DAMN., the fourth studio album from Kendrick Lamar, works very well as a response to his last full-length, To Pimp a Butterfly. Butterfly was an album that impressed critics and music fans alike with its rich throwback to Black music, featuring elements of funk, jazz, boom bap hip-hop, and R&B within the production. Lyrically, the writing resonated with many as songs reflected on fracturing racial tensions across the country and Kendrick’s individual response to the state of affairs. For all the praise that album received though, it must be noted that it didn’t seem to match the level of wide-reaching pop culture impact good kid, m.A.A.d city had. Kendrick indulged himself a bit on Butterfly and challenged listeners with a deep and complex release that didn’t seem to care how far removed its sounds were in comparison to what’s popular in our current hip-hop landscape.
With that in mind, it seems as if Lamar has reacted by releasing a follow-up that strikes a balance between being something dense and unique, while also being a reflection of our contemporary music scene. The artist was quoted in an earlier interview this year, saying "I think now, how wayward things have gone within the past few months, my focus is ultimately going back to my community and the other communities around the world where they're doing the groundwork," and that focus is reflected in the sound of this album (http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/kendrick-lamar-talks-spiritual-urgent-new-album-w469883). Looking at the collaborators for the album, it’s interesting to note how Lamar reached out beyond his traditional TDE beat-makers to producer Mike Will Made It to help curate the new sonic landscape. As the producer of popular recent singles such as “Formation” by Beyoncé and “Black Beatles” by Rae Sremmurd, Mike Will Made It has been a strong influencer on the sound of popular urban music.
His imprint is impossible not to take note of on this album, as he helped to create tracks “DNA.,” “HUMBLE.,” and “XXX.” The production on all three of these tracks help to establish DAMN. as an album where Kendrick sounds more aggressive and to the point than he was on most of Butterfly, featuring gritty beat cuts and thumping drums that shake with bass. Speaking of Kendrick’s rapping, he sounds better than ever on this release. Though it may seem like he has taken a step back in terms of rapping the most complex bars, it’s arguable that he’s adjusted his style so that no time is wasted with each line. His delivery on many tracks is comparable to what he gave us previously on intense tracks like “The Blacker the Berry” and “m.A.A.d city,” but he also reveals a side more focused on melody, a la peers like Young Thug and Drake.
Tracks like “LOYALTY.”, “LOVE.”, and “GOD.” are the strongest examples of this new approach on the mic, where Kendrick is more loose and willing to experiment with a more relaxed style. Though some hardcore fans may not appreciate what he’s doing on tracks like this, it’s admirable how he’s expanded on the styles of hip-hop he can excel with. Also, the switch-up is easier to appreciate when the tracks are perfectly spaced out across the album to maintain variety throughout a full listen. Another style that he explores a lot on this album is a grainy, psychedelic style of hip-hop, which is akin to the work of active artists like Danny Brown and Earl Sweatshirt. “YAH.,” “PRIDE.,” and “LUST.” are prime examples, especially “YAH.,” where he raps “And Deuteronomy say that we all been cursed / I know he walks the Earth / But it's money to get, bitches to hit, yah / Zeroes to flip, temptation is, yah / First on my list, I can't resist, yah.” Though the lyrics may read to some as less dense than previous work, it reflects a step forward with his songwriting as he’s giving us great quotables and still has a strong message.
The final stretch of this album has a lot to reflect on, as tracks “XXX.”, “FEAR.”, and “DUCKWORTH.” all stand out as some of Kendrick’s strongest work to date. “XXX.” is a fantastic “m.A.A.d city”-esque burner, featuring two sides to work with. On the first half Kendrick sets a violent and defiant tone with lyrics like “I'll chip a nigga little bit of nothin' / I'll chip a nigga, then throw the blower in his lap / Walk myself to the court like, ‘Bitch, I did that!’” All of this is over a beat that could crack concrete with its bass and features throwback DJ scratches. With the second half U2 gets brought in to support a gloomy and reflective atmosphere with their feature as Kendrick speaks on the current state of America. Moving on to “FEAR.”, this track cuts straight to the bone with lyrics like “I'll prolly die tryna buy weed at the apartments / I'll prolly die tryna diffuse two homies arguin' / I'll prolly die 'cause that's what you do when you're 17.” Kendrick’s lyrics here really reflect his new interest in repetition, as he drills on the theme of fear and death, providing a strong image for the environment he grew up in.
The closing track, “DUCKWORTH.,” centers on a personal story that Kendrick was surprisingly able to hold off on telling up until this point. The narrative reveals how Kendrick’s father, Kenny Duckworth, came into contact with Anthony Tiffith, the head of Top Dawg Entertainment. The listener’s familiarity with either character isn’t as important as their ability to pick up the message Kendrick offers, telling a story that emphasizes the circumstances our environment provides. These circumstances and conditions have the potential to shape a life for the worst despite the best attempts on an individual’s part to stay on the right path. Kendrick has been working with this theme his whole career, as he was somehow able to reach a position as one of the most praised storytellers of our time, despite just being a “good kid from a mad city.” With DAMN., Kendrick Lamar has a taken another step forward as a phenomenal musician and storyteller.
Best Tracks: “DNA.” / “YAH.” / “LUST.” / “LOVE.”
Best Production: “DNA.” / “YAH.” / XXX.”