3/4 Shells from Anna Muckerman
Put your headphones in and go outside. Push play. Wait for the build of "BLOOD.", get angry, run through "DNA.". Hit your stride with the lull of "YAH.". Stop looking for a Sherane — you won't find her. Nor will you find the building dialogue of To Pimp A Butterfly. Don't skip a song. Enjoy DAMN. as its own work or turn it off. After all, the latest album from Kendrick Lamar thrives outside of evaluation.
In its ever-changing energy, DAMN. makes room for both unchecked pride and the low points not even someone as accomplished as Lamar can escape. Love, religion and the passage of time trouble him. In "PRIDE." he raps, "In a perfect world, I'll choose faith over riches/ I'll choose work over bitches, I'll make schools out of prison." He would give up his vices and fight injustice — if only he could. Lamar doesn't hide the fact that he still struggles through the fears and hindrances of years gone by. In "XXX." he's fed up with violence and gun politics, but in the same breath threatens to pick off those who challenge him. He wrestles with the meaning of perfection, only to conclude he lacks the power to change himself or the world at large. Wealth and fame fuel his pessimism and apathy, while hard times leave him dreaming of a better future.
Lyrically, DAMN. is a B-grade essay — if you feel comfortable grading the inner ramblings and reflections of an artistic, arrogant and sometimes troubled mind. Lamar is pensive, yet hardened and honest in the midst of appearances. In DAMN. he offers you a choice: Embrace the juxtapositions and enjoy the album's versatility, or stay a skeptic, and Lamar might teach you something about the dichotomy of human nature.
3.5/4 Shells from John Powers
"MY LEFT STROKE JUST WENT VIRAL."
I'd ask for an explanation for this lyric, but it's so damn fun, I don't need one.
Kendrick Lamar's music always functions on two levels — it creates fun and exciting hip-hop classics and tells stories about his life and American culture. These dual dynamics are often held together by an underlying narrative arc.
One of the most cerebral hip-hop artists of this generation, Lamar requires several listens of his album to track the story he is trying to tell or the point he is trying to make. This album, DAMN., opens by asking questions that are repeated throughout the project: "Is it wickedness?/ Is it weakness?"
This mirrors Lamar's "I remember you was conflicted" spoken mantra from To Pimp a Butterfly and parallels Christian teachings that weakness can become wickedness as someone becomes consumed by a life of sin. Lamar has religious symbolism all over this album, with two title tracks pertaining to deadly sins of Christianity ("PRIDE." and "LUST."), countless religious references in the music video for "HUMBLE." and a release on the Christian holiday Good Friday.
Lamar opens with a parable, something that has appeared before in his music as well, which results in (spoiler alert) his getting shot. The vocals come right back, asking "Is it wickedness?" Presumably, this is a reference to the actions of the woman who just shot him, but the song quickly changes to a sample from Fox News discussing his song "Alright" from his previous album.
The question of wickedness versus weakness pops up throughout the album — applying the question to himself and the world he lives in. Is it wickedness or weakness that makes Lamar feel lust? Is it wickedness or weakness that makes Geraldo Rivera say hip-hop causes more problems for the black community than racism?
Another puzzle of the album is Kung Fu Kenny — a hype man yells "New Kung Fu Kenny" at the beginning of a few songs. Kenny seems to be some sort of new title for Lamar. This intro appears on "YAH.," "ELEMENT." and "XXX." These songs don't have a clear connection, but the most striking theme from "ELEMENT." was that the beat sounded almost exactly like Drake's "0 to 100" while using a flow that is very similar to Drake's flow in various songs complete with melodic background vocals provided by Lamar.
Honestly, before any of us come to complete conclusions about what Kendrick wanted to do with this album, we should all listen to it again. And then again. It's sure to reveal new secrets with each new listen.
3.5/4 Shells from Jarod Golub
Whether he is rapping about growing up in Compton or critiquing the state of race relations in America, Kendrick Lamar can always be counted on to tell a captivating story.
DAMN., the rapper's fourth studio album, sees K-Dot approaching music from a different direction, away from spoken word and jazz influences toward pop hits like the Rihanna-featuring, radio-ready "LOYALTY.".
Kendrick's newest project also sees him embracing the production aspect of his music in a more obvious way than in the past.
DAMN. includes credits from 15 producers including Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith, the CEO of Top Dawg Entertainment, Mike WiLL Made-It and James Blake, who foregoes soulful indie music to produce the hypnotizing "ELEMENT."
Kendrick uses DAMN. as a way to experiment and grow as an artist, something he wasn't really able to do fully on 2012's good kid, m.A.A.d. city or 2015's To Pimp a Butterfly. His newest album sees him singing more on tracks like "PRIDE." and "LOVE.", and showing off his verbal acrobatic skills on more traditional raps like "DNA." and "GOD.".
At its core, DAMN. is Kendrick rapping to rap (and doing it damn well), and in the process, showing us that the music — how it sounds, what it's about — is important.
