You know, being a critic can be a bit hard sometimes.
When Californian rapper Kendrick Lamar dropped his single, “HUMBLE.,” I could barely contain my excitement. I’ve loved every single Lamar album since Section.80 back in 2011. Good Kid, MAAD City and To Pimp a Butterfly blew my damn mind with their incredibly tight conceptual narratives and startling lyrical and musical depth, respectively. So when “HUMBLE.” rolled out in anticipation of Kendrick’s fourth full-length project, DAMN., I was ready.
And then the album came out, and, well — it definitely defied my expectations.
The first thing that leapt out at me was how stark a departure this record is from Lamar’s previous work, especially To Pimp a Butterfly. Whereas that album and others in Lamar’s discography are characterized by laser-like focus and exemplary cohesion in terms of their central concept, DAMN. takes a shotgun approach to the topics discussed and to production.
Emotionally speaking, Lamar feels a lot more distraught on this record than anywhere else in his discography. There’s a certain rawness to DAMN. that feels incredibly cathartic, with Lamar using a range of voices from morose mutterings to enraged screams. This disillusionment is reflected lyrically as well. Lamar frequently expresses his frustrations with society and with God. For example, he likens himself to the Biblical figure of Job on “FEAR.,” a track that, to some extent, explores Lamar’s personal fears and anxieties.
This outpouring of emotion from Lamar also ties into the increased directness of the songwriting on this record. There are still plenty of metaphors at play throughout the course of it, but they’re much less dense and more sparsely populated than previous albums. For the most part, Lamar is content to convey his messages in a much more straightforward fashion.
Great examples of this are “HUMBLE.” and “ELEMENT.” In both tracks Lamar asserts his dominance over his peers in the rap game and displays his frustration with them. In “ELEMENT.,” he says “Last LP, I tried to lift the black artists/but it’s a difference between black artists and wack artists.”
It’s these aspects of DAMN. — its visceral intensity and punchy lyrics — that are the album’s strongest points.
The production also departs from previous work, trading the psychedelic funk freak-outs of TPAB for much more pared-down, contemporary beats. This is not to say that the funk, soul and gospel influences characteristic of Lamar’s catalog are completely absent. Far from it. They serve as the underpinnings for most of the album’s instrumentals, heard in the song intros and interludes present on tracks like the album-opener, “BLOOD.” That being said, these influences are definitely at their most understated on DAMN.
And it’s from the production side of things that most of my criticism stems. I think Lamar puts himself at a disadvantage by straying from his usual style of instrumentation. It makes the album feel inconsistent. The instrumentals vary broadly, with roaring bangers like “DNA.” alongside more subdued, spacey pieces like “PRIDE.” and “LOVE.” This latter style works pretty well, especially on “XXX.” featuring U2 — a track that I actually thought was going to suck, because, you know, U2.
But rather than making the album feel broad and expansive, this scattershot approach to beats seems directionless and at times stretched thin. This in turn casts the more generalized approach to lyrics and storytelling in a slightly harsher light as well.
DAMN. is by no means a bad album, but since it lacks the narrative tightness of Good Kid, MAAD City or the epic, soul-plumbing depths of TPAB, it just doesn’t have as much going for it. On the flip side of that, however, DAMN. is still a solid release. It is noteworthy in its own right for being such an unexpected artistic turn for Lamar. It’s that very spirit of innovation that distinguishes him from his rap contemporaries, and it’s what keeps me invested in whatever trajectory his career will take next.
Contact CUI Arts Editor Thomas Roller at firstname.lastname@example.org.