DAMN. - Kendrick Lamar Claims His Place In the Pantheon

Album cover courtesy of Kendrick Lamar

Review by Michael O'Neill

By now, you’ve probably already read and heard plenty about Kendrick Lamar’s new album DAMN. You’ve heard it blaring on the Main Green and out of car windows on Thayer. You’ve heard about the Geraldo Rivera sample, and the story on “Duckworth” about the encounter between Kendrick’s father and Top Dawg Entertainment head/Kendrick mentor Anthony Tiffith. You’ve heard about the double-album theory that didn’t pan out. You’ve maybe seen Big Quint’s first impressions video, in which he snapped his chair out of excitement less than five minutes into the album. And you’ve almost definitely heard how great the album is from your one friend who won’t shut up about it (AKA me). So we’re not going to talk about any of that; that would be repetitive and boring. (Ok, maybe we’ll talk about how great it is.)

First, we’re going to talk about everything wrong with DAMN.

Kendrick still tends to rely on ending various lines with the same word in order to make things rhyme — see the lyrics ending in “funk” and “ay” on “HUMBLE.” for examples. And, even if it fits thematically with the album, the cover is still unappealing, with Kendrick awkwardly posed underneath an intrusive font. Oh, and we didn’t get that second album — but that one’s really on us, not him.

Other than that, there’s really not much negative to say about DAMN. With his latest record, Kendrick has managed to deliver a third straight instant classic. On the heels of the jazz-rap opus To Pimp a Butterfly, Kung Fu Kenny has returned with a more streamlined and radio-ready album while maintaining that level of complexity that puts him far above his peers. Simply put, many of these tracks hit hard. “DNA.” wows with its non-stop bomb-blasts, and Kendrick’s opening salvo of “I got, I got, I got, I got / Loyalty, not royalty, inside my DNA” is already one of the iconic music moments of 2017. Lead single “HUMBLE.” owns an off-kilter beat that plods along and opens up into a simply yet effective chorus. Further in the album, when the sirens come in on the U2-featuring “XXX.,” the song soars to new levels.

Of course, DAMN. wouldn’t be a Kendrick Lamar project without some meditative moments as well. “FEEL.” rides an eerie beat as Kendrick repeatedly cries, “Ain’t nobody praying for me.” On “FEAR.,” the album’s protracted centerpiece, K-Dot runs through the various anxieties he’s harbored at different points in his life. At one point, he mentions being afraid of “losing his creativity,” but DAMN. makes it seem like that is a near impossibility.

In a way, DAMN. also serves as a sort of roundabout tour of Kendrick’s past work. “FEAR.” resembles good kid, m.A.A.d city highlight “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” in its length, its downtempo beat, and its emphasis on the fear of being forgotten. “PRIDE.” and “YAH.” tap into the stoned-out soundscapes of tracks like “For Sale?” and “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe.” But DAMN. also manages to venture into new territory for Kendrick, particularly the poppier-sounding tracks. Even as one of the less dynamic songs on the record, “LOYALTY.” sounds ready to take over airwaves, with Rihanna’s strong feature helping it along. “LOVE.” features a pseudo-tropical groove that outshines other attempts at a similar sound from other artists, and relatively unknown Zacari provides a solid vocal line to go with Kendrick’s heartfelt refrain of “I wanna be with you.” The album’s most shimmering moment comes at the beginning of “GOD.,” as Kendrick yelps “This what God feel like!” without an ounce of doubt or irony. The instrumental sounds like something off Chance the Rapper’s internet-conquering Coloring Book, drifting through the skies with a heavenly glow.

What makes DAMN. most exciting, though, is that its release feels like part of music history. For the third time in a row, Kendrick Lamar has created a complex, sensational, one-of-a-kind hip-hop record. Even when revisiting some past triumphs, DAMN. stands wholly apart from good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp A Butterfly. All three albums possess their own musical and thematic personas, and yet, all three are undeniably brilliant and undeniably Kendrick. DAMN.’s excellence completes a run of successes that only comes along rarely. The fanatic response to the album has gone far beyond your average level of hype, partially because Kendrick has proven his immense talent once again and partially because it’s just that good. With DAMN., Kendrick has at the age of 29 already established himself as not only one of the greatest rappers of all time, but one of the best American artists altogether. We’re left knowing that, in terms of the world of hip-hop, this is what a god feels like.