Adored by his people, a messianic saviour of sorts – Kendrick Lamar is a prince who has found his place on the throne. Back with album number four, entitled DAMN, Kendrick’s latest offering gets the full shakedown by our top dog reviewer, Jake Hirst.
Kendrick is a shining light in a hip-hop landscape fractured by mumble rappers and trap lords that sound like chickens with tourettes (Forgive me ASAP FERG, for I have sinned). Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was Kendrick flexing his muscles, establishing himself as the most exciting mind in the genre. Not only one to watch, but the one to watch; sonically, lyrically and conceptually. A hair away from being a perfect album we all asked: “How’s he going to top that?” and Kendrick Answered. To Pimp a Butterfly is inarguably a masterpiece; its balance, its boldness, its wholeness, its total impenetrability. It is a frighteningly intelligent album, if anyone doubted Kendrick as the most talented artist operating in hip-hop, perhaps in music, To Pimp a Butterfly was a signed will and testament to that doubt. Even his unmastered B-sides were better than almost any other hip-hop album that year. And now Kendrick has made his way to the top, we ask: ‘Can he stay there?’
With baited breath we press play. The record begins with ‘BLOOD.’ We hear Kendrick in somber reflection, musing on a profound moment, we’re not sure what to think, where is Kendrick emotionally now he’s reached the top? Has he lost his confidence? Where are we headed and what’s going on?
And then in true Kendrick fashion, he answers.
“I got, I got, I got,” as if bursting through a brick wall, Kendrick comes out swinging, pulling no punches, dripping with attitude, a confidence so palpable he may as well have just time travelled back from ’86 after knocking Tyson out.’ If anyone knows he’s at the top and not going anywhere, it’s Kendrick. He’s telling us that he was born for this, he’s fulfilling his destiny, it’s in his ‘DNA.’ We love Kendrick for his self-awareness, his introspection, his humility, but as an answer to our question…this track is a homerun. Also it would be a sin to not give a nod to the final verse…Jesus.
As his habit dictates, Kendrick follows a bombastic, big-swinging-dick track with a quiet, reflective song. A tone that goes on to permeate large parts of the record. Kendrick acknowledges his political relevance by referencing a clip of Fox News commentator, Geraldo Rivera, criticising his BET awards performance: “Fox News wanna use my name for percentage…Somebody tell Geraldo this nigga got some ambition.” But Kendrick yet refutes his position as a political artist: “I’m not a politician, I’m not ’bout a religion, I’m a Israelite, don’t call me Black no more.” This duality has always been characteristic of Kendrick’s music. In Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, it was the battle between a thoughtful young man and his harsh environment. In To Pimp a Butterfly it was Kendrick’s internal struggle between his obligation to the black community and to himself. And DAMN. is no different. Kendrick swings between two pictures of himself; the first illustrates Kendrick as the man on the throne, sneering as he does on the album’s cover, encapsulated in tracks like ‘HUMBLE.’, ‘DNA.’ and ‘ELEMENT.’ The other picture is a wildly different depiction; Kendrick is confessional, he paints himself as self-conscious and isolated in the midst of an identity crisis. In the first half of ‘XXX.’ Kendrick raps aggressively, with vengeance and total disregard: “I’ll catch a nigga leavin’ service if that’s all I got, I’ll chip a nigga, then throw the blower in his lap, Walk myself to the court like, “Bitch, I did that!”” before making a complete U-turn in the second half, rhyming with a soft voice, full of regret, with abstract lines about violence and the hopelessness of our current political and social climate. The intro to the final track states “It was always me versus the world, until I realised it was me versus me.” And that’s what Kendrick’s duality is all about. It’s an internal battle that is manifest in his worldview, he has a special ability to tie himself into the world that not many others do.
Ironically, the dualistic nature of Kendrick’s music is what has given him his voice, his artistic personality. It sets him apart. At the risk of sounding cliché, Kendrick feels real, he’s authentic. His struggles don’t feel contrived, even in his moments of megalomania, he feels genuine. His sense of humour and his honesty make him so completely appealing, you can’t not like him…
It goes without saying that verbally, DAMN. is of the quality we’ve come to expect from Kendrick. His delivery, his flow, the way he punctuates his words, no one sounds quite like him. The small details of the lyrics, the intricacies, the layers we’ll still be peeling off in months time, the word play, it’s all ever-so Kendrick and it’s not getting old at all. I truly believe that he is one of the best to ever do it. Kendrick best displays his ability to weave poetically cogent narratives on the album’s closing track, ‘DUCKWORTH.’ The rest of the songs on the album have conceptual names; like a title of a chapter, indicating what we can expect from it tonally and thematically. ‘DUCKWORTH.’ on the other hand has no meaning to us, it sets no tone. Duckworth is Kendrick’s surname, and the track details the story of how his father prevented Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith from killing him. With Top Dawg coincidentally being the label that Kendrick eventually signed to, the ludicrousy of such a story, combined with the lyrical skill with which the narrative is delivered, renders this quite possibly one of the best storytelling raps of all time.
Almost every bar on this album could be broken down dissected, elaborated and expanded, and it would undoubtedly make for an interesting read… However, the same can’t be said for the instrumentals, there’s just not that much to say about them. Now before you shit a brick, they’re good, they’re definitely good. Sonically, DAMN. is a great album. But are instrumentals that interesting? Are they not a bit safe for the most part? From almost any other artist I would be giving these instrumentals a big old round of applause, but from Kendrick it’s a bit more of a thumbs up. And this brings me to my single grievance with the project. Yes, every work of art should be judged on its own merit, but this is Kendrick. So culturally tectonic have his previous releases been that we have to hold up the latest offering to the likes of To Pimp a Butterfly and Good Kid. For anybody that doesn’t agree with this outlook, stop reading now…(let’s agree that the album is phenomenal.)
Now, for the rest of us, we know that contextualising things is very important and within the context of Kendrick Lamar, DAMN. goes from being phenomenal to really really good. When I listened to Good Kid, M.A.A.D City for the first time, I remember thinking that it was one of the most impressive concept albums I had ever listened to and by far the most dedicated to its story. When I listened to To Pimp a Butterfly, I remember thinking that I had never heard anything that sounded quite like it. How different it was, how brave it was, how it so masterfully took elements from the past, and propelled them so powerfully into the present. I’m sorry but DAMN. doesn’t have that. It doesn’t bite like those projects did, it doesn’t floor you and leave you lying on the ground wondering what just happened to your ears. But don’t let that piss on the parade. It’s still a bloody fantastic album, Kendrick still sits comfortably on the throne. He’s not getting lazy, he’s not getting complacent, he’s not even recycled any old ideas. He is still pushing and finding new ways to impress us. His previous achievements don’t diminish this album’s virtues. He’s still as exciting as he ever has been.
But It’s Kendrick Lamar, what did you expect?