Like many other devout hip hop fans, I waited with excitement last night for the midnight release of the highly anticipated third studio album of Compton’s great son Kendrick Lamar, eloquently entitled DAMN. After considerable reflection, re-listens, and hours alone in my room procrastinating exam studying, I can say with certainty: K Dot is back.
The most prominent feature of DAMN. is that it is a departure from To Pimp a Butterfly. The funk is gone, but it’s beautiful in a different way. This time, Kendrick went for the jugular.
The second most prominent feature of DAMN. is that it jumps out to a quick start. The front tracks, BLOOD. and DNA., establish the two opposite tones that run in harmony through the album: the downbeat, pensive, melancholy Compton boy, and his alter ego, the explosive surveyor of the rap game, King Kendrick. He does both of them well, but the latter is more pronounced because we so rarely see it.
DNA. is an absolute banger. It’s like he’s calling out the rest of the game for not being good enough, and calling himself the only born-rapper left: “watching all the snakes, dodging all the fakes, phone never on, I don’t conversate.” On the beat switch, the aggression made it feel like I was listening to Run the Jewels 3, and it was Killer Mike in the booth. It was a totally new side of Kendrick: a stream of consciousness tirade about his kingship over hip hop, with incredible pace and lyricism. This voice comes back out to play on FEEL., XXX., HUMBLE., and ELEMENT., to varying degrees. It’s a real treat every time.
Speaking of switches, Kendrick finally embraced them. He effortlessly changes back and forth with his flow on songs like HUMBLE., ELEMENT. and DNA. Kendrick proved to the world that he can do damage on a classic West Coast beat with a loud bass line.
I thought, however, that the production on this album was a downgrade from the last. It lacks a certain polish that was on GKMC and To Pimp a Butterfly. Also, the lack of influence from producers like Knxwledege and Flying Lotus, who suited Kendrick very well, was a disappointing loss – though I immensely respect Kendrick’s artistic evolution.
That first voice I mentioned previously – the more reserved and thoughtful church boy – is just as beautiful. It’s my favourite part of this album. Kendrick uses it to talk about the story line that’s more personal to him, specifically his continued identity crisis as a wealthy man who was once an average kid among the chaos in Compton. It felt real feelings listening to songs like BLOOD., PRIDE, FEAR, LUST., and DUCKWORTH. He pours into the mic without crying, expresses emotion without gushing, and doesn’t drop his rhyme scheme one bit when the topic gets heavy. I would recommend listening to DUCKWORTH. three or four times, and keying in on the lyrics, because it might be the greatest single story telling song I’ve ever heard.
I would like to finally dedicate a space to the song FEEL. It’s incredible in every sense. Quite honestly, just listen, alone and in a quiet space, and experience what I mean.
I have to say that while experimenting with his new vision, Kendrick did trip up a few times. GOD. is not a good song. It’s a stretch of his voice that falls outside his capabilities. Similarly, I felt that LOYALTY. was subpar, and LOVE seemed out of place on the album. They unfortunately broke up the flow enough to take away from the album experience. The album would have been better off if these were omitted, or replaced by a song like The Heart Part IV.
In summation: Kendrick’s style has changed, what remains is the narrative. Kendrick tells both the story of black struggle in America, and the issue of his own conflict. On FEEL. FEAR., and DUCKWORTH., he reverberates a theme he’s been on since Good Kid MAAD City: survivor’s guilt. He was once an everyday kid from a dangerous and poor neighbourhood, and he still can’t fathom why God chose him to escape. That’s why he feels like an Israelite, like his money is a big joke being played on him, why he’s still afraid at every point in his life. I can’t say why he is where he is, but I and a great many others are eternally grateful that God chose this child of struggle to be the one who tells these stories to the world.
RATING – 8.5/10