It’s really, really difficult to review a Kendrick Lamar album.
A great album is like a great meal – each course adds a different flavor to your palate to provide a fulfilling experience. But in Kendrick’s case, each side dish is a full meal itself. Sometimes it’s almost too much to digest in one sitting.
But everything just tastes so good that you can’t help yourself. You’ve gotta consume every morsel.
DAMN, Kendrick’s fourth studio album is similar to – yet sometimes nothing like – his previous albums. As you’d expect, K. Dot takes a deep psychic dive into black culture and society at large. But this time, the themes are a bit more accessible than in his more recent efforts, specifically 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly. Still, there’s a lot of baggage to unpack as Kenny tries to make sense of chaos – word to United Airlines.
“DNA,” the album’s first proper song, immediately drop-kicks your eardrums with a deconstruction of black culture:
I got, I got, I got, I got
Loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA
Cocaine quarter piece, got war and peace inside my DNA
I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA
I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA
Six bars into the album and Kendrick depicts the black experience better than any other artist I’ve heard in 2017. “My DNA not for imitation/Your DNA an abomination” later serves as a warning for both style-swiping rappers and culture vultures who prey on blackness.
Kendrick remains war ready on “YAH” and “ELEMENT,” bashing Fox News for using his name in vain on the former while showing no love for inferior artists on the latter:
Most of y’all throw rocks and try to hide your hand
Just say his name and I promise that you’ll see Candyman
Because it’s all in your eyes, most of y’all tell lies
Most of y’all don’t fade, most of y’all been advised
Last LP I tried to lift the black artists
But it’s a difference between black artists and wack artists
Call it a sign of the times, but Kendrick’s frustration is palatable here – you can feel it through the speaker. Almost literally, in fact: the track “FEEL” features Kendrick being weighed down from the negativity fueled from false prophets and mouthy bloggers (“The feelin’ is toxic, I feel like I’m boxin’ demons, monsters”). Lord knows we feel his pain.
And speaking of bloggers, I’m sure Kendrick is well aware of the so-called controversy over the album’s first single “HUMBLE” – where some critics claim Kendrick’s affinity for natural hair and curvy girls borders on misogyny. Following that song with “LUST” is probably his subtle jab at detractors. On the surface, it seems like another song bragging about the perks of fame. Look more closely and you’ll see it’s REALLY a discussion about how lust masks our insecurities and fears. By the end of the track, Kendrick longs for something more authentic – the same reason he’s seeking women with stretch marks on “HUMBLE.”
Think before y’all write those think pieces. There’s always a method behind Kendrick’s madness.
Despite its underlying complexities, “HUMBLE” works extremely well on mainstream playlists. As I mentioned earlier, many of DAMN’s tracks likely will find their way to a radio near you. “LOYALTY,” which essentially features Rihanna rapping, is gonna be the biggest hit of the summer, mark my words. “LOVE,” a dedication to Kendrick’s woman, feels like a page ripped from Drake’s playbook. Although the tracks have more meat than the usual radio fare, conceptually they’re a step behind superior cuts.
And when it comes to supremacy, Kendrick should be front and center in any conversation about rap’s greatest storytellers. 2012’s “Sing for Me/Dying of Thirst” was Kendrick at the apex of rap, weaving two tragic tales loss into a quest for eternal salvation. It still reigns as his best work. By the end of DAMN, Kendrick nearly repeats that feat. Twice.
“FEAR” is basically Kendrick’s version of the film Moonlight: Over the course of two decades, he psychologically dissects the growing pains of black youth – a 7-year-old’s fear of his parents’ wrath, a 17-year-old’s fear of his block and a 27-year-old superstar’s fear of failure. Meanwhile, “DUCKWORTH” is downright gripping – I won’t spoil the twist, but by the album’s conclusion, you’ll learn how one bad decision could have forever changed the lives of three men, and robbed the world of Kendrick Lamar’s music.
Analyzing a Kendrick album feels like dissecting a doctoral dissertation. Each track probably deserves a four-paragraph writeup (I didn’t even have time to talk about the psychology of “PRIDE” and the duality of “XXX.”). But don’t let the album’s complexities deter you from this experience.
The black community is not a monolith – each of our experiences are defined by contradictions, winding roads and deep complexities. Kendrick Lamar is the only artist willing to slowly peel away at each layer so we can better understand ourselves – and so he can better understand himself.
Yes, DAMN is a very big meal that isn’t always easy to digest. But man, it tastes good going down.
Keep feeding us, Kenny.
Best tracks: “DNA,” “FEAR,” “ELEMENT,” “HUMBLE”
4.5 stars out of 5