DAMN. is a strong album that only suffers because it comes off the heels of a near-perfect album that I believe will come to define the 2010s. The album has verses and production that not only sets it apart from the other rap albums that were released this year but also those released last year.
Kendrick Lamar has crafted at least three highly regarded albums this decade (four if you’re a big Overly Dedicated fan). Section.80, good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp A Butterfly each built upon the success of the previous album. Section.80 built on the strengths of Overly Dedicated. The biggest problem with DAMN. is that it doesn’t really build on the success of To Pimp A Butterfly.
Yet, I should talk about what DAMN. does well first. The production is impeccable, there are moments throughout this album that feel lush and sensual in a way that I thought Kendrick would never achieve, and there are also callbacks to previous moments in his career.
“DNA.” is such a strong way to start the album. The erratic flow that feels like rounds dropping at a gun range keeps you on your toes. The production by Mike WiLL Made-It’s beat gives it a poppy feel that speeds up into pure insanity.
The next highlight is “ELEMENT.,” which carries a foreboding vibe throughout its intro as Kendrick raps, “I been stomped in front of my momma, my daddy commissary made into commas.”
Moments like this make the album feel like a triumph, a victory lap that feels well-deserved.
“DUCKWORTH.” features the best bars on the album. The song tells the tale of a chance meeting between his label’s CEO (Top Dawg) and his father years ago. His father used to work at KFC and Top Dawg nearly killed him, but chose to let him live due to earlier kindness. The song paints a vivid picture that makes it feel as if the events of the song are occurring right in front of you.
The track is produced by 9th Wonder, and it feels amazing with three beat switches throughout the song’s 4:09 runtime. The song’s center revolves around a luscious sample of Hiatus Kaiyote‘s (who everyone should give a listen to) “Atari.” The track ends with a gunshot and “rewinds” back to the beginning of the album, “BLOOD.”
“GOD.” is another large highlight for the album. The song takes the “wavy” atmosphere that Kanye strived for during the middle parts of last year’s The Life of Pablo and executes on what Kanye couldn’t. The song is lyrically strong and triumphant in its “finally made it” characterization of Kendrick’s journey.
Now after so many paragraphs of praise, you’re probably wondering what problems I had with the album. The main one is that, at least through the numerous listens of the album that I’ve had, there isn’t an apparent theme or coherent backbone.
For other artists, that wouldn’t matter, but for an artist like Kendrick who has previously released two highly cohesive albums, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and To Pimp a Butterfly, that was my expectation.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with subverting a listener’s expectations, but I think that if the album had a stronger series of themes, then it would’ve hit a bit harder (not to say it didn’t hit hard in the first place).
Imagine the lead-up in a proper narrative with “DUCKWORTH.” popping as the end of it. It would’ve been insane.
Kendrick’s legacy and impeccable tracks that came out prior to this album ended up hurting my reaction to this album in the long run. It’s an absolutely wonderful album, but it just couldn’t meet my hype completely.
If you have even a passing interest in hip-hop, you should definitely check out DAMN. It’s an album with high highs and middling lows that might not be as good as the two albums that precede it, but not many albums are. You’ll also probably be hearing the singles from this album at every party and NBA playoff game for the next year.