Kendrick Lamar – “DAMN.”

(Photo Credit: TDE/Interscope/Aftermath)Grade: A

Key Tracks: “DNA.” “HUMBLE.”

One of the hottest debates of the past two years has been, ‘how will Kendrick Lamar follow up To Pimp A Butterfly?’ Last year’s mini-offering “untitled unmastered.” was an extension of that album, with verses and tracks that were cut from that behemoth. Of course, since it’s Kendrick, it wasn’t minute-long outtakes, it was fully formed songs, and even the mini-release had serious flow to it. But now we have a proper answer to the question, in “DAMN.”

“DAMN.” is an interesting album in that it almost feels forgettable on the first listen. In a lot of ways, it feels like a regular old hip-hop album, and if it were released by a different artist, it might sound more like a mission statement. But you have to factor in the approach – Kendrick couldn’t follow up “TPAB” with an equal masterpiece; masterpieces are almost never followed up with things of equal brilliance. And he, like many musicians before him, understood this. “DAMN.” is much more simplistic than “To Pimp A Butterfly” is, because it aims to fight an entirely different opponent than its predecessor. Look at the covers alone – “TPAB”‘s cover was a group of people, standing in front of the White House, in a B&W photo. “DAMN.”‘s cover is the opposite – just Kendrick by a brick wall, in harsh lighting with harsh colors.

“DAMN.” is a deeply religious album. Biblical lines pop up on nearly every track. Some of the seven deadly sins come up as track titles: “LUST.” and “PRIDE.” It is worth noting, though, that both tracks are followed up by (respectively), “LOVE.” and “HUMBLE.” The biggest difference between “DAMN.” and “To Pimp a Butterfly” is restraint. Both in flow, and in production, this album feels caged. This isn’t a critique – “To Pimp A Butterfly” was such an unhinged album that it practically demanded an antithesis. There was no saying what each track on that album would hold. But “DAMN.” feels more secure, in some ways. While the insecurity and illness factors are still present, they’re more subdued by religion and family.

You might want to see this as a more “down to earth” hip-hop album. And if so, you might be looking for hip-hop beef. It’s here. The most obvious example is a beef with Jay-Z. On “GOD.,” Kendrick raps, “I’m sellin’ verses, Jay-Z, watch me work it, JT.” I’m not sure where this feud started, and it seems to be one-sided on Kendrick’s part, but taking on a king is still impressive. He threw an equally palpable dig at Jay-Z on “The Heart Part IV,” released prior to the album. He also digs at Big Sean, his former collaborator. “ELEMENT.” opens with Kendrick repeating the line “I dont give a fuck,” the title of one of Big Sean’s biggest hits. Throwing the phrase away in the intro could be a diss. And as always, his most interesting and subliminal disses remain with Drake. There are no surface-level beefs with Drake on this album, but there are hints. Booking Rihanna for “LOYALTY.,” a song in which a first-person narrator beats another man up, seems like a Drizzy dig. Also, his flow on “YAH.” sounds almost distinctly like Drake’s. It can’t be coincidence. The best digs, though, come early – Kendrick takes a track to directly respond to incomprehensible criticisms leveled at him from incomprehensible human Geraldo Riviera. On his FOX News (ugh) show last year, Riviera responded to Kendrick’s incendiary Grammy’s performance (of an optimistic song) by blaming him (specifically) for violence in the black youth community. It didn’t make sense.

This album might be polarizing to some fans. Much of the jazzier elements of “TPAB” are thrown by the wayside, in favor of more concrete and standard beats. That doesn’t make Lamar any less powerful, Lamar can turn just about any song into a spiraling nightmare (save that collaboration with Maroon 5 that was clearly a paycheck job).

So, to answer the bigger looming question, is Kendrick dropping another album? He might be. The conspiracy theories run Alex Jones deep, but because this is Kendrick, there’s no reason to believe he doesn’t have something up his sleeve. I can’t work anyone up, for fear that it isn’t even an idea on K-Dot’s part. But a new album three days later would be revolutionary. “DAMN.” is religious through-and-through, and releasing it on Good Friday might fit into Kendrick’s religious stance. But whether we get another release or not, we’ll be talking about “DAMN.” for a long time. I don’t think it’ll go down in the history books quite like “TPAB” probably will, but it’s still a powerful, volatile and demanding album.

-By Andrew McNally

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