As I type this, the internet is still debating whether a second Kendrick Lamar album will be arriving during his Sunday Coachella performance. Lost in the admittedly fun, but absurdly pointless discussion is that we have a new Kendrick Lamar album and it’s really, really good.
Not that anyone’s saying it’s not, but it’s almost as if the 29-year-old Compton rapper has ascended to such a level of excellence at his craft that we’ve run out of inspired responses. DAMN. is a complete sonic departure from Kendrick’s recent work, but every bit as compelling. It’s an easy listen, but it requires effort to fully appreciate.
With 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick created an instant classic and an album that will still be discussed in the coming decades as a hip hop masterpiece, both as a work of art and as affecting social commentary. And all of this as a follow up to good kid, M.A.A.D City, the 2012 album that thrust Kendrick into the pop culture spotlight and stands as a classic in its own right.
Is it too soon to place DAMN. upon the shelf next to these two goliath records? I don’t think so. As difficult as it’s become to repeatedly react in the moment as an unbiased music critic, sometimes a moment is all you need, because damn, this album is good.
On this latest release, Kendrick forgoes the overarching narratives that turned To Pimp and good kid into the best kind of concept records, but DAMN. is still just as cohesive. In fact, the purposeful juxtaposition of each track creates an equally captivating listen.
Throughout the course of DAMN., Lamar continues his examinations of race, religion and society at large, while constantly probing his own motivations. Amidst these musings, the greatest rapper alive continues to battle against himself, using self-deprecation to balance out his perceived prideful tendencies. It’s an exploration in duality that never grows old. “I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA”, he spits over a trunk-rattling beat on “DNA.”
On DAMN., these ponderings take on a more palpable tone simply because of the album’s makeup. Whether it be relationships (“LUST. and “LOVE.”), ego (“PRIDE.” and “HUMBLE.”), or religion, (“FEAR.” and “GOD.”), Kendrick continually offers his own counterpoints, never even allowing for one particular sound to drown out another. Lest early single “HUMBLE.” or the opening moments of “DNA.” lead you to believe DAMN. to be nothing but bangers, Kendrick has included a little something for everyone.
As fun as it is to hear Kendrick let loose on some of the album’s more aggressive tracks, it’s almost more engaging to hear him try new tricks. Songs like “YAH.” and “ELEMENT.” showcase a more relaxed Lamar, complete with moments that out-Drake Drake. “I don’t do it for the Gram, I do it for Compton”, he genuinely and effortlessly fires on the latter. Throw in a couple smoothly sung hooks and it’s hard to remember what all the fuss about More Life was about.
If you’re looking to vibe out, look no further than “LOYALTY.”, as Kendrick and Rihanna split the mic to examine the weight of honesty. Even U2’s appearance on “XXX.” lands right, as Kendrick and Bono examine the problematic nature of blending religion and politics, with Kendrick spitting, “Hail Mary, Jesus and Joseph / The great American flag is wrapped and dragged with explosives”. By the time he closes the album with “DUCKWORTH.”, a bone-chilling tale of how Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith almost killed Lamar’s father, Ducky, and how that would have dramatically altered his life course, you need a moment to gather yourself before hitting repeat.
It would be easy to fault Kendrick for the dizzying amount of topical ground covered across the 14 tracks of DAMN. if it weren’t for the underlying themes that tie these tracks together and make this album so much more than a new set of songs. Amidst the persistent changes of pace lies a vulnerable Lamar, constantly questioning whether anyone out there is praying for him. Not a petty cry for attention, Kendrick’s motive here is to express his fears – that money has changed him (or will), that he’s lost a part of who he was (or will), and that he’s not cut out to deliver the message he’s so passionate to share. Embedded voicemail interludes remind him (and us) that Kendrick’s community is present and united.
Kendrick Lamar is so compelling, not just because he truly is the greatest rapper alive, but because he unveils the fears that many share with uncomfortable honesty. It’s ironic that his very fears and uncertainties are what make his message all the more impactful. In many ways, DAMN. makes To Pimp a Butterfly even more meaningful and poignant simply by existing.
It’s going to take a few more months to fully unpack this album and have the types of conversations that it truly warrants. In the meantime, we know one thing for certain – DAMN. lives up to the hype by shedding preconceptions and targeting the motivations of one of music’s most important voices. I’m not sure about you, but I’m not quite ready for that second album just yet.
by Kiel Hauck
Kiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.