DAMN. - Kendrick Lamar
Arguably 2017's most anticipated release, DAMN., has now dropped and critics have taken to their laptops and desktops to put in their two pennies worth. Like the rap god that Kendrick has become over the last few years, critics and fans alike are always eager to hear what the 29-year old can produce next; whether it be as prolific as the benchmark full-length, To Pimp A Butterfly, or something like the jazzy composition, untitled unmastered.. Sadly, however, expectation can be the root of all heartache, and it paints me to say that I think DAMN. has become an unlucky victim of this.
Image Credit: Twitter
Photography: Dave Free
Design: Vlad Sepetov
"BLOOD." introduces DAMN. with a spoken-word, story-telling interlude, which Kendrick has used before on previous records. We're welcomed slowly into the record through this quick intermission, before cutting to samples of news anchors discussing their distaste for the lyrics on "Alright", almost pushing this bureaucratic, anti-agenda on hip-hop and rap music. Kendrick swiftly bursts through these unpopular opinions on the transition to the follow-up track, "DNA.". Hypnotic atmospherics embellish a medium-tempo trap rhythm, with the singer-songwriter expressing his self-respect and pride as a black individual, scorning his oppressors in the process - "You mothafucka's can't tell me nothin', I'd rather die than to listen to you / My DNA not for imitation, Your DNA an abomination".
On "YAH.", we're given a low-fi beat of mellow snare and dreamy keys, with a mollified vocal performance from Kendrick to complete a sort of stoner description. The beat on this track is really subdued, perfect for chilling out and closing your eyes to, but serves almost as like a filler track as oppose to a legitimate effort. Still a nice track nonetheless.
It's not until we come across tracks like "ELEMENT.", "LOVE.", and that god awful feature with Rihanna, "LOYALTY.", that we begin to realise strong trap influences are starting to seep into Kendrick's usual procedure. If we ignore the opening passage to "ELEMENT." and focus on the fundamental beat and lyrical content of this track, it falls under that same umbrella of generic "nigga-bitch" this , diamonds-and-chains that drivel that you'd come to expect from the likes of Future and that clown Lil Yachty. The same goes for "LOYALTY.". Personally, it doesn't work, and serves no purpose on a Kendrick record either.
Directed by: Dave Meyers
Produced by: Anthony Tiffith - Top Dawg Entertainment
Another arguably unpopular opinion: I didn't care much for "HUMBLE." Kendrick has an impressive discography of incredible singles, many of which are trap-infused ("Swimming Pools", "m.A.A.d city"), but this particular effort seemed over-hyped simply because it was the first piece of material from Kendrick that we'd heard in a while, and so everyone was incredibly quick to jump on the bandwagon. Not just this, but it also felt too radio-friendly and a little indifferent to most of the crap you see on Billboard charts. I personally preferred the low-fi, sophisticated soul on "The Heart Part 4", but unfortunately that didn't feature - news of a second Kendrick record this year may hopefully offer a more appropriate position for this track. On second thought though, the decision to not feature this single on DAMN. may be a blessing in disguise.
Now most of us are all familiar with the J Cole meme bragging about how he went double platinum with no features, so I was surprised to see that Kendrick hadn't decided to go solo on this new project. Most surprising of all however, was the decision to include U2 on the track "XXX.", especially since the backlash they faced for the unwarranted download of their latest full-length, Songs Of Innocence (2014), onto almost every iPhone device on the planet. Now, on paper, it doesn't sound like a particularly exciting blend, but i'll give them their due. Unlike the rest of the tracks on the album that overused the sequenced drum-machine, "XXX." is one of the only tracks (bar maybe "HUMBLE.") to really have a bit of backbone behind it. The second half of this track is the most significant, because it's where we hear the melody from Bono, accompanied by bluesy-noir from the rest of the band. Within the context of the album, however, "XXX." feels somewhat out of character, and is arguably best suited to Section.80 (2011).
The latter section of this record is where we're able to truly comprehend Kendrick's lyrical flow, a feature of his practice which gave him that rap-god status in the first place. The previous tracks that adopted those crisp, rhythmic snares didn't seem to accommodate Kendrick's deluge of inner thoughts and feelings as well as we'd have liked. However, both "FEAR." and "DUCKWORTH." are manifestations of his musical brain.
I think the reason why I was disappointed with this record was because his last album served not simply as collections of musical tracks, but as a socially important critique of institutional racism, rap culture, and consumer capitalism. Therefore, because he wasn't as focussed on producing a surge of synthetic beats and dance anthems as he suggested he was on DAMN., he's almost discarded that really gritty and arresting substance that gave TPAB so much strength, and instead gone for something a little more insincere.
Don't get me wrong, To Pimp a Butterfly was one of those moments for a musician where they come into their own, and therefore anything that succeeds this should not be wholly compared. But whether they like it or not, they're always likely to be judged on it. Laying the benchmark as high as he did on the 2015 release was always going to be a challenge to exceed. You can, of course, surpass a great predecessor in other ways, other styles, arrangements etc. etc, as oppose to just offering up a 2.0 effort (see Life After Death (1997), The Infamous (1995), The Black Album (2003)). But musicians, particularly Kendrick, are judged on the way they innovate within their music; TPAB will stand the test of time because of its jazz influences, its listenability (subjective, I know), longevity, identity, singularity, ingenuity - a whole manner of things. It fired on all cylinders, not just on a personal or more intimate level, but on a mainstream level as well. I'm not necessarily comparing the two records, I'm simply stating why TPAB shone as bright as it did, and why Damn., despite its highlights, is rather forgettable.