Review Summary: In an attempt to stunt on other rappers, Kendrick stoops to their level.
When I first heard Humble, the first single from DAMN, I was puzzled. There was a noticeable shift from the intricate instrumentals and song structures of To Pimp A Butterfly; Kendrick here opting for a straightforward, no frills banger courtesy of Mike Will Made It. This wasn’t the first time a Kendrick single had seemed strange outside of the context of an album, as Backseat Freestyle benefited heavily from its placement within Good Kid, m.A.A.d City. I figured that within the proper context, the song would be more effective or meaningful. Boy, was I wrong.
Placed within DAMN, Humble is no less baffling. Its brags are tiresome and weak, contributing little to the listening experience. DAMN is littered with half baked and underdeveloped lyrics, elsewhere notably on Element and Loyalty, respectively:
If I gotta slap a pussy-ass nigga, I'ma make it look sexy
If I gotta go hard on a bitch, I'ma make it look sexy
I pull up, hop out, air out, made it look sexy
They won't take me out my element
You can tell your nigga he can meet me outside (yeah)
You can babysit him when I leave him outside
Many have defended this type of lyricism as Kendrick showing off to rappers like Drake and Big Sean that he too can make the type of “hits” that they do, but all it really does is highlight just how awful this approach to writing is. And brags have never been a strength of Kendrick’s either. This technique only works when a rapper is willing to go to absolutely absurd levels, i.e. Facts by Kanye West, and Kendrick safely sticks to middle of the road insults that illicit little more than an eye roll.
Middle of the road also perfectly describes the instrumentals throughout a great deal of the album. Gone are the collaborations with Flying Lotus, Pharrell Williams, and Thundercat, this album is dominated by the mundane production of Mike Will Made It. With a few notable exceptions, such as Pride and Feel, the album is generally comprised of flat, surface level beats that don’t have a tenth the replay value of those found on Kendrick’s previous efforts. All this has been defended with the notion that Kendrick is “streamlining” his sound, but what’s positive about that? The most terrific music he’s made up to this point has been dense and strange, and changing this approach simply results in the kind of music that dozens of other less creative rappers have been making for years.
In a song like DNA, the generally vanilla beat is uplifted by the sheer amount of energy that Kendrick brings to his delivery, as well as the concepts that form the foundation of the lyrics and some of the samples throughout. If this level of energy were more present in other parts of DAMN, it might be stronger overall, but so much of this album is plagued with completely lazy delivery and sleepy beats that don’t keep the listener’s attention like To Pimp a Butterfly or Good Kid m.A.A.d City do. Songs like Love and Pride, while containing pretty instrumentals, are just completely absent of energy, which makes the middle of this album especially sluggish. There are also some particularly questionable features present as well, most notably Rihanna’s abysmal performance on the already weak track Loyalty.
What makes the entire package so frustrating is a clear lack of a singular driving idea to hold everything together. This doesn’t mean that this needs to be concept album, it means that it needs to have a certain level of consistency to be truly strong. With all the structural issues of DAMN, it just can’t be saved by a few strong tracks. By the time Fear comes in, one of the strongest tracks on the album, the listener has already been sufficiently frustrated by weak beats and a bevy of low energy tracks. Kendrick Lamar went into this project with middle level expectations, and came out with a result that simply doesn’t stand up to his previous two albums. Without playing to his strengths, his creativity and ability to craft an album around a single concept, DAMN fails to rise above the contemporaries Kendrick previously was light years ahead of.