Society, politics, religion, fame and identity. Damn. gets deep – and from Kendrick Lamar, the current king of complex, meaningful rap, we wouldn’t have expected anything less. The wildly anticipated follow-up to To Pimp a Butterfly is a sprawling, complex and ambitious album. There’s so much going on, but together the fourteen tracks still feel like a cohesive body of work. It’s just one you need to listen to several times to get your head around.
The tracks are all so different and all so individually powerful that to single one out as the strongest feels almost counterproductive. But hey, we’re still going to call it, and it’s got to be “Lust”. The eerie guitar with the heavy and reversed drum samples give the production a rhythmic flow, allowing Kendrick’s clean vocals to cut right through. It’s the kind of track you’d catch yourself bobbing your head to on the tube without meaning to, or that you’d blast while nudging your whip right up to the top end of the speed limit. What you’d think is at first another typical rap song lyrically – “I just need you to want me” – actually ridicules the repetitive, obviousness of being a rapper: “I know the perks of bullsh** isn’t meant for me”.
He talks about Trump and election morning, “We all woke up, tryna tune to the daily news / Lookin’ for confirmation, hopin’ election wasn’t true / All of us worried… Stealed and sad, distraught and mad” before pulling a classic Kendrick and getting all philosophical, commenting on how political action falls back into apathy because of the human tendency to revert to introspection and our own selfish needs: “Parade the streets with your voice proudly / Time passin’, things change / Revertin’ back to our daily programs / Stuck in our ways, lust”. It’s thoughtful, it’s serious and it’s still a great beat. It reminds you of why To Pimp A Butterfly was canonised by Harvard and of why every serious rap lover rates King Kendrick (or “Kung Fu Kenny”, as he refers to himself throughout the album) so highly.
The next track, “Love” is a bit of a curveball, but it’s still solid. Every song title relates to the individual theme of the track, and this is a proper, smooth love song. The hook by Zacari is soft and airy, with light drums and more melodic vocals. There’s none of Kendrick’s usual straight up real-talk, but it’s an easy listen, and we like it a lot. It’s very Drake, with a chilled pop, R&B sound.
“Loyalty” featuring Rihanna is equally as radio-ready. Slower and lazier, with none of the rapid-fire verses we hear elsewhere on the album, the song reflects on fame, asking “tell me who you loyal to”, stating “it’s so hard to be humble”, with an infectious hook courtesy of Rihanna. This album around, Kendrick seems pretty preoccupied with being humble. The teaser track “Humble” is one of the best, with a video that sent the internet into overdrive when he dropped it back in March.
In typical complex Kendrick style, quite a few of the tracks feature full-on narratives, from the opening track “Blood”, an experimental track with vocals that sound like spoken word and a sample of Fox News reporters discussing Kendrick’s song “Alright” about police brutality (“‘And they hate popo’…ugh, I don’t like it”), to the closing track “Duckworth”. Fox News reporters are also sampled in “DNA” – a heavy trap beat where Kendrick’s relentless flow about heritage is more Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. than TPAB – saying “hip hop has done more damage to African Americans than racism in recent years”.
There’s a lot of self-reflection going on in the album, “Feel” is like a stream of consciousness, while “Pride”, with its warped guitar riffs and varying pitches – Kendrick’s falsetto vocals on the chorus would make Andre 3000 proud – imagines a utopian world where he’d “make schools out of prisons”. There’s all the heavyweight political commentary we’ve come to expect from Kendrick. XXX, the U2 Track, opens with “America. God bless you if it’s good to ya.” Gun control’s a major theme – “Ain’t no black power when your baby killed by a coward” – and although harder to digest compared to some of the smoother, more aurally cohesive tracks, it’s still one the coolest things U2 have done in the last ten years.
One song after XXX comes “Fear”, the opus of the album that encompasses the album’s larger themes in the same way that “The Blacker The Berry” did in TPAB. It’s melancholy, brutally honest and unashamedly vulnerable. That’s the thing about Kendrick, he’s not afraid to shy away from the scary, the unspoken and the strenuous. His music isn’t “rap” in the inane bitches-money-club-way we’ve become so accustomed to hearing, and it’s why he’s seen as a poet and a visionary as well as a rapper.
Intelligent, contemplative, and intricate, Damn. is Kendrick Lamar proving once again why he’s the only rapper who really matters right now.
This review was published on GQ.co.uk