, I want a whole album of the two of them working together.
And that’s that! DAMN. really is incredible from start to finish. It’s every bit as entertaining as good kid, m.A.A.d city and just as innovative and unconventional as To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s insane to me just how good Kendrick is right now—he’s dropped four straight classics since his debut, Section.80, dropped in 2011, and I can’t even imagine him falling off at this stage in his career. There’s a real argument to be made that he’s one of the top 2 or 3 best rappers of all time, and I have a feeling he’s just getting started.
The only actual critique I can muster for this record is the unfortunate album art. If you thought The Life of Pablo’s cover was a stinker, well, you ain’t’ seen nothing yet. Other than that, though? Not a single complaint here. I’ve spent less than a week with DAMN. and I’m already obsessed with it. And Kendrick’s albums always get better the more you listen, so I can’t wait to go through this thing again and again (and again and again and again …) and see what else I discover and fall in love with along the way.
Listen to the full album below …