Written By: Sam Wilson
So it’s finally here. One of the most anticipated albums of the year from one of rap’s biggest names. Kendrick Lamar has dropped’ DAMN.’ on Easter Friday, with a release packed full of religious imagery and motif. The album abandons the jazz-hip-hop style adopted by Kendrick for ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ and it’s sister-album ‘untitled unmastered’, instead going for a new style, whilst maintaining the story-telling elements that made ‘TPAB’ such a successful album.
‘DAMN.’ opens with a parable violent twist. The slow tempo of the song is similar to Kendrick’s previous work but after telling the story of his encounter with a blind woman whom he offers to help find something she has lost, instead, she turns to him and shoots him – setting an immediate tone of violence for the rest of the album. ‘BLOOD.’ is a great start to the album but is very different to the other tracks such as ‘DNA.’ – the second on the album. ‘DNA.’ is a celebration of Kendrick’s African-American heritage and culture, as well as self-asserting his position above other rappers in the game. Kendrick compares himself to Jesus Christ in the opening few lines, rapping, “I was born like this, since one like this//immaculate conception.” ‘DNA.’ is one of my favorite tracks on the album, up-tempo and packed full of metaphor, whilst Kendrick demonstrates his skill with the flow of his rapping.
Next up on the album are ‘YAH.’ and ‘ELEMENT.’ ‘YAH.’ is a slower-tempo track in which Kendrick packs full of religious imagery whilst directly calling out Geraldo Rivera, the FOX news presenter who criticized Kendrick’s performance of ‘Alright’ at the 2015 BET Awards. Extracts from the FOX News segment had featured on both ‘BLOOD.’ and ‘DNA.’ so it seems Kendrick clearly had a bone to pick. ‘ELEMENT.’ contains one of my favourite flows on the entire album yet features a chorus which feels very much like a Drake song in composition. Additionally, Kendrick is exploring the struggles and sacrifices he has had to make in his life to get to where he is now.
‘FEEL.’ is a powerful track of self-expression from Kendrick as he attempts to grapple with the toxicity of the rap industry and the isolation he feels despite his success. The repetition of the word “Feel” an astonishing 40 times throughout the track makes it feel very personal to Kendrick as he is addressing the listener. ‘LOYALTY.’ which features Rihanna and appears to sample Bruno Mars’ ‘24k Magic’ in the background, addresses the importance of loyalty and honesty in friendships and relationships. To me, the song feels too similar to the likes of Drake and the modern blends of pop music and rap music, and is probably my least favourite on the album.
‘PRIDE.’ comes just before ‘HUMBLE.’ (which was released as a single a week or two ago). ‘PRIDE.’ is not by any means the best track on the album but features a catchy chorus and feels very different from the typical stuff that Kendrick produces – presumably what he was aiming for with the song. It feels almost hazy-like and is almost a polar opposite to ‘HUMBLE.’, which, despite already being released before the full-album, is my favorite track. Kendrick’s flow is interrupted by those harsh piano chords and the whole thing works perfectly to put his rivals back in their place.
‘LUST.’ is a very peculiar song, feeling very different to both ‘HUMBLE.’ that came before and ‘LOVE.’ that follows. The song features British singer RAT BOY and is my second favorite on the album. It feels similar in melodic composition to some of the tracks on Childish Gambino’s album ‘Awaken My Love’. Minor in tone, ‘LUST.’ feels like a mysterious journey into the sexual intimacy of a rapper’s lifestyle.
‘LOVE.’, featuring Zacari, is a strange one: feeling a lot more like a song from Drake than anything Kendrick has ever released before, the song addresses his relationship with fiancée Whitney Alford. The chorus feels very pop-like, and the song features synths heavily throughout. Again, a big difference to the tracks on ‘TPAB’ and I’m still not sure if it’s a direction I particularly like. ‘XXX.’ was the song I was most anticipating, featuring U2. Now it doesn’t necessarily feature U2 as much as Bono has two 3-line choruses and a brief intro at the start of the song. Bono’s choruses feel very much like lounge jazz intersections to break up Kendrick’s storytelling and flow. Nevertheless, the song is certainly one of the stand-out tracks of the album and one that I really enjoyed.
Clocking in at nearly 8 minutes long, ‘FEAR.’ explores three times that Kendrick has experienced true terror in his life: domestic violence at age 7, police brutality and gang violence threatening his life at age 17 and anxieties about his self-confidence at age 27. The song is the most jazz-like on the album and would not be out of place on ‘TPAB ‘and this epic feels like the perfect set-up for the final two tracks on the album.
I feel like ‘GOD.’ may have missed the mark a bit. Despite it’s title, it’s nothing special and feels no different to a lot of 00’s hip-hop tracks. If anything, it is a welcome self-appraisal from Kendrick who is celebrating his successes and comparing his production of songs to what a God feels like when creating.
Finally, the album concludes with ‘DUCKWORTH’, named after Kendrick’s legal surname, and tells the story of how Anthony Thiffith, who would later sign Kendrick to his record label ‘Top Dawg Entertainment’ when Lamar was just 15, nearly killed Lamar’s father ‘Ducky’ when he was working at KFC. Instead, Thiffith and Lamar ended up working together instead of being the enemies that they could have been. At the end of the track, a gunshot is heard and the album is reversed in a sort of high-pitched, concluding with the opening line of ‘BLOOD.’, bringing the whole album into a cycle.
‘DAMN.’ is definitely Kendrick’s most experimental album to date, as he plays with a variety of different genres to create a truly unique artwork of the modern rap era that blends storytelling and flow with melody and instrumentals.