DAMN. Where to begin?
“Is it Wickedness? Is it Weakness? You decide.”
The opening line preached by Bēkon on opening track “BLOOD.” foreshadows the spiritual and carnal conflicts that run in unison throughout DAMN. With his fourth official full-length LP, Kendrick continually asks his audience to pick their poison: sin or repentance, faith or vice and fear or belief are all juxtaposing themes of human nature at the forefront of the album—another exceptional addition to Kendrick’s unparalleled body of work.
But why then, if DAMN.‘s central theme is the duality of human nature, was it so “urgent” to address? Its focus on the conflicting nature of the human condition mirrors the era the album has been released into, an era where mass societal division and political turmoil is utterly rife and spirituality and togetherness is increasingly bereft. This is what makes DAMN.’s message so pertinent and relatable.
We’re immediately welcomed with Kendrick being shot by a blind woman he’s seeking to help across the street, thus also opening up his veritable focus throughout the album on the frailty of life. Who is this Blind Woman? The American Justice system? America itself? The multitude of interpretations that are conjured from this moment at the outset of the album highlight Kendrick’s knack for crafting ambiguous imagery. His fans will furiously theorize over choice monologues such as this one whilst he steps back and lets everyone soak it up in all it’s glory. He’ll then, largely, remain quiet—unless he’s on stage, where he’ll be setting the benchmark to the rest of the game with more incredible live performances, like his headline Coachella set on Sunday.
After the initial mood-setting, we hear Kendrick go into full-blown attack mode. He takes aim at toxic institution Fox News, where he unloads a fully-loaded clip of celebratory bars about his “DNA.” directly against a corporation oppressing it. On the track’s monolithic breakdown, he raps “My DNA not for imitation / Your DNA an abomination.” Steadfast and unflinching, Lamar targets appropriation in an authentic and effective manner. Where rappers like Joey Bada$$ and J.Cole’s are neither subtle nor polished in their political message, Kendrick’s method is overwhelmingly more accomplished than any of his peers.
His approach is much more introspective, considered and powerful on a track which has one of the hardest Mike WiLL-Made-It-produced drops in recent memory. Kung Fu Kenny was the “N.E.G.U.S” on his last album, and he’s an “Israelite” here. Again, he refuses to identify with the color of his skin, but instead reflect on the heritage of his D.N.A. Whilst Kid Capri repeatedly states reality throughout DAMN., where he utters “What happens on earth, stays on earth” throughout, the spirituality and otherworldliness of the album is as strong as expected. Kendrick continually asks his listeners to “pray for him” and incorporates a religious lexis throughout most of his songs, in which all of the deadly sins are mentioned in some capacity.
DAMN. also offers a lot of sonic progression from Kendrick. There’s none of the avant-garde jazz-infused beats from To Pimp A Butterfly, and the album is much more of an easy listen than it’s predecessor. Not only is it necessary to listen to it over and over again, DAMN. gets better on every listen. DJ Akademiks (on Complex’s “Everyday Struggle”) spoke too soon when said that the album “wouldn’t last.” DAMN. could easily be as accomplished an album as good kid, m.A.A.d. City in terms of it’s longevity.
Keeping in mind that he’s now rapping to his widest audience ever, beats like “LUST.,” “LOYALTY.” and “LOVE.” could all sit on the same hazy, summer evening riffs that are on Drake’s More Life’s palette for instance. But the distinct difference with DAMN. is that Kendrick’s rapping ability is in a different dimension compared to anyone else in the game. Moreover, it’s evident he “still does this shit for Compton.” This is yet another strong duality heard throughout the album; the ability to appeal to a wider audience as much as it remains an uplifting project for listeners in his home-town. DAMN. is Kendrick’s most universal album to date without ever slipping into a territory of selling out.
The album’s track listing also reflects duality. The piano-led Mike WiLL-Made-It “HUMBLE.” is a conflicted track which is as obviously braggadocious as it is a message for people to be modest. It sits so much better in the context of DAMN. as a whole, following on Kendrick’s introspection and worries heard on “PRIDE.” The beautiful floating melodies of “LOVE.” follow the exceptional story-telling of male and female hedonism throughout “LUST.,” with Kendrick announcing how everyone experiences these emotions in the opening lines “Love or lust / All of us.” Will you give into vice or virtue? Kendrick is continually offering people a choice of emotions throughout DAMN.
Kendrick’s duality extends even further in keeping the album progressively modern as well as throwing down numerous homages to the past. He enlists some of the best, most forward-thinking producers of this generation such as Kaytranda and James Blake alongside old-school reference points. Nods to classic, ’90s hip-hop heads like Juvenile, Ol Dirty Bastard and DJ Clue are all incorporated, as well as enlisting legendary hip-hop DJ Kid Capri to lend his iconic ad-libs throughout the album. It all adds up to show that Kendrick is the genre’s most integral flag-bearer, whilst simultaneously flexing his ability to be the most forward-thinking rapper of this generation.
Kendrick signs out the album with a royal flush, combining his best trait of story-telling to a scarcely believable plot twist on “DUCKWORTH.” Depicting how his father may have ended up being killed by Anthony—the very man who heads his label Top Dawg Entertainment—Kendrick’s visceral and vivd reflections end the album in an utterly jaw-dropping manner that only someone of his ilk could muster.
All in all, DAMN. is yet another stellar addition to Kendrick’s extraordinary body of work. It has been his manifest destiny to be the best rapper game since good kid, but with the back catalogue Kendrick now has under his belt, there’s no doubt he is one of – if not THE – best of all time.
Want to add to your Kendrick fix after listening to ‘DAMN.’? Listen to his 20 greatest guest verses of all time right here.