Kendrick Lamar has been considered by many in recent time to be one of the most influential rappers around. To Pimp a Butterfly was considered by many to be the definitive rap album for the era we live in. Last April, Lamar released his fourth studio album DAMN to critical acclaim and a 7 from a melon. DAMN was set out to be a more mainstream sounding album that in turn would make it more recognised than TPAB, however the comparison in quality is an interesting point. That’s what I’m here to do, I’ve been listening to both albums all the way through to help review DAMN. So let’s get into my first ever Album review and hope I don’t say anything controversial.
There’s a lot of themes present on DAMN, I know some people like to say stuff like “you need to listen to it in reverse to get the full meaning.” However I’m really not too sure about that. From the outside, DAMN is about Fears, God, Weakness and Wickedness. The Weakness and Wickedness is something that he kicks off with the first title BLOOD. Essentially the songs alternate between these two different states, with tracks like DNA, HUMBLE and LUST being very much about his Wicked side. These are the ones where he brags, boasts or has a generally aggressive tone. Then there are his weak tracks, where you feel a slower vibe and something very much emotional. These are songs like FEAR, LOVE and FEEL.
Coming into this album it feels very much like a story or narrative that will get the best results when listened to in full. While there are certain tracks that you could probably jam to when it comes on shuffle. Kendrick has always made it clear that his albums are a form of art to convey feelings. While I’m not here to talk about conspiracy theories, I do entertain the story about the album almost being a flash of his life before death. The gun shots in BLOOD and DUCKWORTH help to illustrate this theme, and the songs about god and the fear of death also strengthen this idea. While someone can listen to an album with different ideas and intentions I support this global idea about DAMN and that’s how I say the music when listening through.
Now that we understand where this album stands and where it comes from we can start to talk about the actual music and sound. Kendrick has very much reinvented himself coming after the very strong and confident beats of TPAB. With DAMN he is in his dark place, filled with anxiety and questions he seeks the answers to. Some of those questions will never be answered and I think he knows that when he asks them. This focus on narrative and anxiety within the sounds for me makes certain songs less desirable to listen to for fun. It’s like shuffling a movie to go to the second or third in a trilogy. If you’re watching a trilogy you want to start at the beginning and you want to follow it to the end. Despite this there are still some good jams.
The album kicks off with the track BLOOD, a very eerie sounding track as Kendrick tells us a story of helping a woman in the street. The track ends with a gunshot and then a sample of Fox News talking about the song Alright from TPAB critiquing the lyrics. This quickly fades into the real first lyrical track, DNA. DNA comes out aggressive and action packed and is one of my favourite tracks. There’s a nice beat switch in the middle coming after another sample from Fox News where Geraldo Rivera says “This is why I say that hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years.” Which as you can imagine is quite controversial. He continues to rap about how proud of his heritage he is and all these traits in his DNA.
Next is YAH, the first song to switch vibes and bring the idea of God to the forefront. YAH is actually referring to Yahweh, which is believed to be the closest estimated to God’s actual name. This is again a song I can relax and jam out to as it’s got a really mellow and calm vibe to it. Again Kendrick calls out Fox News, this time directly in the lyrics rather than using a sound sample. This is very much where he begins to narrate his connection to god, the chorus is constantly calling Yah Yah, almost like he is crying out for God to answer him. ELEMENT continues a mellow mood while being a more Wicked themed song, where he asserts himself as the king of the rap game. The chorus is him showing off how he can make songs to the same quality as his rivals but he has the better lyrics. As well as this, they will never take him out of this element. In fact Kendrick is known for having very accessible music while also being able to make a strong social point.
FEEL as the title would imply, focuses on the feelings and effects that his stardom has brought onto his health and person. It’s quite a funky sad song in the regard that Kendrick believes no one is praying for him or cares about his well being beyond his wealth. Nearly every line starts with the words “I feel” almost as if he’s venting off everything inside his head. While saying all these things about no one looking out for him he also expresses wanting to isolate himself. Something that a lot of people can relate to and feel emotional about. While I love this song I don’t think I could listen to it in any mood.
