Review Summary: don't ask for your favourite rapper, he dead
The first apparent thing about DAMN.
is, unlike this review, it's lean and mean. That's compared to To Pimp a Butterfly
's interminable runtime, anyway – for reference, at 55 minutes this is the shortest Kendrick album, but it's still a fair bit longer than classics like The Low End Theory
. More accurate to say that, in an era where hip-hop feels defined by absurdly long durations and scores of filler, songs on DAMN.
arrive, say what needs be said, and rarely ever let the beat ride out. The pre-release narrative that this would be an album of straight bangers, fueled by "HUMBLE." and the low-effort-low-reward album cover, is a little inaccurate. At least half of the album drips through the speakers like molasses, with "PRIDE." and "LUST." prioritising Kendrick's singing rather than rapping over near-glacial beats. This doesn't stop some bangers rearing their heads, which bar "DNA." are generally held down either by mediocre beats, truly awful choruses, or a deeply unnecessary Rihanna feature. Or in "LOYALTY."'s unfortunate case, all three.
This being a Kendrick album, we have to sift through some low-fat non-conceptual stuff first, and career lows "LOYALTY." and "HUMBLE." are two examples of filler in the first half. DAMN.
does its best to incorporate the big single into the narrative, with "PRIDE." reaching for a lead-in with the I can't fake humble just 'cos your ass is insecure
line, but the transition just doesn't work. It's post-"HUMBLE." that everything takes off, as if the snotty choruses and $2 keyboard beats have been exorcised, leaving room for the concept to fully kick in more than halfway through the album.
As the emotional and lyrical centrepiece, "FEAR." revives a "Sing About Me"-esque obsession with death, tied inextricably to imagery from Kendrick's childhood, even complete with reference to the Section.80
tragic figure Keisha. The lack of expected beat switch means the seven-plus-minute song does land on the sleepy side of hypnotic, but it's redeemed by a helping of Kendrick's finest lines to date (I'll prolly die 'cos that's what you do when you're seventeen
). As the requisite epic, "FEAR." tackles the hefty philosophical questions for the second half of the album, leaving the other songs room to stretch into their own musical territories – "XXX."'s furious attack on American politics while an eerie Bono harmonises, "LOVE."'s shameless boy band summer vibe, the blatant and brilliant Kid Cudi-aping "GOD.". Closer "DUCKWORTH." recounts a coincidence where Kendrick's father could have been killed by label CEO Anthony 'Top Dawg' Tiffith, clearly made out as a father figure to Kendrick on "untitled 02". This track imagines the very possible scenario where, as teenagers, one of Kendrick's father figures shoots the other, and so our storyteller grows up without a dad and gets killed before he can ever shed the name of Duckworth and become Kendrick Lamar. It's a powerful exercise in hypotheticals about all the little events that need to line up just for one life to carry on, and it's hard to imagine a bleaker ending than the album's final lines being cut off by a gunshot, symbolising both literal and metaphorical forms of death.
is not To Pimp a Butterfly
, and admittedly the first day of release hasn't been nearly as fun without the manic experience of Kendrick fans throwing "greatest of all time" hyperbole left and right. But DAMN.
remedies a lot of its predecessor's mistakes and gives us something better – a Kendrick not seen since Section.80
, throwing tonally and stylistically inconsistent songs together in a desperate scramble to tell us just what the fuck he's feeling. It's slipshod, haphazard and rocky to listen to, and that's the Kendrick I've been missing for the past few years. DAMN.
ends with the scratchy noise of the album being reversed as we are taken back to the first spoken words of "BLOOD."; cliche, yeah, but effective. And much like good kid, m.A.A.d city
left us with a young Kendrick eternally borrowing his mother's van for fifteen minutes, DAMN.
leaves an older man forever poised on the edge of a sidewalk, about to talk to a blind woman who may or may not be God, Lady Liberty, or just a symbol for the insecurities he's about to explore. Put the needle down and let's see what happens next.