It needs to be stated up-top that just because Lamar has brought Mike Will Made It and U2 and Rihanna and Greg Kurstin (of Adele fame) into the fold doesn’t automatically make his music any less worthy than it did on To Pimp a Butterfly. It just means it should be approached differently is all. Or, put another way: instead of asking yourself if oranges are worse than apples, ask yourself if DAMN. accomplishes what it sets out to do as successfully as To Pimp a Butterfly or good kid, m.A.A.d. city accomplished what they set out to do. Shit, how’d you expect an artist who released an album as sonically expansive as To Pimp a Butterfly to follow that up, except by taking a step back?
Not to say that I didn’t have reservations either. Actually, I liked lead single “HUMBLE.” enough: an absolute banger that I imagine would go well in the club – the first of that sort under Kendrick’s name since “Backseat Freestyle.” The criticisms threw me off (I’ve read stuff that complained about the disconnect between the song’s title and braggadocio verses, as if that weren’t the fucking point), and contrary to what some are saying, this is far from the worst track here. (And if this were the worst track here, it would’ve cemented the album’s classic status right then and there.) I mean, come on: the rhymes of “syrup sandwiches and crime allowances” with “counterfeits” with “counting this” with “accountant lives” and “analysts” are pretty inventive from the get-go, and that’s to say nothing of the memorable second verse (“This that Grey Poupon, that Evian, that TED Talk, ayy / Watch my soul speak, you let the meds talk, ayy”).
Instead, I was worried when the tracklist was revealed and U2 was credited as a feature. Some suggested “XXX.” might be a case of Jay-Z & Kanye West’s “Otis” or “The Joy”, tracks that featured Otis Redding and Curtis Mayfield in their titles respectively, despite only being samples. That worried me even more, since U2’s best songs tend to be overplayed and more importantly, overpowering; I tried to imagine hearing Kendrick Lamar over, say, the military drums of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” or the chiming guitar of “I Will Follow” and shuddered at how the two would mix. It turns out Bono’s parts are so understated that were U2’s name not in the track name, no one would’ve known it was Bono contributing. I was originally going to say that the first half of the song has a certain sweep to it, like U2’s best songs once they discovered Eno, but that’d be a lie: the first half isn’t a sweep, it’s an explosion, with maybe Kendrick Lamar’s most invigorated flow on the album over what sounds like a combination of a swerving race-car and an alarm blare. The second half is an appropriate comedown, with Kendrick Lamar sounding exhausted at the state of things, but no less powerful: “Bosses with homicidal thoughts; Donald Trump’s in office / We lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again.”
The rest of the album is more like “XXX.” than it is “HUMBLE.”, which is to say Kendrick’s still toying around with the elasticity of his voice over flow and beat switches (the jazz-minded Sounwave, who’s worked with Kendrick extensively in the past, has his hands on more than half the album), with topics that he’s always been interested in. The first proper song, “DNA.” should’ve immediately squashed any reservations, with Kendrick Lamar letting ridiculous statements about hip-hop being worse for African Americans than racism fuel him in a track that rivals “The Blacker the Berry” in terms of visceral anger. As if the first beat weren’t good enough (it sounds great in the whip, just like a Mike Will beat should) or Kendrick Lamar’s flow on said beat weren’t impressive enough (check out the double rhymes in each line during the last stretch), he goes absolutely breathless during the beat switch, with Mike Will jerking the beat underneath him to enhance that effect. Regarding “YAH.” that follows, I confess I wanted something more out of the beat given Sounwave (likely responsible for the starry run that caps off the lines about his niece) and DJ Dahi on deck, but the beat’s appropriately washed-out for a track that serves as “DNA.”’s comedown.
On the note of his voice, that might be Kendrick Lamar’s most understated asset; I almost want to compare him to Peter Gabriel or Kate Bush in just how much he can move his voice around – no other rapper does that! Case in point is “LUST.”, a track that de-glamorizes the successful rapper lifestyle, with a keyboard or guitar line that suggests darkness before Kendrick Lamar even enters the track, and an outro with what sounds like a theremin and an electric guitar going haywire. And then he does, and the chorus is fucking terrifying: Kendrick Lamar trying to convince a girl to “Let me put the head in,” and switching his voice immediately afterwards to a squeal, “’It’s okay,’ she said, ‘It’s okay…’” That being said, there’s something disappointing about the track, especially when I knew going in that BadBadNotGood and Kamasi Washington had a hand in it which positioned it to be the album’s “answer” to To Pimp a Butterfly. Yet, it’s nothing like that, and the latter is puzzlingly delegated to strings instead of saxophone. And while I’m on quibbles, Lamar’s second verse jumps from the song’s main subject matter to addressing Trump (“We all woke up, tryna tune to the daily news / Lookin’ for confirmation, hopin’ election wasn’t true”); it feels like he’s leapt from one thread to another only to return to the former in the bridge, when a more traditional narrative arc would’ve fit better. Elsewhere, for a track with five producers like “GOD.”, some of whom are capable of truly, truly great work, “GOD.”’s beat is merely functional at best and unctuous at worst; no reason for the track to go on for 4 minutes except to match “DUCKWORTH.”’s runtime.
But again, quibbles: there’s plenty of highlights to go around. I’m almost positive that the “Sherane”-like keyboard and minimalistic beat for the third verse on “ELEMENT.” is James Blake’s doing (given “War Ready” from Vince Staples’ Prima Donna); “LOYALTY.” has a melodic backbone that sounds like a soul sample that’s been fed through a computer and subsequently bullied into submission: the result is as strange as it is enticing. Broadly speaking, whereas To Pimp a Butterfly absorbed g-funk and jazz rap and neo soul, DAMN. manages to be sonically varied as well. Maybe not to the same degree, but it does have almost twenty-five minutes less to play with. Zacari (who previously hooked up with Kendrick Lamar on Isaiah Rashad’s The Sun Tirade’s standout “Wat’s Wrong”)’s statement that “LOVE.” is “definitely a whole new genre” in his interview with Pitchfork was (obviously) an overstatement, but hearing Kendrick Lamar melodically sing “I wanna be with you, ayy, I wanna be with—“ right after Zacari’s sweeter vocals was the album’s biggest surprise for me personally. Not that he hasn’t done a slinky track before (“Poetic Justice,” with the airy Janet Jackson sample), but this one is lovelier in sound and sentiment (maybe because Drake isn’t here to rap “When I see that thing move, I just wish we would fight less and talk more”). Elsewhere, “FEAR.” Is the album’s version of “Sing About Me”, with verses from different perspectives of a Kendrick Lamar at three distinct points of his life: a child in fear of domestic abuse, a teenager terrorized from the environment he finds himself in, a man with more than he’s ever had, but with anxiety of losing it all and a fear of being judged as all eyes on him. Meanwhile, The Alchemist gives him enough space to stretch by giving him a roomy beat, with only a flickering guitar and a bluesy vocal fill in the album’s prettiest track.
All told, his first proper album where the tracks don’t serve a greater concept; even Section.80 created the characters of Keisha (referenced on “FEAR.”) and Tammy, mentioned throughout a handful of its songs. Which means it’s the first album in Kendrick Lamar’s discography where tracks can more readily be taken individually. And yet, given the talent of the artist in question, and the producers he’s pulled in, this one is no less ambitious and rewarding than some of his previous entries. I mentioned at the start that he had no choice but to step back, sonically; DAMN. sounds more like good kid’s follow-up than does To Pimp a Butterfly. So the real question: where does he go from here?