With the release of his instant classic To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar usurped the throne of hip-hop, but questions emerged concerning would come next. DAMN., released Friday, takes his music to a different level, avoids harkening to the past and delves deeper into the man himself.
After signing to Top Dawg Entertainment at 16 years old, Lamar chose the path of a traditional MC. However, after the release of his debut album Section.80, it was clear Lamar was forging his own style, fusing old-school hip-hop with West coast influences. His commercial debut good kid, m.A.A.d city and impeccable sophomore effort To Pimp a Butterfly were immediate successes due to their fresh ideas, fantastic beats and colorful lyrics. Now, with his newest record DAMN., Lamar deviates from his previous concept albums, with a record chock full of hard-hitting beats and some of his most polarizing lyrics to date.
Like many of K-Dot’s albums, DAMN. takes more than a couple of listens to digest. Aside from the hard-hitting lead single “HUMBLE.” and the equally impressive second track “DNA.,” most songs are not forthcoming. With a couple more listens, DAMN.’s emotional, introspective and somber qualities show that Lamar may be in more of an emotionally dangerous place than ever before.
Kicking off with a spoken word piece where he gets shot by a struggling blind woman symbolizing justice, Lamar jumps into “DNA.,” a powerful declaration of cultural pride. Paired with a booming beat by Mike WILL Made-It, “DNA.” takes no prisoners, especially targeting Fox News and Geraldo Rivera, who Lamar samples commenting on his 2015 BET performance. To conclude “DNA.,” K-Dot plays off of black rapper stereotypes, mentioning “Sex, money, murder — our DNA” as typical subject matter in rap music in order to assert how his music, which discusses self-love, God and politics, isn’t what people like Rivera might see on the surface.
Kendrick goes on to discuss God, his personal journey and sacrifice and reveals the toxicity hip-hop brings into his life with just three tracks. Although he trips up a bit with “LOYALTY.,” a track about relationships that feels somewhat repetitive, the record continues on in a flurry of pure modern hip-hop.
King Kendrick drives this LP home with tracks seven through 12, giving the listener a massive reason to revisit this project. Lamar’s streak takes its final step with a track that comes together to form an awe-inspiring seven-minute behemoth titled “FEAR.” The track splits into three parts, examining Lamar’s fears at 7, 17 and 27 years old, moving from his childhood experience of domestic violence to his fear of dying young to gang violence and finally his paranoia about losing the empire he has created. The Alchemist’s heavy beat on this song is the best on the record, and with repeated listens Lamar’s words grow in magnitude.
Concluding his record with “DUCKWORTH.,” a recollection of how TDE’s CEO Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith nearly murdered Lamar’s father Kenny Duckworth, Lamar finally brings his record full circle, by repeating the album’s introduction after an echoing gunshot.
The clashing themes and personal outpourings of this project embody common themes found in Lamar’s music, mainly self-reflection and his own core values. DAMN. is Lamar’s first album that doesn’t revolve around a general concept, but this album steps up to the challenge and knocks it out of the park with an intense listen and consistently intriguing production. Whether or not this will be regarded as a classic has yet to be seen, but for now Lamar’s newest release more than asserts his status as king of hip-hop.