ALBUM REVIEW: Kendrick Lamar ‘DAMN.’
April 14 was a damn good day. It was the release date of Kendrick Lamar’s forth and highly anticipated studio album DAMN. and music lovers have been rejoicing ever since. Lamar is commonly known as the king of rap by fans and reviewers alike, for good reasons. His previous album To Pimp A Butterfly achieved monumental success as it debuted at number one on record charts in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. The album was streamed 9.6 million times on it’s first day on spotify. I know. Just let that sink in for a moment. To Pimp A Butterfly is not only regarded a highly ambitious LP, but also an artwork of great social importance. So how do you follow an album so groundbreaking?
To Pimp A Butterfly was a highly ambitious album, rich with jazz interludes and lengthy, poignant poetry, telling the storytelling of Kendrick’s struggle with drugs, fame, staying true to himself and his roots. DAMN. is a mellower creature, with a more subtle sense of anxiety but just as angry and ready to roar. Lamar is crystal clear with his message on DAMN. Each song title is a single word in capital letters – short, sharp and right to the point.
DAMN. begins with BLOOD, introducing you to the themes of morality and religion ever present throughout the album. The vibe of BLOOD is reminiscent of early 70s soul, with a gentle harmony of male voices they ask, “is it wickedness/Is it weakness?” This angelic sound is mixed with strings and the soft strumming of a base, lifting you into a higher state. Lamar recites a spoken word monologue, slowly and gently- as if he’s telling you a bedtime story, where he offers to help a blind lady who initially seems weak, then results with her shooting Lamar (proving she is actually wicked). This proverb is an allegory for the African American condition in modern America, and vibes with the religious references and the dropped in following tracks.
All of the songs on this album have religious references, such as PRIDE – one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Lamar delves deep into his pride as the greatest rapper alive and the seduction that accompanies the glory, with the vocals ranging from high (much like the angelic voices in BLOOD) to low (Lamar’s standard rap voice) representing the contrast between Lamar’s ideals and actions. PRIDE is also a song you could easily hear on a Frank Ocean album. The music is intoxicating with warped guitars and a rhythm that is so relaxing you can’t help but close your eyes and sway your head from side to side.
Immediately following PRIDE you are smashed into HUMBLE. A stark contrast to the psychedelic soul and dream like music of PRIDE, HUMBLE is bold and sharp. Much like the second track DNA, which made me feel like I was having a heart attack and was totally okay with it, HUMBLE is a high-energy rush, with a dense texture of heavy bass, a sinister piano and a sharp percussion cymbals. As long time listers will know, Lamar doesn’t constrain himself to self reflection. In HUMBLE, Lamar asserts his dominance as the king of rap while critiquing his kingdom (the music industry) all while reminding himself to be humble.
Another interesting pairing on DAMN. is LUST and LOVE FT. ZACARI. The two songs are not just a contrast in song title, but also in music. LUST evokes a quiet sense of anxiety with a muffled beat that’s reminiscent of an off beat heart beat, a low pitched background synth that creates an eerie mood, mixed with so many layers of vocals that with headphones, sound really unnerving at times. LOVE FT. ZACARI has a smoother mood and theme. Like you’re hugging a loved one after a stressful day. Zacari’s voice is beautiful next to Lamar’s gentle rapping and the music has a consist timing that makes me think of waves washing onto a shore. Even though there’s a gunshot motif in this song, I felt so calm and safe listening, a metaphor for Lamar’s life in a dangerous scene with a loving partner by his side. Many believe this song is Lamar reflecting on his relationship with his childhood sweetheart Whitney Alford, whom he is now engaged to. Which let’s face it, is so damn cute. I can’t handle how lovely this song is.
DAMN. is so profoundly honest that as a listener you can’t help but feel a deep connection to Lamar. Known for discussing his depression and internal demons in his music, Lamar examines these personal themes in tracks FEEL and FEAR. In FEEL, Lamar uses powerful lyrics to describe his struggle with the pressures of success, while warped lyrics dance in the background with a heavy sound and slight eco that help you feel Lamar’s loneliness and distance from the world.
FEAR has an amazing structure commencing with a voicemail from Lamar’s cousin offering religious guidance then continuing with Lamar telling of instances of profound fear. Lamar discusses a violent home for a seven year old, followed by a fear of death for a 17 year old, ending in Lamar’s fear as 27 year old that he would fall from the top of his success.
New to this album is Lamar’s collaboration with big names such as Rihanna on LOYALTY, demonstrating how Lamar can smash a range of genres including a more pop sounding song (which we’ve already seen with Taylor Swift). There’s also XXX (aka Was I Just Tricked Into Listening To U2?) where Lamar delves into the disintegration of the American dream and apocalyptic political situation with the lines:
“Donald Trump’s in office
We lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again
But is American honest, or do we bask in sin?”
The collaboration with U2 made the world hold its breath, but it’s not too bad. U2’s work of the late 80’s will always have a special place in my heart, but I didn’t enjoy this collaboration as much as I wanted too. While it’s worth noting that U2 have been exploring politics and religion in their music for decades (so the pairing does makes sense thematically) and the U2 section does have a lovely, soft and slow cello with a jazz like sound, I still wanted a different sound than what Bono gave XXX, as I felt myself quietly waiting for his part to be over and for Lamar to come back.
Lamar continues the political theme on DAMN. He also boldly goes after Fox News, playing clips of reporter Geraldo Rivera on BLOOD and DNA, where Rivera claims…
“Hip-Hop has done more damage to African American’s than racism has in recent years.”
The clips and samples are masterfully placed in each song and power Lamar’s message and fury even further.
Whether or not DAMN. will achieve the same success as To Pimp A Butterfly is not known yet, but there is one thing for certain in my books. Kendrick Lamar is still the greatest rapper alive and DAMN. proves he’s still at the top of his game.
Words by Merryn McDonnell.