February 21, 2018

Kendrick Lamar - DAMN. (April 14, 2017)




On November 28, 2017, Kendrick Duckworth woke up to seven Grammy nominations, which isn’t a bad way to meet the day, even if the Grammys are horseshit. Especially when producer 9th Wonder is a part of the nominating committee, and his artist Rapsody, who I don’t have any issues with, somehow ends up with two nominations herself, even though she received zero radio airplay and no buzz on the Interweb for her album, but A Tribe Called Quest gets absolutely nothing for their farewell album, released during the eligibility period, even though they were asked to perform at the ceremony the year prior. I’m getting off track: I’ll start over again. But talk among yourselves regarding the Rapsody stuff.


On November 28, 2017, Kendrick Duckworth woke up to seven Grammy nominations, all tied in to his third major label full-length album (and fourth overall) DAMN. He scored nods in all four rap categories, but he also was recognized for Music Video, Record, and Album of the Year, quite the feat for any rapper, let alone K-Dot. If we ignore the fact that every single goddamn thing the man has released has been met with buckets of critical acclaim, this was seen as impressive on every level: Kendrick found himself going up against acts such as Bruno Mars and Jay-Z (who was also nominated in every single rap category for selections from 4:44 and the album as a whole, which was also up for Album of the Year). And when it came to the rap competition, he bested them all: Kendrick Lamar swept the hip hop categories and also took the Music Video trophy. He then lost the two biggest awards of the evening to Bruno Mars, but whatever, it was clear that the Recording Academy loved DAMN.

Now, about that DAMN. K-Dot dropped the album in April of 2017 after an incredibly short promotional period, in which he announced the project as an out-of-left-field surprise and almost immediately dropped the Grammy award-winning clip for the first single, “HUMBLE.” Once DAMN. dropped, hip hop nerds took to the Interweb to reveal their findings: the project was more straightforward than its predecessor, To Pimp A Butterfly (I realize I skipped over the untitled unmastered. project for the sake of today’s post making sense, so just go with me here, and besides, that isn’t a real album), in that there was no dominant political undertones throughout: DAMN. is a mere collection of songs that follow a narrative structure of sorts, but it’s much more loose, so much so that the tracks can be enjoyed outside of the album proper (unlike To Pimp A Butterfly, where I can only enjoy two tracks today). You’re also able to choose how you listen to the project without there being any impact on the storyline: after rumors popped up online that DAMN. was intended to be listened to in reverse order, Kendrick’s label, TDE/Aftermath, confirmed this by announcing a collector’s edition of the project that, you guessed it, placed the tracks in reverse order. This was one of the most asinine cash grabs I’ve seen from a record label in quite some time, and in no way would I ever recommend someone buy the collector’s edition of DAMN. unless you didn’t already own the original, but even still, it doesn’t fucking matter, as you can put the songs in whatever order you want on a playlist.

DAMN. was met with tons of critical acclaim, surprising nobody, since music writers seem to flock to Kendrick Lamar albums like a moth to a flame. It also sold a ton of copies, and a bunch of its tracks ended up charting on the Billboard Hot 100, which has never been the same ever since it started counting streams of songs in its calculations. K-Dot, ever the team player, chose to feature absolutely none of his Black Hippy cronies on DAMN., opting instead for guest appearances from outside of the family, but for the production, he kept it in-house for the most part, although Mike Will Made It pops up a few times behind the boards, and 9th Wonder also makes an appearance.

Hey, wait a minute…

1. BLOOD.
A rap album intro, albeit a table-setting one in which our host is shot by a blind woman he was trying to assist. Nope, that isn’t a metaphor at all. (This doubles as a dark ending for the collector’s edition of DAMN., by the way.)

2. DNA.
Kendrick front-loads DAMN. by placing the project’s best outright song right at the top. “DNA.” is a pounding Mike Will Made It production that features an aggressive-but-playful performance from our host, one that is catchy as shit. K-Dot rides the beat like a wave, taking on the many facets of his culture and personality that exist inside his DNA, and he uses a Geraldo Rivera sound bite, one where he derides rap music as more damaging than racism to African Americans, as a jumping-off point for a second verse that talks about his own experiences over a different instrumental that ramps up the intensity. It still works well today, for what it’s worth.

3. YAH.
Kung Fu Kenny (a new, rather silly nickname for our host that was borrowed from Don Cheadle’s character from Rush Hour 2: itself a funny bit of trivia, it all comes full circle when you remember that Cheadle stars in the video for “DNA.”) is obsessed with how Fox News has treated him, as this is the third song in a row that references what their on-air personalities have said about him, but on “YAH.”, our host calls out Geraldo Rivera directly. The instrumental (credited to Sounwave, DJ Dahl, and Top Dawg) is a more relaxed, shuffling affair, a breather of sorts after the pulse-pounding previous track, and K-Dot’s delivery is just as calming, as he meanders his way through his mindstate for the listener. This was better than I remembered it being.

