Kendrick Lamar is a span artist, the type that prefers to works in strides, a true album artist. His penchant for conversational concept albums has always placed Kendrick in the middle, the point around which everything hovers. Many people tend to attribute Kendrick’s sometimes complex musical choices, skewed towards esoteric points, making it seem like it’ll take a lot of hard work to understand his music. It does take some work to unpack the idiosyncrasies behind his work but what makes it easy is realising that Cornrow/Kung-Fu Kenny is an artist who grapples between dualities as a human being. The title of his debut album is an apt representation and his new album, DAMN. stares down the familiar barrel in a more inward looking manner.
good kid, m.A.A.d city required an almost static state of mind, a simple exercise of admiring K-Dot’s masterful art of storytelling about growing up in the city of Compton. To Pimp A Butterfly and its companion piece, Untitled Unmastered are more head-spinning, like being dragged along a topsy-turvy journey by an artist who was reconciling old and new ways of understanding things around him and decided to pack everything into one impenetrable and unapologetic body of work. DAMN. finds a near midpoint between GKMC’s central approach and TPAB’s vigorous array style, although a little closer to the former than the latter.
God and religion have always been a mainstay in Kendrick’s music, right from his eponymous EP which contains the pensive ‘Faith’ to the conversion prayer which opens GKMC to encounters with God on ‘How Much A Dollar Cost’ and ‘Untitled 01’. He’s doubted the Man upstairs at some point, but recently Kendrick goes after actions and consequences that concern his state of mind and his surroundings with respect to his beliefs. DAMN. deals with the push-pull mechanics between doing what Kendrick the celebrated artist wants to do and Kendrick the believer needs to do, while sneaking in destiny and choices as a patch to hold these dualities together.
Kenny uses DAMN. as a cathartic means of examining what matters most to him in subversive terms. A closer examination of the album’s center, ‘FEAR.’ sets up the idea behind DAMN. Kendrick’s biggest fear at the age of 7 was the stout parenting methods used by his mother, by age 17 it was the fear of death from living in a mad city and by 27yrs old, the fear of losing all the money he had amassed was what had a grip on him. By the end of the song, the “fear of losing loyalty from pride ‘cos my DNA won’t let me involve in the light of God/…fear what happens on earth stays on earth” brings to light the true shades in which the songs were created. Carl Duckworth’s voicemail on the consequences of religious disobedience explains the simplicity of the album title, the meaning of the word DAMN (condemn) instead of the acclamation.
DAMN. is the work of an artist who knows the ‘right’ things but still desires the ephemeral pleasures offered by the world. The ignoble ‘LUST.’ and the gooey ‘LOVE.’ both ironically point to lust simply because he feels “It’s all contradiction”. The songs paired up offers alternative better routes but Kendrick almost always goes back to the ‘wrong’ option, prompting the question “Is it wickedness or is it weakness” that makes humans choose wrongly. The power of choices drives the album from the beginning to its important end, ‘DUCKWORTH.’ which tells an important origin story. Over 9th Wonder’s angelic soul production, Kendrick wittily and effortlessly switches between characters as he vividly elucidates how his father, Kenneth Duckworth and current-boss-former-gangsta, Anthony ‘Top Dawg’ Tiffith crossed paths years before he was born under delicate circumstances. “Life is one funny mothafucka/A true comedian” because if ensuing reactions had being different, current circumstances will definitely have taken a different turn.
While DAMN. is quite the cryptic album, it hides its contents in plain sight using a less complex approach in musical choices. Kendrick is unabashedly bold about his thoughts on mortality but the expertly curated mass appeal approach to production helps the album to feel less overbearing. Unlike the dense packaging of TPAB, the production here strips grooves to essential rhythms – a simplistic approach executed in exquisite style. While DAMN. has transition seams at its midpoint, Kendrick’s vocal cadence is another instrument that sets the album apart. Whether it is via precision raps drilled with demonic flair or trademark nasally croons or even using derivative styles, Kendrick’s vocals commands attention at every turn.
Solemn keys and bass guitars marauding through both ends of the mix accompanied by fluttering thick cloudy synths set the mood for Kendrick to channel The Love Below – Andre 3000 on ‘LUST.’ Its dual offset, ‘LOVE.’ has a centered syrupy haze with Zacari’s looming presence adding a nice emphasis to the cut. Kendrick’s delivery on ‘LOVE.’ is midpoint Future (HNDRXX) and Drake, his superior poetic ability is the edge. The Steve Lacy produced ‘PRIDE.’ has Kendrick cutting through the mellow psychedelic palette with an illegible falsetto that sounds borrowed from D’Angelo’s toolbox. He also uses the vocals of high-profile guests to fit the album’s agenda. Bono’s (U2) swaying poetic vocals over the soft scorching jazz of ‘XXX.’ sounds damn(!) good. Rihanna’s feature isn’t her trademark-sometimes-corny high note hooks before being relegated to the background (looking at you, Eminem). Instead, she moves in tandem with Kendrick’s vocals on ‘LOYALTY.’ acting as a perfect collision partner.
Rap music is an expressional tool Kendrick has mastered and DAMN. deserves to be held high on its own podium for its near-perfect execution, another top notch offering by one of the greatest to ever use it.
Writer’s Rating: 4.4/5
Words by Dennis, aka Lowcut Denny, aka @ayo_dennis.