In his most commercially palatable release yet, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. balances the best of the emcee and opens his music up to audiences old and new.
Coming off the conceptual masterwork that was To Pimp a Butterfly, which earned him a Grammy for Best Rap Album in 2016, Kendrick Lamar’s place in hip hop history was cemented and left many conceding that the Compton emcee was the greatest rapper alive — if not the greatest ever.
After garnering astronomical levels of universal acclaim from critics, fans and peers alike, the only question remaining following the release and subsequent success of To Pimp a Butterfly was one with no immediate answer in sight: where does Kendrick go from here?
Speculation mounted whether he would continue working within the jazz-driven world of To Pimp a Butterfly or perhaps take a step back and create an album more in the vein of his Aftermath debut good kid, m.A.A.d city. The result, as it turns out, is an album that picks up on elements from both projects to create a body of work that is commercially appealing yet unapologetically complex at the same time.
Anchored by the lead single “HUMBLE.,” the song is a pretty drastic departure from his To Pimp a Butterfly days with a hard-hitting beat served by Mike WiLL Made-It. It’s a stern warning to his peers, and even himself, to stay grounded while aspirations of greatness become increasingly within reach. It is exactly the kind of lyrical onslaught that reminds listeners just how quickly Kendrick can pull the trigger when he’s forced into a firefight.
Kendrick closes out the opening track “BLOOD.,” which is really just a short intro, with a clip of FOX News personalities criticizing him for his “anti-police” performance at the 2016 Grammy Awards. This is immediately followed by another Mike WiLL Made-It banger “DNA.,” which samples a clip of television personality Geraldo Rivera saying hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years. On “YAH.,” Kendrick takes it a step further and directly name drops FOX News and Geraldo for labelling his music evil.
For all the ‘90s hip hop heads out there, “ELEMENT.” starts in familiar territory with a Kid Capri shout out to one of Kendrick’s aliases “Kung Fu Kenny.” The track sees him back on the attack, warning rappers not to challenge him because it’s deeper than hip hop for him, which is especially evident on lines like: “I’m willin’ to die for this shit, nigga / I’ll take your fuckin’ life for this shit, nigga / We ain’t goin’ back to broke, family sellin’ dope / That’s why you maney-ass rap niggas better know.”
On the latter part of DAMN., Kendrick switches gears and creates two of the project’s finest tracks in “LUST.” and “LOVE.” The BadBadNotGood-produced “LUST.” sets a sexy tone where Kendrick uses the chorus to playfully sing lines like “Let me put the head in / Ooh, I don’t want more than that / Girl, I respect the cat.” On “LUST.,” Kendrick constructs his own version of a Drake-esque R&B-driven hit and enlists the vocal talents of singer Zacari, who provides a perfect dreamy balance to Kendrick’s realism on the song.
The crowning storytelling achievement of the album comes on the closing track “DUCKWORTH.,” a song where Kendrick tells a tale so intriguing that it’s almost beyond belief. He raps about how Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, the founder of Kendrick’s label TDE, almost killed his father and how, if that happened, Top Dawg could’ve gone to prison, Kendrick’s father would’ve been dead and perhaps a similar fate would have fallen upon the son. It’s a powerful tale of chance and fateful encounters that makes you question what if things happened differently from the way they did in reality.
DAMN. is by far Kendrick’s most commercially palatable album and he does it without compromising his integrity as an artist. Is it in the same lane as the sweeping epic that was To Pimp a Butterfly? Not at all. That said, it’s not supposed to be and the result is an album that you can flip to any track and enjoy without having to analyze for several hours.
The album packs enough lyrical punch to keep hip hop purists satisfied throughout and also taps into audiences that Kendrick hasn’t had as much success attracting in the past. He’s broadening his horizons in a way he’s never done before and as one of the most important artists of the current generation — he deserves to do it his way.
Words by Patrick Cwiklinski.