4. ELEMENT.
I assume there were a number of younger Kendrick Lamar fans who have no fucking idea who Kid Capri is or why he’s just shouting on numerous tracks on DAMN., including “YAH.” and “ELEMENT.” Anyway, our host uses the Sounwave/James Blake beat to aggressively claims to be the best rapper in the game, which not only means this song is full of boasts-n-bullshit about his flow and making every decision and action of his “look sexy” (why, exactly?), we’re also witness to K-Dot briefly aping the flow from Juvenile’s “Ha”, another reference the kids listening to this won’t understand, and doing so poorly. Did he underperform on purpose, just because he feels so far ahead of the rest of the rap game that he wanted to just have a little fun with it? Doubtful: K-Dot doesn’t sound like he’s making any jokes on “ELEMENT.” And so it goes.

5. FEEL.
Not the best song to listen to if you’re suffering from depression: our host uses “FEEL.” to run down a list of, well, feelings, specifically his self-imposed isolation from his family, friends, and peers after achieving success. The Sounwave instrumental sounds like the type of pseudo-bossa nova shit one would hear at a Starbucks – that is to say, it isn’t very conducive to rapping, but our host gives it a shot anyway. Ken Doll loses his shit briefly toward the end, his spittle almost dripping out of your earbuds, before shifting back into a calmer demeanor. “FEEL.” isn’t the worst song I’ve ever listened to or anything, but I feel he should have put a little more work into it. (Solid joke! Next song!)

6. LOYALTY. (FEAT. RIHANNA)
The Grammy award-winning single “LOYALTY.” is alright, but nothing special. Over an okay-ish instrumental credited to DJ Dahl, Sounwave, Terrace Martin, and Top Dawg, Kendrick Duckworth and Robyn Fenty pass the microphone around for their joint TED Talk on the importance of loyalty in all interpersonal relationships, whether they’re romantic in nature or not. Rihanna sounds decent enough during the verses, but that’s all: unlike her cameo on N.E.R.D.’s “Lemon”, she isn’t having any fun on here. K-Dot sounds like K-Dot, so you already know whether or not you’ll dig his performance on here. I don’t really care that “LOYALTY.” won the Grammy, because that award means nothing, but I wish there were more to the track.

7. PRIDE.
I didn’t care for this one. I get that it’s positioned as a counterpoint to the next track, “HUMBLE.”, but the music, while alright in and of itself, doesn’t fit the project as a whole, and I grew tired of our host’s vocal fluctuations fairly quickly. Oh well.

8. HUMBLE.
DAMN.’s first single, on which Kendrick chastises his peers that flaunt their success by showcasing microphone dominance, proving that he isn’t humble in every aspect of his life. Our host talks his shit again over another Mike Will Made It beat, one that is far less interesting to me than “DNA.”, but “HUMBLE.” eventually topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart, so there are a bunch of motherfuckers out there who like this one, I guess. It’s not bad: the hook is pretty catchy, and the video, with its religious imagery, was intriguing to say the least. But I don’t think I’d ever put “HUMBLE.” on any playlist I’d create. Yeah, I know.

9. LUST. (FEAT. KAYTRANDA & RAT BOY)
I liked the music on “LUST.” a lot, which makes sense, as it’s credited to DJ Dahl, Sounwave, and the pretty great Canadian group BADBADNOTGOOD. Kung Fu Ken Doll’s bars are another extended metaphor, as he raps about sex (or sings, really, since I’m referring to the chorus) but he’s really talking about lusting after fame, a fact he can’t help but reveal toward the end of the track, in case you two weren’t capable of figuring that shit out on your own. And that chorus I mentioned? It’s very cheesy, and it didn’t need to pop up as many times as it did, and I also feel that his request for consent during the hook now classifies him as more woke than ever according to Slate and Buzzfeed standards. But overall, I found “LUST.” enjoyable and dark, kind of like in real life.

10. LOVE. (FEAT. ZACARI)
Ostensibly a love song, one where K-Dot admits that he’d rather have your trust than your love. Unlike the previous song, the abrasive and abstract-by-comparison “LUST.”, “LOVE.” features our host actively talking about the subject, performing bars that are as straightforward as he’s ever been. I didn’t care for Zacari’s singing throughout the first time I listened to this, but now I find him a little charming, offering just the right amount of optimism to a positive track, an oasis in the rage-filled desert that is most of DAMN. Not bad.

