Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album, To Pimp A Butterfly, has become a cultural touchstone for the conversation about race in America. On TPAB, Lamar intertwined the political and personal to create a jazz and funk infused masterpiece that functioned both as a broad analysis of race and spirituality, as well as a deeply individual exploration of Lamar’s own mental health, upbringing and position within rap culture. Alright has become a civil rights anthem for the twenty-first century, chanted at Black Lives Matter marches and in response to the 2016 election; Barack Obama named the album his favourite of 2015, as well as naming How Much A Dollar Cost his favourite song. Even the tracks that didn’t make the album were bursting with more creativity than most rappers’ official output – his 2016 offering of loose tracks left on the cutting room floor from the TPAB sessions, Untitled Unmastered, was among the best albums released last year. His performances at the BET Awards and the Grammys, the former on top of a burning police car and the latter in a prison uniform chained to other black men, brought spluttering condemnation from Fox News and White America in general – whether he likes it or not, Kendrick Lamar is at the forefront of the conversation around the United States’ most divisive social issue. How, then, do you possibly try to follow perhaps the most important album released in the twenty-first century so far? How do you cope with the pressure of being anointed rap’s new messiah? It’s a position that brings with it an unfathomable weight of expectation, a weight that can be felt throughout DAMN, Kendrick Lamar’s third studio album.
The good news for fans is that Kendrick is bent but not broken by this burden. He’s emerged with a stunning distillation of his previous two albums, perfectly walking the line between TPAB’s state-of-the-nation address and the Compton storytelling of Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. There’s a scattershot feel to DAMN, as if Kendrick can’t keep his mind in one place, as if he’s trying to focus on a higher purpose but can’t help being dragged down to Earth by politics and petty rap beefs. If there’s a central idea to DAMN, it’s that for an artist as restlessly creative as Kendrick Lamar, to even be labelled rap’s saviour, is to be contained and limited. DAMN is an album rife with contradiction, because Kendrick, like any other person, is contradictory and frustrating. He’s by turns arrogant, insecure, combative, paranoid and reflective; he quotes the Bible on YAH, preaching that the Devil walks the Earth, but still admits that ‘Temptation is/First on my list, I can’t resist’. He spends most of PRIDE wondering if he does enough to lift up Compton, or if rappers are part of the problem, then shit-talks his way through the next track, lead single HUMBLE, boasting about his wealth and taking shots at other rappers coming for his crown. Similarly, On DNA and ELEMENT, Kendrick uses his peerless lyrical talents to say not much more than how he’s the greatest rapper alive – and on this evidence it’s hard to disagree. ‘Last LP I tried to lift the black artists/But there’s a difference between black artists and wack artists’, he spits on ELEMENT, constantly switching up flows to match the malleable piano-driven beat, at one point even paying tribute to Juvenile’s 1998 classic Ha. It’s clear from DAMN that whilst Kendrick will always care about the issues that consumed him on TPAB, that doesn’t mean he’s above less high-minded concerns.
Kendrick’s musical evolution over the past few years has been fascinating to watch, and, like TPAB, DAMN draws its influences from a much wider palette than just rap music. In terms of sheer variety of instrumentals, DAMN is reminiscent of Outkast’s 1998 album Aquemini. Like Outkast’s southern classic, the fingerprints of the entire African American musical tradition are all over DAMN; harmonising doo-wop on album opener BLOOD; alt-R&B crooning on LOVE; and in particular sharp-edged 70s funk and soul. Lamar draws heavily from the likes of Curtis Mayfield and Willie Hutch throughout the album’s second half, including the stunning PRIDE, perhaps the best song on the album. Over washed out guitars and backing vocals that swell and recede throughout, Kendrick picks apart his insecurities, admitting arrogance and fallibility whilst at the same time countering, ‘I can’t fake humble just cause your ass is insecure’. On FEAR, Kendrick’s voice spills across the soulful instrumental in a low-tempo drawl that perfectly matches the laid back guitar line, as he reflects on three different stages of his life, and the different fears and anxieties that occupied him in those moments. Musically, these tracks are of a piece with some of his work on TPAB, but feel less frantic and abrasive; FEAR clocks in at almost seven minutes, and takes its time in a way that the songs on TPAB don’t.
Some of the tracks on DAMN feel less urgent than others, and suffer as a result - LOYALTY is a fairly generic trap slow jam in which Kendrick doesn’t seem to have much to say, and even an interesting Rihanna feature can’t save it. LOVE suffers from the same problem; both these tracks could have been cut, and were probably only kept in so the album would have some radio-friendly singles. Fans hoping for the next TPAB will be disappointed; DAMN is not an Important Album in the same way TPAB was, and in fact Lamar spends a lot of DAMN breaking out of the corner the success of that album seemed to put him in. This disappointment might go some way towards explaining the fan theories claiming another album was being released on Easter Sunday. Many people were expecting another grand political statement, which DAMN is definitely not, and might feel underwhelmed by this latest offering. But it is an incredible piece of work by a once-in-a-generation talent, and definitely worth your time. There’s no one in the rap world operating on Kendrick Lamar’s level right now, and it’s an exhilarating experience to get a look inside a mind working this frantically.
Words: Nick Bedingfield