Album Review : Kendrick Lamar - DAMN. (2017)
Kendrick Lamar isn't exactly a controversial figure. Left-leaning people embrace his musical boundlessness, the allegorical nature of his lyrics and his earnest attempt use hip-hop to change society. Right wing folks are scared of Kendrick because he's connecting the dots between pop culture and social injustice. He's making it cool and marketable to care about people who are not you. Caught between these extreme perceptions of him is Kendrick Duckworth, a 29 years old overachiever who's been living with the pressure of insane expectations for over a decade now. These expectations are at the center of DAMN. the album he dropped out of the blue, last month. It's a personal and understated record that I don't think anybody could anticipate.
The first thing anybody notices about DAMN. are the song titles. One word, each capitalized and finishing with a period. They are self-contained chapters in the story of his recent years. Perhaps the most discussed moment on that new Kendrick Lamar record is the sampling of a FOX news segment where Geraldo Rivera criticized his performance at the 2015 BET Awards on the song DAMN. Kendrick also addresses it on the next song YAH. to claim Geraldo is fucking clueless about how ambitious he is with his music. So, professional and political adversity are important themes on DAMN. but they are put into context and integrated in a soul-searching narrative that begins with BLOOD., a powerful allegory where Kendrick gets hurt for trying to help someone in the street. So, that is the main different between DAMN. and Kendrick Lamar's other albums, at least lyrically: he's not actively trying to save people with his music. He's reflecting on the validity of trying to save people with music altogether.
Once again, Kendrick's lyrics are mesmerizing on this record although they're conceptually different. They read a little bit like a diary. Other critics have called DAMN. his most scattered album, but there are two main themes to it: religious musings and hip-hop culture. Both are ultimately intertwined but the former is particularly important on DAMN. because it influences the other. Kendrick feels the need to save people and while he's at the top of the rap game today, he wonders whether or not he damned himself trying to save others. That is the story of DAMN. in a nutshell. On the third verse of FEAR., one of my favorite songs on the record, he raps about being scared to lose the comfortable life and realizes that fear is an emotion he's never going to distance himself from, no matter how powerful he become. On PRIDE., he explores how his success affected his ideals. In many ways, Kendrick Lamar is reappropriating his own humanity on DAMN., not unlike Marilyn Manson did on Mechanical Animals.
So, what are the bangers on that record? DAMN. is a personal record, sure, but what's in there for the listener? My personal favorite was LUST., a silky, textured and oddly dignified reflection on a feeling most men don't think about twice. I thought the gap between the sexy, sultry beat and the self-reflective lyrics was original both for a Kendrick Lamar song and for hip-hop in general. I've also greatly enjoyed XXX., featuring U2 of all people. I did not expect that, believe me. Bono's high pitched croons mix surprisingly well with Kendrick's slow paced meditation on violence at the heart of dispossessed men.
I've discussed FEAR. already but it's probably the most ambitious song onDAMN. and one of the most problematic to critics in general since his cousin Carl says on it that black, hispanic and native american people are the true children of Israel. It didn't offend me personally because I saw it as part allegorical, but it's one of these songs that split Kendrick's fanbase. Otherwise DAMN. and HUMBLE. caught my attention despite having a much more conventional appeal. They're good songs, only they don't live up to the standard of allegory and introspection that Kendrick got us used to.
How good is DAMN. compared to To Pimp a Butterfly and untitled unmastered.? It's a very good record, but perhaps not a great one. It's certainly not as ambitious than the former, but maybe more slick and cohesive than the latter. DAMN. came from a very intimate place, which obviously clashes with the devouring sense of responsibility Kendrick Lamar feels towards his audience. That contradiction was fascinating to me in the arc of Kendrick's career, but I feel like on the record itself, he had difficulty committing to an angle. So, is DAMN. a scattered effort like many critics called it? Perhaps a little, but it's not a bad record by any means and it certainly has its purpose in Kendrick Lamar's discography. Chalk this one as for people who are already fans.