11. XXX. (FEAT. U2)
On which Kendrick Lamar tries to have it both ways, glorifying violence and gangbanging during the first verse, while speaking on gun control and the consequences of a violent lifestyle during the somber second half, which happens to feature U2’s Bono singing a brief hook. (So here’s why U2 receives a feature credit on “XXX.”: Bono’s vocals on here are taken from an early version of U2’s own “American Soul”, a track from their most recent project, Songs of Experience, that K-Dot actually appears on.) This duality isn’t unusual to rap about, and Kendrick is as good a vessel as any to get the message out, but overall I can’t say that I felt one way or the other about this Mike Will Made It/DJ Dahl/Sounwave/Top Dawg-produced song. It was kind of cool that our host now holds enough clout in the music industry for a collaboration of this magnitude to happen, though: all Jay-Z and Kanye West can get is Coldplay, apparently.

12. FEAR.
The Alchemist produces the longest track on DAMN., the meandering “FEAR.”, on which Kendrick Lamar fucks with songwriting conventions, plays a hook in reverse at one point, and outs himself as a Beanie Sigel fan through three verses, each describing a different type of fear. K-Dot’s verses on “FEAR.” are among the best he’s written: he manages to reach into the heart of each fear and make the listener feel what he’s describing. The song is only okay, though: there are too many different choruses, and they’re all bland. The track is bookended by voicemails from his cousin Carl Duckworth, a nice callback to when he was mentioned during “YAH.”

13. GOD.
Sounds like Kendrick Lamar’s take on an Imagine Dragons song, and if I wanted to listen to them, I’d just turn on a pop radio station at any given goddamn point during the day. Meh.

14. DUCKWORTH.
Kid Capri tells listeners to “put it in reverse” at the very beginning of this track, a command that makes absolutely no sense until you realize he was trying to tell the audience of a different way to enjoy DAMN., which led people to flood Reddit boards to tell tale of their discovery after playing the songs in reverse order. “DUCKWORTH.” is a storytelling rap where Ken Doll discusses how his label boss, Top Dawg, almost killed his father during an attempted robbery, but chose not to, and then, coincidentally, signed his son Kendrick to his label fifteen years later. The story is a good one, and 9th Wonder’s production keeps things chugging along. Toward the end, the album itself plays in reverse, and the first line of “BLOOD.” is repeated, signaling the cyclical nature of the narrative, and also because Kendrick Lamar likes to do shit like that.

No, I’m not going to listen to the Collector’s Edition version of DAMN. and write about the songs again. I just can’t.

FINAL THOUGHTS: DAMN. is one of those projects that critics tripped all over themselves to praise, but it seems like they did so just because they felt that was what was expected from them, especially after To Pimp A Butterfly. But here’s the honest truth: this isn’t that great. Yes, there are some pretty good tracks on DAMN. Yes, Kendrick Lamar is one of the better rappers of his generation. No, I don’t think he’s the best, and yes, I do think his voice tics and fluctuations are annoying as fuck. He’s creative as hell, and I applaud the fact that the overall narrative can be enjoyed two different ways, even if I feel no need to listen to this in reverse. He’s putting out product that has actual thought behind it: K-Dot isn’t pushing out twenty-track albums every three months just to game the system and keep his name relevant, because he’s confident enough to let the listeners come to him. But that doesn’t automatically make the music any good, so while I loved “DNA.” and liked a few of the other tracks, most of DAMN. didn’t interest me in the least. Music is meant to be enjoyed and shouldn’t be a chore: just like with To Pimp A Butterfly, I felt like I needed to earn credits from a college-level course in order to give a shit about DAMN., when I was just wondering how the man is still signed to Aftermath and can’t be bothered to even try to ask Dr. Dre for even one beat. It doesn’t have to go with the story: tack it on as a bonus track. But I digress, and will sit here patiently for the rest of you two to come at me. I didn’t like DAMN. There.

BUY OR BURN? A burn is sufficient, by which I mean just go to Spotify or Apple Music or steal this from your local library or something. K-Dot’s done better, and it isn’t hard to find the rest of hiss work.

BEST TRACKS: “DNA”; “LUST.”; maybe “YAH.”

-Max

RELATED POSTS:
Read up on some other Kendrick Lamar projects here.



40 comments:

  1. Good review Max-- I like this project quite a bit more than you, but I still think it's probably Kendrick's worst album and most overrated project.

