Sometimes, it can be quite nerve wracking as a fan when it comes time for an artist to follow up on a really big project. Regardless of whether or not you think it’s his best record, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly was a monumental release. It’s essentially the album of 2015 (despite what the Grammys had to say to the contrary). It even brought up discussions about how soon after release an album can be called a “classic”. It’s been two years since then, and Kendrick’s position in the game is a lot different from where he was in 2015. Despite already being an extremely well known and respected artist, he was still on the way up when that album dropped two years ago. He is on top right now.
Why do I even bring all this background up? Well, among several other major themes, Kendrick spends a lot of time on this new record reflecting on the last two years. In a way, the whole aesthetic vibe of DAMN. seems to be a deliberate contradiction to his last project. Look no further than the album cover. To Pimp a Butterfly’s cover is a really striking, artistic, black and white image that tells you that the album is going to be political and socially conscious. DAMN. just has K-Dot in a white t-shirt standing in front of a brick wall with the title in red above him.
That’s not to say anything about the actual music within, though. Sonically, there are generally two modes the songs fall within. On one hand, you have the type of rattling hi-hat trap bangers signified by the lead single “HUMBLE.”, while on the other, you have quite a few of these hazy, almost lackadaisical tracks that bring a much softer and contemplative approach to the record. But both of these styles have in common a sort of grungy, lo-fi production that, in conjunction with the album cover, give an almost low budget mixtape vibe to the whole project. Again, this flies right in the face of the vibrant jazz and soul inflected beats of the last album. I wouldn’t bring up as much of these comparisons if the stylistic change up weren’t so jarring. Because of this, I think DAMN. will lead a lot of people to think that there isn’t as much going on from a conceptual standpoint as Kendrick is known for, but upon closer reading of the lyrics, this record presents just as much to chew on thematically as any of his past works.
Like I said before, Kendrick spends a lot of this record reflecting on what led him to being in the spot he is at the moment. This idea is discussed from an external perspective on tracks like “DNA.” And “ELEMENT.” where he brings into view his role in the larger world of hip hop and the music industry. “DUCKWORTH.” takes this idea literally and, in a masterstroke of hip hop storytelling, relates a tale of how Kendrick’s father had a run in with future Top Dawg Entertainment founder Anthony Tiffith. I don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t heard the track, but the way Kendrick tells this story and then ties it back into the opening track “BLOOD.” is one of the shining moments in his discography. But in my opinion where DAMN. is most interesting is when he starts dissecting his own motives and how his drives and thought processes are responsible for a lot of his success but also a lot of his personal issues. I want to highlight the track “FEAR.” in particular, a nearly eight-minute slow burn in which he frames his life as a series of reactions to fear: fear of his parents, fear of death, fear of God, fear of being judged, and fear of the pressure that comes with being a major figure in the music industry. It’s a long song, but it doesn’t feel like eight minutes because you hang on every word he’s saying. It really makes you consider how much of your life and energy revolves around simply avoiding the bad things that could happen, and how those fears eventually come to shape your personality, for good or for bad. This song is one of Kendrick Lamar’s masterpieces, in my opinion. There aren’t a whole lot of rappers today that are not only willing to how this much vulnerability, but also have the lyrical skill to articulate it in such a concise and even relatable way.
But not the entire album is this introspective. One of the joys of DAMN. is hearing Kendrick just brutally take down other rappers. This brings me again to the lead single “HUMBLE.” I’m not going to go into the controversy that surrounded the “Photoshop” line around the song’s release; I don’t think any more can be said about that ten second lyrical tangent that hasn’t already been said, but the majority of the track consists of him just goin’ off on an as of yet unnamed rapper (the most likely candidate seems to be Big Sean) for about two-and-a-half minutes. And don’t get me started on “DNA.”, where right from the first verse he brags about being sent by God in an immaculate conception, later proclaiming himself as the tenth plague of Egypt coming to wipe out these other rappers who have so offended him.
The biggest thing that really sets Kendrick Lamar apart from a lot of other rappers is that I think he has a really keen sense of how to put an album together. Let’s face it, even a lot of classic hip hop albums can be criticized for being too long or for having a couple of filler tracks. But Kendrick knows better than any other rapper today how to develop a concept or theme across the span of an entire record. I think that’s a big part of why he’s so highly regarded as an artist. He constructs his records in such a way that they become much bigger than the sum of their individual songs. They’re not just a collection of songs.
As I first listened to DAMN., I enjoyed it but it didn’t seem to have that wow factor that had immediately hit me with To Pimp a Butterfly, but as I’ve listened to it more and have allowed it roll around in my head a lot, the record has really revealed itself as another brilliant piece of work, definitely in the same league as Kendrick’s other albums. It’s so impressive how this man has not yet dropped a dud or even had the smallest misstep, really. The amount of craft and care he puts into his work is inspiring in any genre of music, and DAMN. is yet another example. On the non-album single “The Heart Part 4”, he took that step and proclaimed himself the greatest rapper alive, and every day we all get closer to taking his word for it.