Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s finally here.
Ever since Kendrick Lamar dropped To Pimp a Butterfly, his 2015 magnum opus, the hip-hop world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for his next album.
To be fair, there was the release of TPAB’s B-sides as untitled unmastered., and rumors of a Black Star-esque collaborative album between Kendrick and J. Cole, and performances on late-night TV and guest appearances, but the public’s thirst for Kendrick wasn’t quenched. Then, a few weeks ago, the hype track “The Heart Part IV” suddenly arrived on our doorsteps and sent shockwaves through the musical world. With its manic beat, switchups and subliminal verses viciously tearing into another rapper (Big Sean? Drake?), it was clear Kendrick was getting ready to drop another masterpiece. The hype intensified with the release of “HUMBLE.”, a heavy banger that immediately caught the public’s attention. I was beyond hyped for this album and a new installment from the greatest rapper of the decade. I expected Kendrick’s classic positive and optimistic tone. However, what we got was far from that.
The tone and mood of this album comes from the overwhelming admiration for To Pimp a Butterfly. TPAB came at a particularly interesting time, at the crest of the wave of attention to police brutality, Mike Brown, and the Black Lives Matter protests in the streets. It really seemed like America was coming apart at its seams. Kendrick’s album was put on a pedestal by the hip-hop and mainstream community as a work that was extremely profound and relevant, that provided an ideal we could all rally around. TPAB highlighted Kendrick’s musical skills and message, something that hadn’t been seen in popular hip-hop since the ’90s. In addition to his musical role, Kendrick all of a sudden turned into a race relations activist and a voice for an entire group of people, even meeting Barack Obama at the White House. Kendrick was crowned with the title “Savior of Rap,” a title that weighed heavily on Kendrick, as we see on DAMN.
This album is a direct response to that title. Instead of donning the crown and putting together another album similar to To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick throws down the crown in an effort to show that he is not some kind of mythical savior. DAMN. is a completely desperate Kendrick spilling his guts about all of his faults and confessing that he is just another human being. Kendrick frantically switches from lamentation to self-loathing to openly proclaiming his vile faults and actions, such as on “DNA”:
This that put-the-kids-to-bed
This that I got, I got, I got, I got
Realness, I just kill sh*t ’cause it’s in my DNA
I got millions, I got riches buildin’ in my DNA
I got dark, I got evil, that rot inside my DNA
I got off, I got troublesome heart inside my DNA
The album can be hard to listen to, just because of the multitude of thoughts like these on every single track. His delivery is much simpler on this project; instead of the metaphors and situational images he used on TPAB, he goes for rawer, more straightforward, more brutal, more confessional language. The entire album’s lyrics are just human representations of his character and volatile state of mind.
The instrumentation on this album is equally stripped back. Instead of jazz tapestries, Kendrick brings MikeWillMadeIt in on a number of tracks to complement his aggressive, brutal tone. Many of the songs on the album are of this heavy banger style. That is not to say, though, that these songs are remarkably complex. Beats have multiple different A, B, and C sections with different chord progressions and instruments. There are a number of songs with more spacious instrumentation which remind me a lot of a number of songs off of TPAB arrangement-wise, just with rawer tones, looser arrangement, and different instruments. Parts of the album’s production are as grating, unfamiliar, and brutal as the lyrics. They are a great compliment to what Kendrick is trying to say about himself.
It is going to take a while to fully digest it, but eventually you will find that the aggressive, lamenting, sometimes ugly album that is DAMN. is in fact a beautiful statement to what it means to be human. None of us are gods; none of us are saviors. We all have our own problems, like Kendrick shows us on this album. We all feel incredibly ugly, perverse, and vulgar sometimes. As DAMN. shows us, the greats share this same feeling. We are all humans, nothing more. Nothing less.