While some may think that a music journalist’s job is easiest when you get a stellar album to review that isn’t always the case. The easiest reviews are those where the album is pretty much trash and all you have to say in so many words is, “This was hot and sweltering wet garbage” without much analyzing or breaking down to accompany the conclusion that the album wasn’t very good at all. When you come across an album as multi-layered and complex as DAMN., that’s when you have to go into a review mentally prepared to tackle the thematic lyrical and musical elements that comprise the piece.
Kendrick Lamar’s follow-up to his highly reveled To Pimp a Butterfly gave me one of my most challenging album reviews yet. Lyrical ability aside, Lamar’s relationship with melodies and soundscapes seems like it lies on an extraterrestrial plane that allows me to be able to analyze a beat and carefully sculpt his flows in-between, over, and under every beat, he hops on. No matter how obscure the beat is Kendrick can rap his way around even rewound or backward melodies in a way that can only be admired and not yet replicated by anyone else in the game right now.
Another thing Kendrick knows how to perfect is his storytelling ability. It is rare that you find a song that completely engages the listener to where they forget they are listening to a song. Not since Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story” or Notorious B.I.G’s “I’ve Got a Story to Tell” have I been so enthralled in a song when I listened to the first track off the record “BLOOD.” I won’t spoil the surprise ending, but I jumped out of my seat in the end.
“DNA.” Probably has the most aggressive and hard-hitting beat via on the album next to “HUMBLE.” This is probably due to the fact that Atlanta hit-maker Mike Will Made It tackled both of these infectious productions. “DNA.” is a celebration of the rich history, pain, art, beauty, royalty, and more that runs through his DNA as a black man and as Kendrick Lamar. The song also features the most stomach churning, anger inducing audio clip from Geraldo Riviera who says, “This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years.” Kendrick’s response is probably every black person’s response who heard that asinine and gross line from Rivera, the beat changes from rolling drums to a stabbing beat with vibrating treble while Kendrick’s delivery goes into straight beast mode.
In “ELEMENT.” the hook, “If I have to slap a pussy ass nigga, I’ma make it look sexy” is the theme of the track. Slight piano chords and gorgeous Spanish-style guitar work creates an ominous but sensual beat that switches up for a lower register at the end of the song, while Kendrick produces an audible bitch slap to his peers through his in-your-face delivery and matter-of-fact presentation of his skills. Lyrics like “None of y’all fuckin’ with the flow yeah, the flow yeah/Years in the makin’, and don’t yall mistake it/ I got ‘em by a landslide, we talkin’ bout races/ you know this’ll never be a tie, just look at their laces” are direct shots at his peers who he challenges throughout the album.
DAMN. only has three features and the first one comes from Rihanna whose signature voice rides the old-school California beat with a satisfaction that is equatable to watching coconut oil melt when you rub it between your hands. There is one more feature that would be perfect on the album and that would have been the funkadelic king himself, Bootsie. The toned down 70’s psychedelic soul melodies give way to Lamar’s somber bars. The trippy echoing effects on the track remind me of one of Jimi Hendrix’s most psychedelic acid rock songs called “1983. A Mermaid I Should Turn to Be”.
“LUST.” sounds very inspired by Andre 3000, sounding similar to The Love Below track “She Lives in My Lap.” The same traveling guitar riff echoes over Kendrick’s layered vocals sprinkle over the beat. Although at face value “LUST.” seems like a retelling of sexual excursions, it becomes evident as the song progresses that he is talking about all of the different forms that the sin of lust came come in.
The third and most talked about feature is U2 on “XXX.” “XXX.” is a battle between the different sides of Kendrick broken up into three parts. The first part features a quiet Lamar talking about his street cred. The second introduces a manic Lamar responding to his friend who called saying someone killed his son. “You should chip a nigga, then throw the blower in his lap,” Lamar advises. He then begins to address a convention about gun control and the dire political state the country is currently in. Bono barely gives a word in edgewise with only contributing a couple lines to the song, which is the perfect amount.
DAMN. ends on a very personal note and taps into Lamar’s impeccable storytelling again. “DUCKWORTH.” starts off with the recurring line “Just remember what happens on Earth, stays on Earth! We gon’ put it in reverse!” Lamar goes into a very vivid story about how his father worked at a local fried chicken place and was almost killed by Anthony Tiffith, the owner of Top Dawg Entertainment. He then concludes, “If Anthony killed Ducky Top Dawg could be servin’ life/ While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight.” Audio then reverses and Kendrick begins where we first started with the first lines from “BLOOD.”
DAMN. is not flawless, but it is that raw and unfiltered delivery and emotions are what makes a true masterpiece that will go down in history as one of the best albums in recent times, not just in the box of rap, but as a whole in the world of music.
Although 2017 is shaping up to be a Grade A shit show in all other aspects, it might be one of the best years for music in recent memory. With the current political turmoil and racial climate permeating the air this year, it has resulted in some of the most passionate and aggressive music to hit the industry and that will always be the light at the end of this grim tunnel that is 2017.