LOYALTY is next and features vocals from DJ Dahi & Rihanna. Kendrick mentions in DNA how loyalty is one of his most important qualities. It’s one of my least favourite tracks on the album, but Rihanna delivers some good lines. Essentially the song is talking how important it is for both partners in a relationship to stay loyal to each other. The beat isn’t too interesting to me and is one I generally tend to skip. PRIDE then brings us back to this religious theme and focus, Pride of course being one of the seven deadly sins. This is a strong theme for Kendrick as he’s mentioned on ELEMENT about his status as one of the most notable and influential rappers at the moment. The line “I can’t fake humble just ’cause your ass is insecure” directly leans into the next song on the album as well.
HUMBLE is the lead single for the album and was one of the biggest singles of 2017. It’s also one of my more favourite songs on the album, it’s just very funky and lets the listener just feel like a bad-ass in their own right. Just telling people to sit down and be humble feels like a real power trip. Next is the two love themed songs LUST and LOVE. LUST is very much a song about the rapper lifestyle to have sex with whoever and whenever. While LOVE is very much the more intimate counterpart to this point. Zacari pops up on LOVE to sing us some words in a song that feels kind of meh, while I do like Kendrick being at his sweetest it just didn’t connect to me on this song. Likewise I didn’t really feel anything from LUST either.
XXX is next which features U2… Yes the one with Bono. This is quite a political song with a hard beat, while it is one of the funkier songs on the album it’s one that I’m not always going to listen to so I prefer DNA over it. But I understand that XXX will mean more to a lot more people. FEAR is one of my favourites for many reasons, while not being a song I’d listen to all the time, it is an emotional and soothing ballad. FEAR relates to moments of Kendrick being close to death in his life and those extreme moments of Anxiety that come with them. A lot of lines begin with him pondering one of the many ways he could eventually die as he obsesses over the idea. Kendrick says this is the best song he’s written and I’d agree with him on that lyrically.
The final two songs are GOD and DUCKWORTH. GOD is decent, focusing on the feeling of being God. Sort of like an ego trip Kendrick saying this is what God feels like. Then sort of calls out other rappers for doing this very thing all the time. It’s a nice song but again not one of my more favourites. DUCKWORTH is an excellent finish and a very great narrative tie for the story of this album. It’s a closer for the album in the sense that Kendrick has spent the whole time telling us about key events in his life and this is the last one to tie them up. It’s a story about how Anthony “Top Dog” was going to rob a KFC where Lamar’s father (Ducky) was working. Ducky could have died if Top Dog hadn’t been convinced to not rob the store. Then later in life Top Dog ended up signing Kendrick Lamar onto his record label being a full circle of sorts.
DUCKWORTH ends with a gunshot and the track begins to go in reverse. Before playing a bit of DNA and the very first line of BLOOD. This is interpreted a few different ways and for me it makes the whole of DAMN serve as a ‘Life flashing before your eyes moment.’ As Kendrick was shot dead at the start of the album and has flashed all these events in his life that lead him to that moment. Since DUCKWORTH also begins with the line “We gone put it in reverse” it means it can serve both ways with Kendrick starting out with his childhood story and leading up to DNA and BLOOD where he is eventually killed.
That’s the whole of DAMN in its entirety, with a lot of jams and a lot of messages. I do think this is another great album from Kendrick and appreciate his writing abilities combined with the power to get funky. I feel a lot of mainstream appeal to this album as a set of songs that anyone could get down to. Artists like Drake are already feeling this effect with him making tracks to specifically get on the charts it feels. Then you get Kendrick drop a tune like Humble and becomes one of the biggest Music Videos and Tracks of 2017. I mean Kendrick didn’t get the highest rated album of the year for no reason.
For me DAMN scores an 8.5/10
Favourite Tracks: DNA, DUCKWORTH, HUMBLE, YAH, ELEMENT
Least Favourite Tracks: LUST, GOD, PRIDE