Kendrick Lamar brutally shocked the world in 2015 with what I regard to be the single greatest artistic achievement of our time.
The release of “To Pimp a Butterfly” set a standard within the industry like no other album has ever done, and now, almost to his detriment, Kendrick has to release another one.
This is by no means an easy task.
To try and top a past release on the level of “TPAB” is unfair to both Kendrick and his listening audience. In a way, I am almost fairly certain it can’t be done.
Nonetheless, Kendrick put his best foot forward last week with the release of his latest studio album, “DAMN.,” and the world was definitely watching and waiting for this one.
It’s difficult for me as a reviewer to not enter this album without expecting disappointment. And as a self-proclaimed hypercritical music listener, “TPAB” is one of the few works that I unashamedly and outspokenly support, and in my mind, I don’t think any artist in my lifetime will be able to top it.
“DAMN.” is not a bad album. A standout within the industry for sure, as well as a bold artistic statement that transcends hip-hop. But it does not reach the same heights as “TPAB,” which is to be expected.
Much like “TPAB,” this project will take extensive amounts of listening to reveal the many messages that Kendrick is attempting to send his audience, so preliminary reviews like this could be seen as useless. But what is clear is that Kendrick has elevated to such a point in the game that this project serves as his one chance to make some brash statements.
Sonically this album derives from vastly different roots than “TPAB,” identifying more cohesively with modern, popular hip-hop producers such as Mike WiLL-Made It, The Alchemist and 9th Wonder.
The backing that these producers bring provide the perfect landscape for Kendrick to adopt a more aggressive flow, attacking things such as the hip-hop industry, conservative ideology and a few personal beefs.
As has been consistently identified by a variety of reviewers, “DAMN.” is certainly the most scattered work of Kendrick’s so far. Each track hits several points pretty clearly, but the main three things he seems to be most concerned with is cementing his title as the best rapper ever, calling out fake friends and publicly dealing with his struggles with Christianity.
The third of these is perhaps the most intriguing, given that Kendrick explicitly said this album would be the biggest exploration of his faith prior to its release. Specifically on songs like “FEEL,” he repeatedly returns to this sentiment that “ain’t nobody praying for me.”
The nature in which Kendrick’s faith is mentioned throughout the work perfectly mirrors the overall feel of the album: desperate, confused and unpredictable. Although Kendrick feels God has specifically blessed him and his endeavors as an artist, he still lacks the peace and sanctity that he wants from religion.
In one way, the entire album could be seen as his struggle with God and his pride to obtain this peace. And, as can be seen in both “BLOOD” and “DUCKWORTH,” he actually physically dies in pursuit of this.
Kendrick is very much so alive, but the character he paints himself to be in the album gets shot as a result of reaching out to a homeless woman to help her. This could be his way of vocalizing how he feels that his inward goodness is something that so many people fail to see, and when it does get publicized, it is brutally beaten down by both the industry and the pride that has taken over him.
This can be seen in one of the more popular tracks on the project, “DNA,” a brow-beating anthem for Kendrick that cements the idea that loyalty and royalty are the two things that are rooted most deeply within him. This represents the struggle of being both held to a special regard among his peers, while still staying true to what he is and believes. It’s a balance that he never finds, at least according to his album.
The music video for “DNA” released about a week after the release of the album further supports this perspective, reconfirming that while experiencing this struggle between the good and bad within him, he is truly dead inside.
Pride continues to reappear throughout the album in tracks like “HUMBLE,” “GOD” and as you could expect, “PRIDE.” While all rappers are prideful to a certain extent, the magnitude of this may be shocking for some listeners, often seeing Kendrick compare himself to God himself through gruesome details such as being born of immaculate conception.
These two extremes possibly sum up the album in the most efficient way. Kendrick simply flip flops between running to his pride or running to God. It’s clear that he doesn’t like the person he has become, so he goes to his faith for help, but while God may still be there for them, nobody on Earth is there to support him spiritually either.
He simply feels persecuted – persecuted by his peers in Compton, his peers in his faith, as well as by bigger entities such a the conservative media and the church overall, but the accolades he continues to receive from the industry have made him a confused and depressed man.
Albums like this make me excited. If you are still with me this far you can tell that I have no shortage of words to share about Kendrick’s artistic genius. If one thing is true about him, it’s that all his work is very, very intentional. Each detail has purpose, and there is no way I could explore all he has to say in this review.
If “TPAB” is 10/10, then “DAMN.” comes in at about 9/10. Yes, it’s a step down, but it is still truly incredible.
I’m sorry if I am contributing to that pride problem, Kendrick, but you really have done it again.