Kendrick Lamar, DAMN. Album Review

The king of modern rap returns to the streets as Kung Fu Kenny on DAMN., his fourth studio album. Nikola Jokanovic assesses the hype.

K-Dot, King Kunta, Cornrow Kenny and now Kung Fu Kenny, rapper Kendrick Lamar reinvents himself biannually with every new release and DAMN. proves no different. There’s a lot of expectation resting on Lamar’s latest, which arrived last month only two years after his watershed moment To Pimp A Butterfly. Alongside 2012’s Good Kid M.A.A.D City, Lamar’s previous releases are now canonical hip-hop, almost prescribed texts for listeners of modern rap. M.A.A.D City ushered in a dawning age of street-wise and socio-politically conscious urban music; To Pimp A Butterfly’s massive critical success made scales of one to ten useless by flying off the top end worldwide in a freakish act of self-one-upmanship. It’s an only slight exaggeration to say that Kendrick Lamar is at an all-time high of commercial, critical and cultural success and relevancy. With all eyes on Kung Fu Kenny, where does DAMN. take him next?

Kendrick may have moved a few suburbs over, but his thoughts will always be in the Compton streets that shaped him as a child, young man and budding artist. Opener ‘BLOOD.’ sets the scene, with Lamar narrating a dreamlike story of offering help to a blind woman only to be shot for his efforts, a surreal reminder of the lurking and unpredictable dangers of street life. From here Kendrick covers a wide medley of current topics, from hypocritical attitudes on hood violence and police brutality on ‘XXX.’ to a full inventory of his black heritage on ‘DNA.’: “power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA”, as well as murder, conviction, burglars, ballers and death.

Standout track DNA. sees Kendrick at his most lyrically and vocally volatile, setting the tone for the rest of the album.

Religion and God take a spotlight throughout. The album’s conceptual underpinning is an examination of a Biblical ‘curse’ which Lamar says plagues the African American, Hispanic and Native American populations, long manifested in slavery, genocide, oppression and racism. With track titles like ‘LOYALTY.’, ‘PRIDE.’, ‘HUMBLE.’, ‘LUST.’ and ‘FEAR.’, the album reads like a list of sinful ways in which Kendrick and his people have wandered from the proper path. However, unlike the intrusively autobiographical M.A.A.D City, this approach leaves some songs as simple, impersonal commentaries on their titular topics, most guiltily on songs ‘LOYALTY.’ and ‘LOVE.’ DAMN. works best when Kendrick gets personal, when you can hear him being pulled at each limb by temptations of fame and lust as well as devotion to family and faith.

Lamar still leaves plenty of room for hip-hop’s key pleasures, and this latest album has his highest percentage of straight party hits yet. In keeping with a thematic fixture of the album, the dual ideas of “wickedness or weakness”, every second song is a beat-heavy, club-ready banger, while the alternate songs in between sound like downtrodden, moody mornings after. Start at DNA., count every second track (skipping ‘XXX.’) and you’ll hear this up-down, loud-quiet dynamic playing out.

Many songs here explore new sonic and vocal territories: Kendrick matches the woozy sounds of ‘YAH.’ and ‘PRIDE.’ with an intoxicated drawl, and album closer ‘DUCKWORTH.’ recalls M.A.A.D City’s classic hip-hop styles, allowing for one of the rapper’s best performances yet. Unfortunately, not all here shows growth; DAMN.’s lean towards upbeat club jams also comes with a simplifying of sound, song structure and lyrical substance on certain tracks, uncommon of the typically boundary-bulldozing Kendrick. Although undeniably catchy, songs like ‘HUMBLE.’, ‘LOYALTY.’ and potential career low ‘GOD.’ have simple beats, simple flows and simply don’t stack up well against other album tracks. This whittling down of potential does the album few favours, although standout bangers ‘DNA.’ and ‘ELEMENT.’ get a free pass solely due to how hard they truly do bang – seriously, don’t play these two driving.

Despite a few middling album moments, and although it might not reach past career heights, DAMN. is another engaging record from today’s forefront rap artist. Always slipping away from any one set interpretation, the best tracks on Kendrick Lamar’s meditative party-starter DAMN. will be spookily intriguing for years to come.

7.5 / 10

Highlights: ‘DNA.’, ‘XXX.’, ‘FEAR.’, ‘DUCKWORTH.’

Physical copies of DAMN. are available now. DAMN. can be streamed from Apple MusicSpotify and Tidal. Kendrick Lamar’s official website can be found here.

Feature image: Bastite Safont, via Wikimedia Commons. No changes made.