It’s rare, in an age of immediate access to media on every level – film, TV, music, etc. – for a new release of anything original to have a seismic, cultural impact. For any new album’s release to feel like an event in 2017, it has to be really, really special, able to separate itself from the endless crowd of surface media to directly harness the hearts and minds of its audience, even going as far as to capture the zeitgeist through statement, intent, or sheer quality.
Albums like 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city and 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, both by Californian rapper Kendrick Lamar, undoubtedly had this effect. Already spoken of as being among the greatest hip-hop releases of all time, along with precursor Section.80 (2011), Kendrick’s albums fuse conscious, layered lyricism with skilful lyrical delivery and intricate, masterful production, and have influenced thought, language, and culture beyond the realms of most albums’ powers. The hype for his follow-up, released a mere two years after the LP which garnered him 11 nominations at the 2015 Grammys, was sensational. Delirious. With the world in such a bizarre and disorienting place, music fans (not just of hip-hop) looked to Kendrick for his analysis and commentary. On Good Friday (April 14), their wish was granted.
DAMN., Kendrick’s fourth full-length album, was extensively scrutinised online before the full release, for its minimalist artwork and unusual guest artists, with a tracklist that features Rihanna, U2, and not many others. As it turned out, the stripped-back artistic style on the cover was somewhat indicative of the album’s actual music, as the lush jazz-rap of To Pimp a Butterfly became a distant memory, in favour of harsher, more straightforward beats. The instrumentals feature influences from classic West Coast boom-bap, neo-soul, and contemporary trap, as pumping bass swells underpin “DNA.”, and latter-half banger “XXX.” features sparse, abrasive percussion and police sirens mixed musically into the background.
“Kendrick’s albums fuse conscious, layered lyricism with skilful lyrical delivery and intricate, masterful production”
An emphasis on vocal accompaniment, perhaps influenced by Kendrick’s collaboration with Kanye West on last year’s The Life of Pablo, sees vocal samples become a recurring feature on DAMN., as “DNA.” and “FEAR.” use the human voice to fill out the sonic landscape. Lamar uses his own voice to sing on a number of songs, perhaps most notably on high-strung, shifty cut “LUST.”, which features a brief, guitar-vocoder solo a la “Runaway” from 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but also sees Kendrick deliver the main hook, “I need some water, something came over me / Way too hot to simmer down, might as well overheat”. Kendrick is no stranger to including vocals aside from rapping in his work, but the continued emphasis seems a deliberate way of bringing us more in touch with Kendrick the man, rather than Kendrick the rapper.
Straight from the off, DAMN. endeavours to paint a vivid, uneasy picture – opener “BLOOD.” sees Kendrick recite a tale in which an act of kindness on his part leads to his own death. Mortality and paranoia run through the rest of DAMN., as “PRIDE.” opens with “Love’s gonna get you killed / But pride’s gonna be the death of you and you and me”. One could speculate that Kendrick’s faith played a part in the album’s concept, the title DAMN. referring to the concept of divine punishment, and on “FEAR.”, a spoken-word outro instructs us that “he’s gonna punish us for our iniquities, for our disobedience, because we chose to follow other gods that aren’t his son”. Powerful stuff for a rap record, but Kendrick’s never shied away from a grand concept, and everything is open to interpretation.
It’s striking how different the album’s overall mood is from its first (and only) single “HUMBLE.”, which dropped on March 30 – an unapologetically tough and provocative hard-hitter of a track, Kendrick used its old-school piano-led beat to lay a series of aggrandising statements, “if I quit this season I still be the greatest (funk)” and “This sh*t way too crazy (aye), you do not amaze me (aye)”. As ever, it can be hard to tell how much of Kendrick on record is sincere, and how much is sarcastic, exaggerated self-parody, as Kendrick drops bars which might sometimes make you think twice, and wonder just who the Compton wordsmith is dissing.
While contemporary hip-hop can be seen as divided, between the gritty, political commentary and the boastful, material-excess-driven glitterati, Kendrick continues to delve deeper into matters of the soul, of God, of police brutality, race relations, death, love, and consciousness. DAMN. is not an album you should recommend someone who’s never heard of Kendrick Lamar before – it’s stark, challenging, erratic, and at times, uncomfortable. It’s also far from perfect, and following up the success of his previous albums was always likely to be an insurmountable challenge; Rihanna’s feature on “LOYALTY.” is a highlight, but “LOVE.” has a synth-driven, peppy tone which would probably sound better with Drake’s vocal stylings, and despite being out a few days already, few of the deeper cuts on DAMN. feel quite as memorable as those on Butterfly or good kid.
Overall, however, DAMN. did something very important. It got people talking, thinking, discussing topics which may be difficult to get into, but which we ignore at our own peril. Its release was a worldwide event and it enhanced Kendrick’s status as a voice which some may not wish to listen to, but which we all can. He may not be the rapper we deserve, but just might be the one we need.
Josh Will Eden