Following a record as monumental as To Pimp a Butterfly is no easy task, even for one of the World’s greatest living artists. At this point, there can be no question about his status – Kendrick Lamar’s talent feels like a once in a generation occassion. His winning streak in hip-hop is so hot that even his B-sides are making a mockery of his competition, and he has appropriately become one of the most significant figures in popular culture. Kendrick takes his standing seriously, and recognises his responsibilities as an idol. DAMN. is the result of a deliberate introspection, as he turns the spotlight on to himself to deliver his most despondent record yet.
In comparison to his earlier work, DAMN. is an incredibly cold listen, which is an immediate contrast to the tone of TPaB. Kendrick opts for a scattergun approach, which means some things work, and other things don’t. “DNA.”, “ELEMENT.”, “LUST.” and “FEAR.” are fine tracks, fit enough to feature on any Kendrick release. “DNA.” is his best banger since “Backseat Freestyle”, opening the record with an aggressive intent that immediately shakes the listener. “ELEMENT.” is another early highlight that sports a fantastic instrumental courtesy of James Blake, whilst “FEAR.” operates as the latter half centrepiece. “XXX.” is worth mentioning too, for somehow making the combination of Kendrick Lamar and U2 work worryingly well. When DAMN. hits its stride, it is indeed thoroughly enjoyable, which is the least we expect from such an artist.
Unfortunately, DAMN. is let down by its sheer inconsistency. It has genuine dips in the form of “LOYALTY.” and “GOD.”, which is a new and disturbing sensation for a Kendrick album. Due to an oddly formed tracklist with a lack of coherence, these weaker cuts are only accentuated. For sure, DAMN. is a conceptual work, but it’s way too dispersed in its approach to make a significant impact. “DUCKWORTH.” is the albums big pay off, and whilst it does showcase Kendrick’s supreme talent as a storyteller, I’d be shocked if many listeners were invested enough to care all that much about it. “Mortal Man” worked as a closing track because the listener was hooked on an engaging narrative that ran throughout the entirety of that record, and, to its ultimate detriment, DAMN. chooses to operate in quite a different way.
Kendrick explores a multitude of personal predicaments, but it remains difficult to stay focused on what the record is actually trying to convey. It’s certainly an enjoyable album, but the overall experience feels incomplete. It’s unlikely that DAMN. will relish the same prestige as its predecessors, but such a streak can only go so far.
7 out of 10
Kendrick Lamar’s newest release DAMN. has been met with huge anticipation. Not least of all because he had everyone waiting patiently for a release date that would end up being a week later. Regardless, DAMN. in many areas does not disappoint. It may not hit you as immediately as the ‘smell of those yams as you’re walking down the street’, but it’s full of intelligible hooks, darkly captivating lyrics, and a generous handful of creative and interesting collabs.
Kendrick is known for playing with central themes and narratives to his advantage. To Pimp a Butterfly gained both critical and commercial acclaim for this reason (amongst others). It would be fair to say fans and critics alike were expecting similar tropes. In many ways this is both its strength and weakness. DAMN. as a record does not run with a seamless narrative like TPaB did, however there are clear themes that tie it together. Kendrick plays often with the ideas of death, mortality, religion, and fame, and it works wonderfully, especially in tracks like “FEEL.” and “PRIDE.”
Unfortunately, there are some downsides to DAMN. The organisation of tracks can sometimes leave a lot to be desired. The newest single “HUMBLE.” (arguably one of the higher energy tracks on the record) is nestled in-between two rather more sedate numbers, and it does not give precedent to any of them on their own. Because of this, there seems to be a slight lack of cohesion within the album, despite it being tied by central themes.
DAMN. is a solid record with some absolutely superb tracks, but it can sometimes feel unusual and scattered as a whole. However like much of Kendrick’s work, you can hear in the music that it will age well. Maybe in a month, or year, the lack of cohesion and occasional less interesting track may suddenly work in a way no one thought initially possible. All we can do is trust in King Kendrick.
7 out of 10
It was almost an inevitability that Kendrick Lamar’s latest release was going to disappoint fans in one way or another. Even if it was objectively better than To Pimp a Butterfly, following up such an album without issue was always an insurmountable task. Make no mistake though, DAMN. is good. I’ve returned to this album obsessively since its release and thoroughly enjoyed my time with it.
Some of the instrumentals are real earworms: “LOYALTY.” has a particularly nice rolling, sub-laden underlay, “LUST.” features a cool, satisfying drum line, and “PRIDE.” drifts past in a dream-like whirl. Each track changes something up midway through, unsatisfied with stagnating, but the more minimal tracks such as “GOD.” do suffer slightly. As a result, they create less of an impact. “ELEMENT.” benefits from contributions from James Blake, and the listed features from Rihanna and U2 work surprisingly well on their respective tracks.
For Kendrick himself, his wordplay and commentary on current affairs are all present as you’d expect, though a lot of the lyrical content is more introspective compared to TPaB. “DNA.” sees a conflicted message play out, as it celebrates and critiques black heritage and culture all at once. “LOYALTY.” is one instance where Lamar’s involvement falters a little, with more callbacks and room for Rihanna to take centre stage, and fewer focussed thoughts expressed across the track.
With that said, my issue really doesn’t lie with the content of individual tracks, but with the album’s overall makeup. Having been spoilt by the previous two studio releases, which had strong narratives, themes and direction, with clear cohesion across the instrumentals of tracks, DAMN. feels a little muddled in comparison. While there are themes lining these tracks, they’re aren’t so tangible, and they’re often scattered across tracks twenty minutes apart.
The track listing too does seem disjointed, particularly in a run of tracks like “FEEL.”, “LOYALTY.” and “PRIDE.”, where two tracks that quietly swirl and simmer are rudely punctuated by a lumbering behemoth. Without the interludes of good kid, m.A.A.d city or the strong recurring themes and superb flow of TPaB, DAMN. feels a little lost at times.
These are small points, and it definitely hasn’t affected my obsessive listening, but coming off the back of previous stellar material, it’s difficult not to be picky. This is an absolutely solid release nonetheless, and will be in my regular rotation for months to come.
8 out of 10