After releasing his critically-acclaimed good kid m.A.A.d. city and To Pimp a Butterfly, Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar has solidified his position as a top contender in the rap game. Kendrick has ascended beyond his contemporaries, arguably releasing two classic albums in the span of three years. “Dropped one classic, came right back. ‘Nother classic, right back. My next album the whole industry on a ice pack,” boasts a confident Kendrick on his March single, “The Heart Part Four,” which fueled his hungry fans’ anticipation for a new record.
Kendrick continues to prove his versatility on his newest studio album, DAMN., which departs from the experimental jazz-focused themes of To Pimp a Butterfly. Kendrick delivers his punchiest record yet, adopting an accessible sound that brings together mainstream modern rap and the aggressive motifs of 90s gangster rap.
Kendrick continues to reinvent his sound with each album, making his releases fresh, new experiences. Kendrick embraces the sound of his peers rather than isolating himself, proving he can do what everyone else is doing at a higher caliber. “Sit down. Be humble,” commands Kendrick on “HUMBLE.,” as if grounding the flaring egos of his rap contemporaries. DAMN. thrives on its modern hip hop sound, as if wearing the colors of a typical rap album with pride. Despite the criticisms by Fox News and reporter Geraldo Rivera, who said “hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years,” Kendrick responds to their criticisms by bringing them to life in one combative project . The style change is a refreshing step back from the dense, complex sounds of his previous records, making DAMN. easier for the new and veteran Kendrick fan to digest.
Stitched together by Kendrick’s fierce delivery, listeners navigate through tight avenues of potent, high-tempo trap beats in tracks like “DNA.,” “ELEMENT.” and “HUMBLE.” The flow shifts are bold, making sharp twists and turns at will. “LOYALTY.,” “YAH” and “FEAR.” follow a more patient approach, assuming a steady and controlled pace. Slower tempos and relaxed rhythms offer listeners opportunities to breathe and stroll through Kendrick’s mature songwriting, rather than making an all-out sprint.
Kendrick showcases his descriptive storytelling with his final track, “DUCKWORTH.,” which explains how an encounter between a younger Anthony Tiffith, the current CEO of Top Dawg Entertainment, and Kendrick’s father could have been fatal. It is through the decisions they both make, that lead to a healthy friendship and the successful future of young Kendrick. The tracks LOVE.” and “GOD.” feature Kendrick’s attempts at singing, which have a tendency to grow stale and uninteresting. Kendrick’s crooning voice suffers from cheesy refrains and hooks, composing some of the album’s weakest moments. These moments are still only minor flaws in an overall well-composed project.
DAMN., while maintaining a relatively consistent style, fails to rest on one particular theme. Kendrick’s mind appears scattered, shuffling through the daily thoughts that plague his mind. Damnation, the power of choices and God’s judgement weigh heavy on Kendrick’s shoulders, as if preventing him from taking off completely with his wide commercial success. Unlike his previous albums, Kendrick does not raise outcries against the corruption and injustice of a failing system. Instead, he seems to contemplate himself, reflecting on his past, present and future.
God’s judgement, in particular, stands out amongst Kendrick’s lingering thoughts. The opening track, “BLOOD.,” pits Kendrick in the center of that dilemma, recalling an event where he aids a blind woman and gets murdered by her in the process. While the woman’s true identity is unknown, she may be Lucy — Kendrick’s representation of Satan. In the act of exploring interactions with evil, Kendrick strays from God’s path and meets an untimely death. Instead of sharing his unwavering love and dedication to his religion, Kendrick appears to question his relationship with God. He appears driven by fear, rather than trust.
A voicemail from his cousin, Carl Duckworth, brings this thinking into the limelight, as it describes how the real Israelites of today are African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans. In the book of Deuteronomy, the Israelites are described as a cursed people, who will continue to be tested until they return to the testaments and abandon their false gods. Kendrick continues further in “YAH.,” saying “I’m a Israelite, don’t call me black no mo’. That word is only a color, it ain’t facts no mo’.” Kendrick withdraws himself from racial ties, something he celebrated in To Pimp a Butterfly. Instead, Kendrick seems to rethink his stance on life’s injustices, contemplating whether it is the fault of a corrupt system, or themselves. This relationship with God is built upon submission, praying for forgiveness for their wrongdoings.
DAMN. pits Kendrick in one of his darkest states yet, struggling to understand his earthly successes and his heavenly aspirations. We are told the story of a Kendrick who is aware of his success and influence in the rap game, yet unsure in who he is. Is his success a result of his DNA? Is it a result of his fear of failure? Is it a result of God’s mercy? Like the result of the events in “DUCKWORTH.,”it may be a combination of all his choices and circumstances throughout his life.
Kendrick exists in an ever-changing atmosphere and despite his successes, the looming presence of damnation hangs over his head; damnation from himself, damnation from others and damnation from God. “God damn you. God damn me. God damn us. God damn we. God damn us all,” echoes a voice at the end of “FEAR.” It is not a cry of frustration. It is a forlorn sigh of acceptance — a long, heavy breath of surrender.