Kendrick Lamar DAMN. Interscope / Top Dawg
Galvanised by a chain of think pieces, memes, and Internet speculation, no album – or rapper – has had more pre-release hype this year than Kendrick Lamar with DAMN. Last month’s loose track The Heart Part 4 elevated anticipation for K.Dot’s new album to fever pitch; sporting lines like ‘I am the greatest rapper alive’ and ending with the tip-off: ‘Y’all got ’til April the 7th to get y’all shit together’. When DAMN. finally dropped a week after the perceived release date, fans breathed a sigh of relief. Kendrick Lamar has delivered – for us, yes, but also himself.
DAMN. contains a quietly strong list of guests. Rihanna is at her smooth, ANTI-like best with an endearingly laid-back duet, James Blake makes use of his trademark crashing piano and sparse drum beats, The Internet’s Steve Lacy lends lo-fi neosoul production and Bono makes a surprisingly tasteful vocal contribution. Superproducer Mike WiLL Made-It produces three standout tracks: DNA is a bass-heavy battle cry, XXX shows Kendrick’s willingness to bounce between rhyme patterns, and lead single HUMBLE has a spring that feels playfully provocative, with a hook that tells his peers to ‘(Hold up bitch) sit down… be humble’.
Throughout DAMN., Kendrick Lamar is replying and reacting, self-aware but also self-assured. Opening track BLOOD begins with ‘Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide. Are we gonna live or die?’ The questions set up the rest of the record and the way Kendrick simultaneously looks at beginnings and endings, at both life and death. DAMN. is a circular album, a record of balance but also back-and-forth, one that features reversed vocals and ends with the sounds of the entire album being rewound to the beginning. Similarly, titles often appear as foils or partners to one another; LOVE follows LUST, LOYALTY comes before PRIDE, and DNA is the successor of BLOOD.
If his expansive, epic 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly was Kendrick’s grand statement, the realisation of iconic status and a comment on US racial tensions in the final days of Obama’s presidency, then DAMN. sees a continuation of the rapper’s politicised vision, as he stares down FOX News and the Trump administration with strength. But while the new album is a response to the uncertain times we find ourselves in, it’s also a reflection on Kendrick’s own relationships – with his family, his friends, his girl, his God, and himself. While LOVE is Kendrick’s masterpiece of a romantic, sing-song ballad rap to his girl, it’s God who is DAMN.’s dominant figure. Biblical themes are a constant on the album, but there’s a lean towards the Old Testament. Kendrick acknowledges prayer and sin, Cousin Carl’s Deuteronomy quotes are heard more than once, and on XXX Lamar admits the ‘eye for an eye’ truth of his faith, with: ‘I can’t sugarcoat the answer for you, this is how I feel/ if somebody kill my son, that mean somebody gettin’ killed’.
On DAMN. Kendrick Lamar looks at how everyone sees him, but he also dissects how he sees himself. “It was always me vs. the world/ until I found it’s me vs. me,” he spits on the final track DUCKWORTH. In spite of his faith, Kendrick Lamar is a flawed human being. DAMN. is his way of showing it.