There’s a temptation for any artist who achieves success to repeat what works, not so with Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, DAMN.. Ditching the live band and heavily jazz and funk influenced sound of To Pimp A Butterfly and untitled unmastered, DAMN. burns through its 55 minutes with an intensity that is lyrical and physical.
The album begins properly with “DNA.” The plodding flow with which Lamar unfurls his lyrics matches the song’s heavy and grimy beat. The combination of the lyrics’ and instrumentals’ unflinching 4/4 is an absolute kick to the teeth. Make no mistake, DAMN. is not To Pimp A Butterfly. That said, Lamar does something as interesting with his beats as he did with the instrumentals of his previous album.
One of these things is the subtle rhythmic To Pimp A Butterfly was the rapper’s jazz album, DAMN. is his metal album. Taking from Death Grips and CLIPPING, Lamar shows he’s not afraid of pushing his sound into the red. But even when he is at his noisiest and loudest, Lamar’s ability to create lush and hook-filled flows is at its peak.
As shown in the album’s first single, “HUMBLE.” Industrial and completely mesmerizing, “HUMBLE.” has a beat that embodies grime. Lamar floats above the track with fancy jaw work. Seemingly ditching the free form phrasing of his previous albums for taught couplets, Kendrick Lamar shows that he can trap and flow no matter what constraints he chooses for himself. Plus, with one of the sickest music videos I’ve seen in a minute, “HUMBLE.” is one of the stand out tracks of this year.
DAMN. seems to lack the conceptual narrative that has glued together all of Lamar’s previous albums. Instead, the LA rapper maximizes the album’s fragmentation to create a kaleidoscopic view of the contemporary psyche. Juxtaposing murder with sensuality, family with internal monologues, Lamar shows the often confusing and disjunctive world we’ve created for ourselves.
The album ends with “DUCKWORTH.” This final track seems to be an artist statement. The song lyrically tackles a scene that has crept into many of Lamar’s songs: a drive by that ends with death. That said, Kendrick Lamar dives head first with a critical eye that has been absence from the event’s previous iteration. Longer and more in depth, the scene shown in “DUCKWORTH.” ties together Lamar’s pet concepts of fame, introversion, art, and objectification.
All in all, the album swerves into new territory for the rapper. Not surprisingly, Kendrick Lamar conquers this new aesthetic with such skill that it seems like breathing. DAMN., if it does anything, shows that Kendrick Lamar is one of the greatest rappers making music today. Deep and visceral, the album is a bomb to what came before it. Now, we just need it on vinyl.