    I thought Duckworth was pretty good story-telling rap even though the beat was just fine, and I'm pretty surprised you don't like Element. I thought it was a pretty dope beat and Kendrick stepped up to it for the most part. XXX is dope to me, and Loyalty is very good for the pop-rap that it is. So adding those four songs to the three you mentioned, I'd say this is a good album, but not great.

    Really, the only songs I don't return to on here are Humble, Fear, and Pride. So 10/13 (not counting Blood) is not bad.

    I'm curious who you think the best rapper of "this generation" is. It sounded like you had someone in mind when you said Kendrick isn't, and to be honest, nobody comes to mind over him.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not really, no, but everyone's quick to crown Kendrick because of his social consciousness; his unique flows (I'm being kind here - a lot of people can't stand his switch-ups); his financial backing by Dr. Dre; his many connections in the music industry, not just hip hop; and the like, and I just think everyone's jumping the gun a bit. I don't hate the dude at all, but he has yet to create a perfect album. Far from it.

      Delete
    2. Few else have maintained such critical and commercial success over 3 major label albums (section 80 doesn't count) over the space of 6 years in hip hop (nay, music) in recent years. for this alone props has to be given, he knows more than most how to keep himself in the limelight in a mainly positive way

      Delete
    3. I like how you don't even bother to respond to the Anon's last paragraph.

      Delete
    4. "Not really, no" is a direct response to the last paragraph, in that I didn't have anyone in mind when I wrote that sentence.

      Delete
    5. How sad.

      Delete
  2. I have more issue with your complete snub of Rapsody than your review! Laila’s Wisdom was quality, Max. Highly recommend it

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I didn't mean it as a snub of Rapsody, whose album I've admittedly not yet listened to. It is a dead-eyed stare into 9th Wonder's soul, though: THAT I meant.

      Delete
    2. Upon reread, that makes sense and I see what you mean, my bad, that is a little suspect. However, I believe rapsody has been a popular pick amongst heads this year with a really low key project that, like you say, has accumulated buzz rather than being a hit when it dropped. If you’re looking for a starting point I’d recommend the singles Power (featuring, naturally, Kendrick), or OooWee. Probably the most accessible starting points to see what the fuss is about

      Delete
    3. Seconded. A modern-day hip hop album you might ACTUALLY like! Although knowing oldheads like you you'll probably just say it sucks and move on.

      Delete
    4. Spoken like a reader who missed when I said I really liked the last Earl Sweatshirt album earlier this month. And, again, I don't have anything against Rapsody, so I'll take it under advisement.

      Delete
    5. So you got one exception. Big deal.

      Delete
  3. This is probably Kendrick's worst album, but I still enjoyed it a lot. There were a few songs that I didn't really care for, really PRID and GOD, but I like or love most of thee songs, and I still listen to a lot of songs on here several times a week. I'm somewhat surprised you didn't like it, but I'm glad you reviewed it. I think I'd give it an 8/10

    ReplyDelete
  4. Blankface? :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I called it! just not the verdict I wanted lol thanks anyway

      Delete
  5. if ANY other artist released a collector's edition with no bonus tracks they would be vilified. I don't get how people let Kendrick get away with that pretentious bullshit

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'd like to think it wasn't his decision to do it, but I don't know the guy. Does anyone have any sales figures for the collector's edition?

      Delete
    2. I can't seem to find any sales figures, but apparently the booklet is exactly the same (fuck you Kendrick) but the number of the cd (as 100,000 were made) was handwritten by Kendrick, allegedly. So effectively it's a brolly autographed version of DAMN.

      Delete
  6. Totally agree, this album was over-hyped and it's just not something you can listen to all the way through. I can't stand the Rihanna track, I don't understand why she still gets so many features. It just isn't a very cohesive album, almost as if it's intended for the iTunes brigade that only buy single songs and not the whole disc.

    I still find myself enjoying Section 80 over everything that followed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I equally hate Loyalty, but hot damn.. I'm done criticising Rihanna after her verse on Lemon.. while I don't care for her as a singer, girl can rap damn fine

      Delete
    2. Good to see I'm not the only one who likes Section.80 more than the rest of his stuff, although I do enjoy most of what followed.

      I'm also with Anonymous on Rihanna's verse on Lemonade, that shit is awesome.

      Delete
    3. Rihanna completely steals "Lemon" to such a degree that it doesn't even matter that she obviously didn't write the verse (you can find the original version with Pharrell rapping her part online pretty easily). Her enthusiasm in her performance shines through the speakers, though: she clearly has more fun rapping than most actual rappers.

      Delete
    4. I would not say no to a whole album of Rihanna rapping on Neptunes (or Pharrell, I'll be grateful for what I get) beats, whether she writes her bars or not because she just oozes badass and confidence

      Delete
    5. Of course you can listen to the whole thing through and enjoy it. I know I did.

