Damn is right. How long can Kendrick Lamar keep this remarkable streak of his up? His MC skills earned him significant buzz before he even got signed to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment label in 2012. Over the five ensuing years, the limelight has all been his, thanks to what can now be safely called the strongest discography of any rapper to emerge in the past decade.
Even more safely thanks to his newest release. The lofty expectations DAMN. was greeted with are understandable. After all, it is the follow-up to 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which was widely adopted as the soundtrack of the generation-defining Black Lives Matter movement on top of it being extraordinarily well-received by critics and fans worldwide.
Released 4/14/2017, DAMN. probably won’t achieve the tremendous sociopolitical impact as its predecessor – few albums in the foreseeable future have any chance of doing so – but the list of expectations fans will bring to this album can be checked off one-by-one as its 55-minute runtime progresses. Dazzling work on the mic, introspective and political lyrics, and an intelligent range of loud and mellow beats – all are here for the finding.
Kendrick touches upon many of his signature topics on this record. As he declares to have “power, poison, pain and joy inside my D.N.A.,” echoes are made of 2012’s “Swimming Pools (Drank).” Only now that he is so much famous than he was as a hip-hop rookie, rapping about the dark side of fame and peer pressure is all the more compelling. One of the album’s best songs, “LOVE.” has the same tender feeling and romantic musings of past hits like “Poetic Justice.” And unsurprisingly, police brutality gets its fair share of scrutiny on this album– “ain’t not Black Power when your baby’s gettin’ killed by a coward,” to cite one notable example.
However, to say that DAMN. “meets expectations” may be rather misleading, since so many elements of these albums are ones that nobody could have reasonably seen coming from the unpredictable MC. That much is made clear by the scenario Kendrick sets up on the album’s very first track– offering assistance to a blind woman he passes on the street– and its super-startling denouement. And the unexpected keeps surfacing from there on.
Perhaps the grandest of these surprises comes on “XXX.,” when Kendrick interrupts possibly his most fiery rapping on the whole record to open the floor to U2. This band has been together for over a decade longer than Kendrick Lamar has been alive, and while they have previously alluded to their admiration of hip-hop– most obviously when they brought Jay-Z along for the ride on their U2 360° Tour – they have never actually collaborated in the studio with that many MC’s during all that time.
Yet given that both U2 and Kendrick Lamar have been known to embrace protest anthems – “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was to 1983 what “Alright” was to 2015, in many ways– perhaps this pairing should really not come across as all that jarring. In any case, Bono immediately proves that these were waters worth testing: “It’s not a place. This country is to me a sound of drum and bass. You close your eyes to look around,” he sings, which strengthens the stinging social commentary of “XXX.”
Occasionally, DAMN. can get a little too lethargic, like on the overly sluggish “YAH.” But for the most part, the same balance between gentle and rambunctious that has characterized many of Kendrick’s previous records is pulled off effectively this time around. The record reaches its most exciting peak midway through on “HUMBLE,” which has recently become his first single as a lead artist to top the Billboard Hot 100.
Watch: “HUMBLE.” – Kendrick Lamar
This song’s massive chart success– which has inexplicably eluded a considerable number of the rapper’s past singles– is certainly well-deserved. This three-minute boast of industry dominance is easily one of the album’s hardest, most explosive moments, and lined with infectious catchphrases– including the a capella cry of “My left stroke just went vi-ral”– which one can imagine 20,000 people belting out en masse every night once “The Damn. Tour” begins this coming summer.
And then, just a few tracks later, Kendrick delivers maybe his most vulnerable song ever with “FEAR.” (read our “FEAR.” review here) In a hyper-masculine genre, few rappers ever candidly identify things that make them feel afraid. To hear the world’s most dominant MC make such a list– dying at a young age, living up to the hopes of his family and fans, dealing with an occasional lack of self-confidence in the studio– is truly an astonishing moment, even from a rapper who has delivered too many of them to count over the course of his exceptional career.
In the grand scheme of the Kendrick Lamar catalogue, DAMN. is a shade below good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp a Butterfly, but still roughly on par with Section .80 and last year’s surprise success of a collage, untitled unmastered. Put differently, this album may not quite be the game-changing masterpiece his two previous LPs were, but it still holds its ground as a heartfelt effort by one of that same game’s most supremely talented and vital artists. By virtually any standard, that is a significant achievement.
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cover © Top Dawg Entertainment