Is Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN.” his best record yet?

Damn._Kendrick_Lamar
Courtesy of Interscope Records

BY
SENIOR REPORTER

Kendrick Lamar’s name holds more weight than ever in the realm of music. His 2012 major label debut “good kid, m.A.A.d city” saw the Compton rapper escalate to new heights of fame, with singles such as “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and one half of the title track, “m.A.A.d city,” getting tons of radio play. Although “good kid, m.A.A.d city” was Kendrick’s second studio album (“Section.80” was released in 2011), it was what launched him into the spotlight. He soon began a slew of collaborations with big name artists like A$AP Rocky, Drake, Big Sean, the legendary Dr. Dre and even Taylor Swift — solidifying his spot as the up-and-coming rapper to keep an eye out for.

2015’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” stunned listeners yet again with it’s eclectic mixture of jazz, funk and traditional hip-hop beats — a departure from the club-banger-ridden “m.A.A.d city.” This record gained Kendrick recognition on a more global scale: those outside the world of hip-hop showered Kendrick with praise, and this release lead to the rapper meeting with Barack Obama in the White House, visiting poor and predominantly black schools and doing a lot of charity work under the radar. “Butterfly” showed Kendrick’s advancement not only as an artist, but as a thinking individual — it contains insight into the history of black Americans dating back to their ancestral roots in Africa.

Now, after releasing a compilation of “Butterfly” b-sides in 2016 (“untitled unmastered.”) and standalone single “The Heart Part IV” in March, Kendrick has blessed listeners with his fourth LP, “DAMN.”

In contrast with the hour-and-20-minute-long “Butterfly,” “DAMN.” doesn’t even hit the hour-length mark. Interestingly enough, Kendrick manages to be even more engaging in the shorter amount of time he has with his audience. “BLOOD” serves as an introductory track, with Kendrick narrating a (presumably) fictitious encounter with a blind woman, paired with the line “is it wickedness? Is it weakness?” which becomes a persistent theme throughout the record.

“BLOOD” segways right into the explosive “DNA,” a booming and loud track on which Kendrick proclaims that he has both “royalty” and “loyalty” in his DNA, amongst numerous other clever wordplay-driven rhymes that have become trademark for the Compton rapper. Mike WiLL Made-It, who is known for working with big name artists like Wiz Khalifa, Juicy J, Rihanna, and more, produced the track. This isn’t Mike-WiLL’s only production credit on “DAMN.,” but he certainly wouldn’t be forgotten on the record even if it was. The beat on “DNA” is straight out of a trap banger, and it’s sure to be a live hit for Kendrick.

The triad of following songs – “YAH,” “ELEMENT,” and “FEEL” — almost flow like one cohesive work. “YAH” is laid back and features a more calm and collected Kendrick, although he still takes shots at his critics, including Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera, who previously criticized Kendrick’s performance of “Alright” at the 2015 BET Awards. “ELEMENT” has Kendrick truly in his, well, element. He’s confident and swagger-driven, letting his listeners know that he’s still in it for the right reasons (“I don’t do it for the ‘Gram, I do it for Compton”). “FEEL” is personable, as Kendrick raps about his inhibitions over a “boom-click” jazzy drum beat.

“LOYALTY” features guest vocals from Rihanna, and proves to be a persistently catchy track. “PRIDE” completely contrasts “HUMBLE,” which is a theme that is very present throughout the record – back to back songs that feature two “sides” of human emotions, or, in the words of Kendrick himself, “wickedness” and “weakness.”

Much like the track “LOYALTY,” “LOVE,” which features R&B singer Zacari, is a tender, club-love anthem. But, as he tends to do, Kendrick makes it his own, using the track to profess and reinforce his love for his now-fiance Whitney Alford. “XXX” has a surprising guest appearance by U2 on the second half, after switching from a chaotic and boisterous instrumental which features Kendrick angrily going off about the treatment of black youth.

The entirety of the record’s lyrical material is almost outshone by “DUCKWORTH,” which has Kendrick telling the incredible story of how his independent label Top Dawg Entertainment’s founder (Anthony Tiffith) and his own father had met years prior to Kendrick’s affiliation with the label. Anthony had previously been a gangbanger in Compton, and frequently stopped at a Kentucky Fried Chicken – and by “stopped at,” I mean that he and his gang would rob the place. Knowing this, Kendrick’s father (who Kendrick refers to by his nickname “Ducky”), an employee at the establishment, would always hook Anthony up with free chicken and biscuits when he came around. Because of this, Ducky was never harmed during Anthony’s raids. The two reconnected years later when Kendrick entered the studio with Anthony, and were amazed to find that they knew each others’ faces.

After telling this story, Kendrick metaphorically “dies” and places a rewound sample of the beginning of the record, which once again circles around to the line “is it wickedness? Is it weakness?” Although Kendrick has tried to keep the hidden meanings of the record to himself (as he would rather the listeners interpret the record on their own), it seems like the record is telling the story of a constant battle within Kendrick – whether to continue to be humble and make music for the “right” reasons, or whether to embrace the lifestyle of a rich and famous artist. “DAMN.” is transparent, personal and real. It sees Kendrick talking about himself, and focusing more on personal experiences rather than the experiences of his culture as a whole on “Butterfly,” or telling stories of gang life on “m.A.A.d city.”

I think that “DAMN.” might just be the best Kendrick Lamar record yet. So far I have not been able to identify weaker tracks on the album — each song feels as though it’s supposed to be there. There is no filler, no tracks that I’m compelled to skip over when listening through. Each song has its own purpose in the context of the record. Instrumentally, Kendrick also makes a shift back toward the modern hip-hop beats showcased on “good kid, m.A.A.d city” rather than the chaotic jazz-fueled instrumentals on “To Pimp a Butterfly.” This may also prove to be better live material for Kendrick, which listeners will have to determine for themselves by seeing him on The DAMN Tour this summer with Travis Scott and D.R.A.M.

Recommended listening:
“ELEMENT.”
“HUMBLE.”
“XXX.”
“FEAR.”

But really, you should listen to the whole thing.

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