      Delete
    6. I would also like to hear a Pharrell- produced Rihanna rap album, even though that sentence reads as extremely corny.

      Delete
  7. I enjoyed a few of the tracks on here (ELEMENT., HUMBLE., & DUCKWORTH.) more than you apparently did, but I agree that this project as a whole is overrated. DNA., however, is over 10 months old, and I'm still not close to being sick of it. Doesn't matter if I'm in the car, at the gym, or drinking with friends; it still bangs.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The environment around you definitely plays a role in music enjoyment. I first heard "DNA." in my car the day the album dropped, and that probably solidified it for me as the best track. But yeah, overrated.

      Delete
  8. Definitely Kendrick's worst album thus far, but it's still pretty DAMN decent [see what I did there?]. To Pimp A Butterfly was one of the best albums in recent years, imo, so I knew I was going to be disappointed with DAMN., because there was no way he was going to get away with making an album like To Pimp A Butterfly twice. In about ten years, I'm willing to bet that DAMN. will be K.Dot's most dated project, out of what he has released up to DAMN's point.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I get the feeling that you just don't rate the boy K.Dot, in my opinion he will be looked among as a greater rapper than Jigga in the years to come.

    DAMN shits all over 4.44 and that album isn't that bad (although I could give 2 shits about Jigga n Bey's relationship issues unlike the rest of the world.. ) however, DAMN was never going to top TPAB or Section 80 it is slightly better than GGMC though.

    DNA, YAH, ELEMENT, FEEL, LUST, FEAR and DUCKWORTH are easily the standout tracks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I sincerely hope you aren't solely using DAMN and 4.44 as your evidence to say Kendrick will be looked upon better

      Delete
  10. Of Course not, I'm just comparing the 2 albums however, Kendrick's discography will shit on Jiggas by the time he (Kendrick) retires.

    I found it funny that Jigga got self aware about black peoples problems on his 13th!!!! album - like really motherfucker???!!! you just noticed the struggle SMH.

    All of Kendrick's albums up to this point have had more depth even if they don't always "entertain" the masses they stay with you and make you think reflect etc.

    Not taking nothing away from Jigga (he will forever be a top 10 rapper) but he's always been the flashy money orientated guy who only decided to make a warts an all album because his sis in law slapped him upside his head for cheating on Bey lol.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. 'you just noticed the struggle'.. literally his whole career has been celebrating the fact he's made out of the struggle

      Delete
  11. You miss the point

    ReplyDelete
  12. Did you like Untitled Unmastered, though

    ReplyDelete
  13. "Music is meant to be enjoyed and shouldn’t be a chore: just like with To Pimp A Butterfly, I felt like I needed to earn credits from a college-level course in order to give a shit about DAMN." I disagree. This album is FAR more accessible than TPAB, which I still cannot enjoy today. DAMN is the same theme done properly in my head, as in the beats generally are a lot trappier/poppier than TPAB and so stylistically it reins in tendencies to go on overblown segments a la Mortal Man's ending as that wouldn't conform within the pop rap sensibilities of DAMN. Overall, I wasn't a fan of this at first. But after multiple play throughs I finally 'got it' and think it's incredibly underrated as an album. Yep. Most proper heads play down how damn (punny) good this is, conceptually and lyrically. I think in years to come it'll be hailed a lot better than it currently is

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I do agree with you that DAMN. is fat more accessible than Butterfly, but ultimately I feel that both fall into the same trap, in which K-Dot feels his position as hip hop's current savior forces him to have to say "something" all the time. I can't really think of any instances where he's just having fun on his own albums, which must be a strange life to live.

      I will say that I've listened to "DNA." more than the entirety of Butterfly, but I honestly believe this project will be seen as the lesser of the two specifically because of its percieved accessibility, mostly because critics and rap nerds think that they like being "challenged" while listening to music instead of just enjoying stuff.

      Thanks for reading!

      Delete
    2. Backseat Freestyle is him absolutely just having fun and nothing more, although granted that was two (well, two and a half) albums ago. I agree, sadly. TPAB's pretension will probably set it higher than DAMN. because of the aforementioned accessibility. But on the other hand, HUMBLE and LOYALTY (and, to a lesser extent, DNA) hardly let in the listener for the experience that is as deep as DAMN. proves to me.

      GKMC will always remain my favourite Kendrick album (of those already released). Feel like it was his last deep breath as a rapper before he truly became an 'artist'. The fun part with Backseat Freestyle comes into that I feel. Same with the likes of swimming pools and the recipe

      Delete