Album Review: Kendrick Lamar – DAMN
Coming off the success of his wildly-successful, Grammy Award winning 2015 album, To Pimp A Butterfly, expectations were high (again) for Kendrick Lamar’s next LP. In between that album and DAMN., K. Dot released his untitled unmastered EP, bodied some select guest features (example “Goosebumps” with Travis Scott, now certified platinum) and did some dope performances on late night TV. But besides that, he’s been pretty quiet. No major shows, not much social media interaction, not too much of anything. Until he released “The Heart Pt IV” this past March, and four minute lyrical onslaught where he warned all competition as well as his audience “Y’all got til April the 7th to get y’all shit together.” On that day, his album went up for preorder and the following week, it was released to the world. And that release is another gem in the catalog of one of the best rappers Hip-Hop has ever seen.
DAMN.‘s intro, “BLOOD.,” sets the tone immediately as the listener is immediately posed with the question: “Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide…are we gonna live or die?” What follows is Kendrick Lamar speaking in almost a trance-like tone as he tells a story of seeing a blind woman looking for something as he’s taking a walk. When he approaches the woman, in a quick twist, she takes his life (or so it seems). After the gunshot, out of nowhere comes a warped clip of Fox News criticizing Kendrick’s 2015 BET Awards performance of “Alright,” and before you know it, Kendrick is blacking out on over Mike Will Made It production in the form of “DNA.” And I mean BLACKING OUT. It’s a dizzying display of lyricism and flow as Kendrick weaves in and out of all the positive and negative characteristics that are embedded in not only his DNA, but American society as well (First bar: “I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA.” Last bars: “Tell me when destruction gonna be my fate? Gonna be your fate? Gonna be our fate? / Peace to the planet, let it rotate/Sex, money, murder. Our DNA”)
As you get deeper into the album from that point on, the songs start to feel like Kendrick is looking at himself in the mirror and saying whatever he feels inside out loud. “YAH.” serves as a free-flowing confessional of sorts. He opens with “I’ve got so many theories and suspicions, I’m diagnosed with real nigga conditions. Today is the day I follow my intuition…” and follows with bars like “I’m an Israelite, don’t call me Black no more/That word is only a color, it ain’t fact no more.” That notion came from his cousin Carl Duckworth (who makes a pivotal re-appearance in this album) who references the Bible which states that we’re all descendants from Israel. It reminded me of the scene in The Autobiography of Malcolm X where Malcolm was told to look up the word “Black” in the dictionary and observe it’s negative synonyms while the word “White” carried so many positive synonyms. If nothing else, the record is thought-provoking.
There’s an interesting juxtaposition between the song titles as well. For one, every song is one word, and a few of those songs are either directly related or opposites of each other. Example: “BLOOD.” is followed by “DNA.,” “PRIDE.” is followed by “HUMBLE,” “LOVE.” comes after “LUST.,” etc. And the songs themselves address the title head on. “PRIDE.” has Kendrick explicitly breaking down the ways in which his sense of pride has become somewhat of a handicap to him. “Now in a perfect world, I wouldn’t be so insensitive/Cold as December, but never remember what Winter did.” You get the sense that it’s something he’s seeking to change until “HUMBLE.” comes in right after that, where Kendrick is at his most arrogant and boastful. That emotion is the catalyst behind what’s already the biggest hit of his career, but hearing that song in the context of the album makes me wonder if the “BE HUMBLE, SIT DOWN” chant on the hook is actually directed at himself.
By the time you get to the album’s climax, the seven-minute long “FEAR.,” that notion is supported in his final line “Within 14 tracks, carried out over wax/Wondering if I’m living through fear or living through rap.” He spent that whole verse name-checking almost every song on the album you had heard thus far (“FEAR. of losing LOYALTY. from PRIDE., ’cause my DNA. won’t let me involve in the light of GOD.”) as if to tell the listener “All of THAT just led me to THIS.” And what’s remarkable about this song is he broke down the fears that plagued him at 7 years old (fear of an abusive elder), 17 years old (fear of being another victim to the streets) and 27 years old (losing everything he had worked for up to that point). Dot gets a phone call from Cousin Carl explaining to him that he has to remember God is on his side, even though he feels no one is praying for him (a theme repeated through the early parts of the album) It’s very, very layered and could easily go down as the best song he’s ever made.
And not far behind that is the album’s closer, “DUCKWORTH.” where he spits an insane story with a crazy twist about how a man named Anthony had killed a man named Ducky, Kendrick Lamar as we know him would never exist. And then the album rewinds to the very beginning.
There’s a LOT happening in this album at once. The intro where Kendrick is seemingly shot is never again referenced until the very end of the album, but it’s done in a way that’s leaves the conclusion up for interpretation. Is the album a story about what happens to Kendrick had Ducky met his fate in “DUCKWORTH.?” Is the album meant to be listened to in reverse as Kid Capri suggested? (Note: The album kinda tells a different story with a new vibe when played bottom to top. It’s wild.) Did Kendrick die in the intro and is he dead throughout the album? (“GOD.” does sound like someone ascending into heaven afterall). I don’t have these answers (yet) but what I DO know is that this is another amazing body of work from Kendrick Lamar. There’s absolutely no shortage of lyricism (check album highlight “FEEL.”), amazing production (“LUST.”), social consciousness (“XXX” with U2) and self-consciousness all throughout. The layers of the album only increases the replay value, aside from the music itself being really, really great. This album is DAMN. good, if I do say so myself.
Overall Rating: 4.5/5