Kendrick Lamar, a man who has forced his name into the long-running conversation as to who is rap’s Greatest Of All Time among rap fans and critics alike, has returned. For many people, his two previous albums, 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly turned “Album of the Year” polls into “Album of the Year not including Kendrick Lamar” polls. He no doubt aims to have the same effect with his new release DAMN..
“King Kendrick” has been riding a wave of expectation and popularity for upwards of five years now, and has been the focus of a lot of hype since he released the non-album track ‘The Heart Part IV’, which is sampled on ‘FEAR.’. A lot of commentators saw The Heart Part IV as a diss track to Drake, who was enjoying the reception of his most recent project More Life. Regardless of whether or not that song, or any of the ones on DAMN. reference Drake in any way, Kendrick has well and truly turned the public’s gaze away from Drake and back to him, added by the release of lead single ‘HUMBLE.’; Kendrick’s highest-charting song as a lead artist, which has built anticipation for DAMN. even further.
Lamar has used far less features on DAMN. than on his previous two major-label releases, calling on only Zacari, Rhianna and U2 (more on that later) as the only credited features, having utilized five credited features on Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, and twelve on the seminal To Pimp a Butterfly. Whether or not this shows Kendrick is planning to ease himself towards a featureless album, as J. Cole has done to massive success twice, is up for debate, but it does change the tone of the album somewhat. Kendrick’s is the only voice you hear for long stretches of the album, which may be because DAMN. seems to be less of a narrative-driven album than his previous works, making the voices of other “characters” less necessary.
After the release of lead single ‘HUMBLE.’, many speculated that the tone of the song may indicate a return to the style of rap we heard on Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, which leant closer to gangster rap than its successor To Pimp a Butterfly, which was an impressive feat in jazz-rap fusion. While certain songs hark back to Good Kid… such as ‘DNA.’, a song on which Kendrick raps about the attributes supposedly ingrained in him from birth, as opposed to his enemies. The first half of ‘XXX.’ is similar in the regard that it throws back to a style Kendrick explored at length in 2012; his frantic flow over an equally frantic beat brings back memories of 2012’s ‘M.A.A.D City’, which lead into the second half of his major-label debut. However the slower second half, featuring Bono singing a modern analysis of America, as an Irishman, kind of jars. Lamar once again shows he can rap over a beat of any kind and any speed, serving as the second half’s saving grace.
Both of Lamar’s two most recent previous albums have been heavily narrative-driven, as stated before, and in comparison DAMN. is something of a departure from that. Opening track ‘BLOOD.’ is Lamar telling a spoken-word story, but unlike To Pimp a Butterfly, in which the narrative was the central feature and the memorable poem that accompanied it appeared throughout the album, this story is only revisited in closing track ‘DUCKWORTH.’
At its core, DAMN. is neither gangster rap or jazz-rap. It flirts with both but commits to neither, and the result is an album with a tonal rise-and-fall, driven by a background in funk and soul. It is another new step in Lamar’s discography.
There is no disputing DAMN. will receive a massive amount of publicity, and at this point in his career, anything Kendrick Lamar does is a must-listen for rap fans. By the end of it, he may well be unequivocally the GOAT. DAMN. will certainly belong in most people’s Top 10 Album of the Year lists, but in a year where we will be graced by new work by Gorillaz, Vampire Weekend, Father John Misty, ScHoolboy Q, Vince Staples, Joey Bada$$, and no doubt many more, is DAMN. certain to be #1? There’s no guarantees.
That said, I thought the same about To Pimp a Butterfly after one listen, and like many others, I now consider it one of the best rap albums ever. Time will tell.
DAMN. is out now digitally.