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There’s always a rapper/s that defines a generation. The 80s had Dr Dre and Ice Cube, the 90s were Tupac and Biggie, the naughties had Eminem and Kanye, and whatever this generation is called has Kendrick Lamar. He’s considered to be the greatest rapper alive, and one of the greatest rappers of all time. I’d have to agree with that. The dude has flows that no other commercial rapper can replicate, his ear for timing and production is on a theatrical level unlike anyone else. Kendrick speaks for the inequalities that he’s encountered, from the streets of Compton to the wider world, voicing his powerful lyrics on topics such as politics, gun control, drug abuse and poverty. All the while he spins catchy hooks that make you want to hit repeat. I first heard Kendrick on good kid, m.A.A.d city but I didn’t become obsessed with his music until I listened to To Pimp A Butterfly. Pimp was hip-hop theatrics on another level that I had never heard before; mixing hip-hop, R&B, jazz and funk effortlessly whilst simultaneously holding a strong narrative that flowed from song to song. I consider it the best rap album of all time, sometimes nudged away by the likes of Wu-Tang or A Tribe Called Quest, depending on my mood. Still, we are talking about some classic albums, and Kendrick is now known as one of the greats.
I was hyped last year when DAMN came out. The first single off the album, HUMBLE, blew my mind. I was thinking, maybe this can trump To Pimp a Butterfly. Maybe. I listened to it rigorously in its first couple weeks of release until I had Kendrick fatigue. And now I dive back into DAMN for this humble review of one of the greatest rappers of all time.
Opening the album is BLOOD, it’s a dreamy spoken word track accompanied by a subtle soulful melody underneath. It’s nothing special, it sets a gloomy tone that both transitions well into the second track while also foreshadowing the rest of the album. The transition between tracks is a mix of a Fox News clip criticising Kendrick’s lyrics from Alright from To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s a blatant political punch to Fox News’ gut. I don’t mind it, I wish there was more political bows on the album.
DNA follows, the hardest hitting song on the album. It’s angry, vicious and chaotic. The deep bass punches as if Kendrick is in the ring with a Fox News presenter. The rhythm is hypnotic, the subtle trap hi-hats add to the fierce pace. Kendrick’s flow is the main reason for the song’s viciousness. He spits with such ferocity and passion. In the last third of the track, the beat shifts and the bass melody punches deeper to the point of distortion. It rattles the brain. Vocal samples mix back and forth, hitting my brain left and right like a boxer at a speed bag. Kendrick spits, “Tell me somethin’, You mothafuckas can’t tell me nothin’, I’d rather die than to listen to you, my DNA not for imitation, your DNA an abomination.” DNA is one of Kendrick’s best songs.
Unfortunately, the next track, YAH, doesn’t keep the same intensity that Kendrick set in DNA. It’s dreary and slow, almost depressing. Though the hook is catchy, it’s a track that I skip now because I’m brought down so fast after the pleasurable beating I’ve taken from DNA. And the same can be said for ELEMENT; it’s a simple track and Kendrick’s verses are fine, but it’s boring. The trap beat is at the forefront of the instrumentation as ominous piano notes sporadically enter underneath, playing to the depressing and sad tone that DAMN now embraces. The lyrics sound as if it’s a diss track, as Kendrick verbally flexes his skills and his new-found wealth and world fame. I feel as if the beat should be harder, but Kendrick subverts expectations. For me it doesn’t pay off. Even if he has a hype man yelling “New Kung Fu Kenny,” at the start of this, and majority of his sadder songs.
LOYALTY featuring Rihanna was a stand out track for me at the time of DAMN’s release. It’s still a song I enjoy, but as the hype has died down on the album, I’m more aware of the sadness in the song and in the album. Kendrick doesn’t spit his lyrics with the confidence like he did on Pimp, it’s almost a nervous, monotone drawl. It doesn’t sound bad though, and Rihanna compliments this well with her velvet smooth voice.
PRIDE continues the minor flare of DAMN, but this time its instrumentation keeps me hooked. A simple electric guitar with a slight phaser distortion plays against a solid drum beat. Kendrick isn’t showcasing his rap techniques in this album, he doesn’t spit his lyrics with bullet speed like he has previously. I guess he doesn’t need to prove anything here, but it is repetitive from track to track.
The next track HUMBLE is the stand out on the album. I don’t really need to say much on it, everyone has heard it, everyone knows how good it is. But it is a shame that it’s only the second track to mix up the tone of the album so far. Eight tracks into the album, and six of those have been sadder, drearier tunes that really bore me now that I don’t have all the social media hype telling me how good DAMN is.
Tracks LUST and LOVE bore me further. They are catchy and work well as a poppy, rap tune, but I want more from Kendrick Lamar. All I can think about is this far into To Pimp a Butterfly, I was still being thrown left right and centre into a colourful melting pot of sounds. I was being pampered, carefully led through a theatrical narrative. On DAMN, I’m waiting for the next big moment to happen.
The best tracks on the album aside from DNA and HUMBLE sit at the end of the album. So for all of those who want the best experience, listen to the special edition of DAMN where Kendrick just flipped the track listing because apparently the album is a palindrome. XXX (featuring U2), FEAR, and DUCKWORTH are the highlights on DAMN. XXX being the theatrical tune I’ve been waiting for all album. It transitions from scene to scene, gradually building in suspense and energy until it finishes with a U2 croon that surprisingly works with Kendrick’s vocals. FEAR is a track that I could see fitting into Pimp; jazzy instrumentation plays against soulful vocal as Kendrick confidently spits clever bars. It’s nearly an eight-minute track, but it’s captivating. Final track DUCKWORTH, is a colourful narrative about Kendrick’s father who was nearly robbed at a KFC by Anthony ‘Top Dawg’ Triffith. Top Dawg is the CEO and founder of Top Dawg Entertainment who Kendrick is signed to. The story behind the track is interesting, but it’s the way that Kendrick spins it that showcases his true talent for evocative storytelling. And it wouldn’t be stellar track if the beat wasn’t on par. It’s a great closer for the album as it ends with Kendrick’s line, “Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence? Because if Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg could be servin’ life, while I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight.”
Though DUCKWORTH is a great Kendrick track, it doesn’t suit the tone that DAMN has served up in its fourteen tracks. DAMN is a sad album, from the lyrical content to the minor tones that filter through the instrumentation. But between the sadder tracks, Kendrick breaks them with hard hitters like HUMBLE and DNA that seem out of place. Maybe a restructure of track listing would help but I feel that some of DAMN’s tracks are inconsistent.
I can see how it plays into Kendrick’s life; all of a sudden he’s released To Pimp a Butterfly and his career has skyrocketed. He’s performing headlining festival spots where he’s showcasing a further theatrical side, he’s on daytime talk shows, he’s in the spotlight. The constant pressure to perform to a high standard would affect a person. And at the same time, Kendrick is trying to help those in his neighbourhood and give to his community. DAMN is the result of fame, self-doubt and pressure to the point that it’s a sadder, slightly depressed record. It’s not a bad album, but I don’t believe Kendrick when he says it’s his best.
DAMN is a good album, but not worth the hype that it still generates.
And though I’m glad Kendrick won a Pulitzer Prize, he should have won it for To Pimp a Butterfly.
After the Hype is a weekly series where I listen to an album after the hype dies down and give my general thoughts, sometimes a little whinge. It’s ok to disagree.