By: Conor Battles
There was never any second album, and that’s a good thing.
The odyssey of DAMN., Kendrick Lamar’s fourth LP and the followup to 2015’s lauded To Pimp a Butterfly, began with the surprise drop of “The Heart Pt. 4” in late March, a funky, mile-a-minute military march of a track that caustically warned “y’all got ‘til April 7th to get your shit together.” Though DAMN. took another week beyond that date to arrive, its release on Good Friday prompted no shortage of Internet sleuthing and fanboy speculation that argued, albeit convincingly, that a second companion album would surprise-release on Easter Sunday.
The simple truth of the matter is that DAMN. is an album that does not need a companion. Inscrutable and intensely personal, it is a self-contained self-portrait drawn in equal parts hip-hop braggadocio and raw, vulnerable emotion; no sequel necessary.
A spoken-word introduction sets the rough concept: Kendrick Lamar, hip-hop prodigy and current industry titan, has been shot by an old blind woman and left to die. The album that follows is framed as a loose collection of his final thoughts. Though any kind of concept album has a propensity to sacrifice musical cohesion and quality in favor of its philosophical narrative, DAMN. manages to exist simultaneously as an incredible hip-hop album and a fascinating piece of writing.
At its core, DAMN. puts on display Lamr’s ability to weave a cohesive narrative through almost surreal, hyperrealistic rap storytelling. His voice floats almost ethereally over the music, not so much flowing over the beat as possessing it, twisting it, making it fit to what he has to say. Indeed, the sheer amount of sudden beat switches, musical motifs and other production touches over DAMN.’s indelible 55 minutes reflects Kendrick’s own conflicted, scattershot state of mind.
Sonically, DAMN. is one of the lushest, most musically diverse projects to come out this year. Production from heavyweights like Mike Will, Sounwave and The Alchemist make for some of the album’s strongest straightforward hip-hop moments, but the album’s more unconventional collaborators are responsible for the most interesting tracks. Acid jazz quartet BADBADNOTGOOD makes “LUST” into an airy, trancelike meditation, while 18-year-old multi-instrumentalist and producer Steve Lacy’s production on “PRIDE” is perhaps the album’s best musical moment. But most surprising of all, Lamar duets with Bono while U2 grooves in the background on the second half of “XXX” and manages to sound greater than the sum of its seemingly-incompatible parts.
The social commentary of To Pimp a Butterfly has largely been replaced by introspective soul-searching on DAMN. The man who proclaimed himself “the biggest hypocrite of 2015” on “The Blacker the Berry” addresses himself more frankly and intensely than ever before. Tracks like “FEAR” and “LUST” grapple with Lamar’s perceived weaknesses and personal demons in sweeping, cinematic fashion. That said, there is still plenty of bile to go around, and this is demonstrated most directly on the hard-hitting “DNA,” which begins with and is bridged by clips from Fox News commentators deriding Lamar’s music and hip-hop as a whole.
All this soul-searching and commentary can be overwhelming in large doses, but DAMN. is broken up by its fair share of radio-ready singles as well. Tracks like the bright and poppy Rihanna-featuring “LOYALTY,” the system-blowing battle cry of “HUMBLE,” or the pop-rap Drake-baiting of “LOVE” show that Lamar still understands how to craft exquisite rap music that can exist outside of an album so heavily dependent on context and wholeness.
DAMN. represents a new side of Kendrick Lamar and the latest evolution of hip-hop’s brightest star. Lamar’s ability to avoid rigid artistic definition or pigeon-holing as a “conscious rapper” or just another pop star is unparalleled, and places him in a field all his own. He doesn’t chase trends, nor does he stay in one lane – King Kendrick carves his own path.