Damn isn’t a concept album, it isn’t a huge, sweeping narrative, and, truthfully, it isn’t packed with as much depth and nuance as To Pimp a Butterfly and Good Kid Maad City. However, it features the best rapper of the current moment doing exactly what he needed to after an 80-minute cinematic ploy. Damn features Kendrick contemplating his position and humility, it features his right-of-passage radio hit with Rihanna, and it features him plain old rapping his ass off. It doesn’t feature the hyper-organization of To Pimp a Butterfly, nor does it feature the linear story telling of Good Kid, but what Kendrick has done is he’s just exploded all his usual forms and simply delivered song after song with incredible production, mind-blowing beat changes, and catchy hooks.
Now of course Lamar does what he does and frames Damn in a highly artistic way. We open and begin with the same phrase, “so I was taking a walk the other day.” First, Lamar describes meeting a blind woman whom is lost and looking for something and when Lamar offers his assistance, she shoots him: “you’ve lost YOUR LIFE.” Then, in the final track, Lamar tells the tale of his father and his near run in with Top Dawg, the head of Kendrick’s record label, back in his gang-banging days.
Throughout the album, Kendrick goes back and forth on a number of different issues facing him. At times he feels the power of a god, and elsewhere he feels as if his fame could be taken away at any moment. The feeling of back and forth shows how on edge he feels, as if his reign could be taken away, or if his mortality will get the best of him. Thus, the woman becomes a metaphor for his lifestyle. Kendrick is doing the best he can, he’s helping those that can’t see, he’s trying to lift people up, but even that can get him killed at any moment. In the case of “Duckworth” his father narrowly escapes and “Blood” shows how heartless the world can be. This gives the work a certain color and mood and questions all the moments where Kendrick feels powerful, but it’s not making every moment feed into one over-arching idea.
Between the framing device, Lamar continuously proves his songwriting talents. “DNA” is another cop car bon fire, rapper in the trenches number where Kendrick discusses his family and how they make him carry certain burdens as well as excel in certain ways. He samples a Fox News clip that insults his performance twice, and the second time around the track makes one of the hardest beat changes anyone has ever heard. “Yah” and “Element” cool things off a bit. The beginning to “Element” feels a bit clunky as Kendrick revs up—“I don’t give a fuck/I don’t give a fuck”—only to cool things right back down, but overall the tracks ride smoothly with a slightly hilarious hook coming into play: “If I gotta slap a pussy ass ni**a, Imma make it look sexy.”
“Loyalty” and the latter half of the album’s “Love” are probably the most apt at receiving criticisms from the fans of hard-hitting rap, but Kendrick still raps over the bar line with his usual virtuosic dose of internal rhymes, and both have some truly beautiful features. Zacari takes more of a traditional feature, singing the hook between the rapping, but Rihanna takes a little bit of a rap verse, before singing out a little bit towards the end—she’s truly got a gift for adding just what a song needs whenever she gets the call to collaborate and this is a prime example.
“XXX” sports what is likely the strangest feature from U2, but the sort of out-of-time vocalizations from bono divide the two parts of the song. At first, Kendrick is rapping along the lines of, “if you mess with my family, Imma fuck you up,” but then he speaks about how America has trained its black community to be violent with it’s own mistakes and terrorizing acts: “America’s reflections of me, that’s what a mirror does.” Without the stark sonic contrast, the song wouldn’t have the same impact. “Duckworth” also deals in beat changes, but here Kendrick’s bars are more stagnant, it’s almost as if he’s the beat and the different beats are the decoration atop his rhythmic foundation.
Kendrick’s sonic facelift on this project is also important to note. Once again, this project is entirely different from his past works. It’s a bit hard to pin down as To Pimp A Butterfly was mostly focused on afro-futurism and Good Kid was a lot of straightforward moodiness. Wholly, this album is a bit more erratic, almost like a pop art version of some of his past sounds. “Pride,” produced by the absolutely brilliant wiz kid Steve Lacy, almost reads as a long-lost hit off of God Kid (Anna Wise is also featured for crying out loud), but it’s rounding out at the end aims higher than Kendrick would’ve back in those days and Lacy’s starburst guitar sound takes a much different approach to rumination. Single “Humble” also sounds way more condensed than almost anything Lamar’s ever put out. It’s a braggadocios face-melter, but it does so with only a little, minor piano riff and a highly articulated drum line—the guy can make a hit with practically nothing but his voice.
Besides the artistic framing device, Kendrick does what he does best on the introspection of “Fear” and the storytelling of “Duckworth.” “Fear” ties up a lot of ideas on the project as Kendrick simply discusses how fearful he still remains after all this success. “Duckworth” is essential, of course, because of the tie in to the beginning of the album, but also “Fear” touches upon the relationship between Kendrick and his father, which gives it more impact.
Once again, Kendrick Lamar has released a project where every track is worth talking about. Perhaps his old organized self is gone and perhaps this won’t go on as one of the best concept albums of the decade, but that might just have been just what we needed to hear.