Make no mistake though, DAMN. doesn't fully remove itself from the mold of its predecessors. The album still boasts its fair share of political commentary such as "XXX." where Kendrick raps "Donald Trump's in office / We lost Barack and promised never to doubt him again" and the spoken word intro "BLOOD.," which includes a news clip from Fox News — one of many in Kendrick's arsenal for his crusade against the media giant.
Lamar also saves masterful storytelling reminiscent of his earlier works for the last song on the album, "DUCKWORTH.". Kendrick recounts an incident between his father and Tiffith that, had it played out differently, could have prevented or inhibited Kendrick's progress in becoming the face of West Coast rap for a new generation.
While To Pimp a Butterfly was a shout for attention, a project dedicated to shedding light on the issue of race in America through a spectacle, DAMN. is more of a reminder to listen to the music as well as the message. The political messages and social commentary are there — subtle projections of discomfort — but the music is the focal point of the album.
On "PRIDE.", Kendrick raps "I don't love people enough to put my faith in men/ I put my faith in these lyrics, hoping I make amend", showing the level of care and "faith" that he has put into this album.
In a spring crowded with hip-hop and rap releases, Kendrick has given us a project that separates itself from the others through its pairing of hard trap beats and airy melodies, creating an entertaining album that is true to who Kendrick is as an artist and shows growth and change.
4/4 Shells from Cameron Neimand
Usually when stories begin with "So I saw this lady walking down the street," they end with being, well, just a lame-ass story. DAMN. indeed starts its narrative in this fashion, except it's kind of different because the next 55 minutes light your whole body on fire, throw you into an ice bath, hide any thoughts you may have ever had about Gerardo Rivera having a kind of sick mustache, teach you quantum physics and, ultimately, make you write some sort of incredibly far-fetched yet, like, totally necessary Facebook status claiming Kendrick Lamar to be the greatest MUSICAL artist of the past 50 years.
Of course, I did that.
I live in Spain right now and nobody knows who Kendrick Lamar is and I have a single comparison I usually use to get people to listen because it really is important that everyone experiences Kendrick. On here, I'll write the comparison in English instead of my broken Spanish.
In basketball, Michael Jordan is and will always be the greatest player of all time. The title is his whether or not someone ever has been/is/or will ever be better than him, because, well, it just is.
Then comes a LeBron James. No one wants to say it, and most would be quick to rattle off a hairline joke if you did because LeBron is so freakin' good that the only thing people can say to diminish him is that he's kind of bald. But, whether the words are escaping people's mouths or remain tucked into that tiny room in the brain of 'opinions I should not voice but know are right,' immediately next to the idea that Friends is actually a horrible show, you know he may just be the very best to ever do it.
Tupac, for all Los Angeles-born rap fans like myself (and many outside of the city), is that Michael Jordan. With DAMN., Kendrick is that LeBron James.
The Spanish speaker to whom I've been explaining this wild theory while using an uneducated six-year-old's level of grammar, simply replies, "¿Qué?"
3/4 Shells from Patrick Basler
The shitty thing about streaks is that they have to end.
That's the challenge Kendrick Lamar faces with each new release — he doesn't just have to make good music, he has to make music that's better than that made by all other rappers, including himself.
And let's face it — so far, he's done a crazy good job. Since reaching the mainstream, he hasn't released a bad album yet, and his major releases good kid, m.A.A.D city and To Pimp a Butterfly remain two of the greatest modern rap releases, period.
DAMN., Lamar's latest, looked to challenge listeners from the beginning. With Microsoft Paint album art and a Mike WiLL Made-It banger of a single in "HUMBLE." — fans weren't sure what to expect. The album was being billed as the follow up to To Pimp A Butterfly, but it didn't feel like it.
So how does the album stack up with the rest of Lamar's discography? Even after many, many listens, it's hard to say. DAMN. is a suitably dense work, full of breakneck flows, evolving beats and found-footage snippets of music, poetry and life. A first listen reveals almost nothing — except that you want (and need) a second.
Album opener "BLOOD." and real album opener "DNA." are breathtaking, setting up a puzzle of an album narrative and then immediately obliterating any concern for it with "DNA.," another Mike WiLL track that brings the heat without sacrificing the lyrical depth. It's accessible on a surface level ("Damn, this bangs." – me) but also deeply impressive (it uses a sample of Fox News host Geraldo Rivera as a backdrop to discuss black life in America).
Accessibility is the biggest struggle in DAMN., which offers a number of Kendrick's poppiest songs since 2012 – like the Rihanna-assisted "LOYALTY." and the quasi-ballad "LOVE." — but as a whole, Kendrick's flow and voice is about as hard to decipher as it has ever been. Thin, and wiry, he weaves between constantly shifting beats, leaving behind strings of syllables, some brilliant, some near-nonsensical. It's the type of album you could actively listen to and only uncover an inkling of what he says, and never grasp the big picture.
It's a weird album, taking Lamar's gift for storytelling and stripping it of any actual narrative. Where Good Kid was a film and Butterfly was a novel, DAMN. is just an album and doesn't try to be anything else. It can be a difficult listen, and it's not as flawless as Kendrick's other work, but it's not trying to be. It's simply an album from modern rap's most brilliant mind, and a damn good one at that.