It’s been two years since To Pimp A Butterfly, and only one since the b-sides collection untitled unmastered., but hip hop visionary and avant rap auteur Kendrick Lamar is already back for more. DAMN is Kendrick at his hungriest, but it’s also his messiest and least groundbreaking album since 2011’s Section.80. DAMN is Kendrick taking a step back from the free jazz and avant-soul that permeated his recent projects, instead opting for a more conventional direction at the expense of stylistic innovations. It’s a mixed bag – there’s a lot of great tracks on here, but it’s the weaker cuts and the sloppy nature of the album that really drags it down.
Stylistically, DAMN is all over the place – but not in such a great or cohesive way as good kid, m.A.A.d city or To Pimp A Butterfly. There’s equal stage time for neo-soul influenced tracks like PRIDE as there is for Mike WiLL Made-It produced bangers DNA and lead single HUMBLE. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but with the structure of the album it feels flimsy and clumsy, grasping at continuity when there seems to be little in the way of a strong conceptual focus for the project.
Intro track BLOOD serves as a taster for the conscious Kendrick that we get throughout this album – it’s soulful, bleeding Kendrick’s moral storytelling and sense of conscience, with a well placed sample of Fox News’ criticism of his 2015 single Alright bringing this whole short track together. Little interludes and additions like this appear occasionally throughout the album, but it feels like the narrative he’s trying to create gets lost on the way before reappearing for the closing track DUCKWORTH. Even so, Kendrick’s lyrical aptitude and conscious hip hop stylings are as strong as ever, delivering nuanced and thoughtful sentiments on race, religion, and love, especially on deeper cuts like PRIDE or FEAR.
In many ways, DAMN is reminiscent of Kanye’s The Life of Pablo; minimalist art direction, stylistic shifts, seemingly purposely messy structure, and at the centre of it all, a reflection on fame and self in the modern world. Kendrick has never shied away from talking about his own personal experiences, but DAMN is far more straightforward in his discussion of themes he’s talked about in the past. This doesn’t equate to a less lyrical Kendrick, just a less abstract one – his commentaries on religion and life have been as direct as on tracks like XXX or YAH. Kendrick preaches without being preachy (not that he ever has been), and his sentiments are so central and so important.
Structurally, as a full project, DAMN feels half baked. By themselves, plenty of these tracks are satisfying, yet together, there’s a lack of cohesion in concept and style. Anthemic tracks like DNA or HUMBLE feature Kendrick at his most aggressive and lyrical, but they come off as jarring when matched with songs like the lowkey and lofi YAH or the psychedelic and moody PRIDE. Individually, or even rearranged, so many of these tracks work so well together, but DAMN’s tracklist is messy and seems confused about the statement the album itself is trying to make. The final track, DUCKWORTH, has Kendrick deliver some of his most intimate and introspective storytelling, but the closing moments, the rewind back to the opening, and the cyclical nature of the album feel like a last minute attempt at creating a satisfying resolution.
Several of these tracks feel not just out of place on DAMN or on any Kendrick project, but simply confused and lost themselves. The minimalist and trap-influenced cut ELEMENT is repetitive and loses any presence it might have wedged between YAH and the far more potent FEEL, and even with both Sounwave and James Blake on co-production credits it’s ultimately a weak track. GOD is another one of these songs that comes out slurred and lost in its execution – there are so many ideas here, but none of them are explored well.
LOYALTY and LOVE seem stuffed into the tracklist at the last minute, desperate attempts to pander to mainstream audiences and garner pop appeal with a Rihanna co-sign. It’s strange that a track can be so overbearingly full and yet so sparse and empty at the same time. If these are meant to be the most accessible tracks, then they definitely feel underproduced and lacking – no combination of DJ Dahi, Sounwave, and Terrace Martin is able to save these tracks from their fate as forgettable filler pieces. There’s nothing wrong with moving in that direction, but at his most Drake-like, Kendrick falters.
Mike WiLL Made-It’s contributions are by far some of the best. It’s a massive mood swing for Kendrick, but on tracks like DNA or HUMBLE he definitely goes in, with some of the most furious and hard hitting lyricism he’s ever dropped. His flow, his energy, his whole persona matches the raw aggression of Mike WiLL Made-It’s production. They might feel out of place with the rest of the album, but these cuts are satisfying, unforgettable, and pure single material.
DAMN’s deeper cuts is where this album gets far more interesting. YAH is a slow and gritty musing on religion and self, while FEAR reuses an instrumental section from The Heart Part 4 for Kendrick’s longest, most lowkey, and most introspective track. FEEL is DAMN’s most traditional cut – with Thundercat on bass and one of Kendrick’s more heartfelt deliveries, FEEL could be cut straight from the Butterfly sessions. And then there’s LUST – so reminiscent of Andre 3000’s Vibrate – a moody piece that evokes some of the best sung performances beneath these layers of neo soul style.
XXX is maybe DAMN’s most ambitious moment. The first half is hectic, modern, and messy (in a good way for a change), but the transition into the second half is seamless and amazing. It’s jazzy and lowkey, and Bono’s short but smooth vocals complement the track well. The pairing of these two socially conscious music giants simply couldn’t have gone any other way. PRIDE is a personal favourite from the album, and I had to leave it for last. With Steve Lacy (of the Internet fame) on production duty, PRIDE’s beat, recorded on an iPhone in fact, stands out amongst the crowd. It’s subtle, psychedelic, with a smooth bassline and falsetto vocals from Kendrick that draw so much from Andre 3000’s The Love Below. It’s a wavy track, one that sways from side to side, and definitely a new direction where Kendrick really shines.
Kendrick’s DAMN is probably going to be one of his most divisive projects. Even in itself, DAMN feels divided, unsure about it’s own ultimate direction or the way everything comes together. DAMN is by far Kendrick’s weakest studio effort so far, but there’s still plenty of salvageable material from this project. For an artist known for his concept albums and unified final products, DAMN is disappointing. But when you look past its shortcomings, Kendrick still comes through with those conscious insights, that skilled lyricism, and the experimental direction that we all love him for.