How do you follow up an album like To Pimp a Butterfly? The last record from Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar has been widely hailed as the greatest rap album of the decade, and its influence has already filtered out heavily into the music world just two years after its release. You can see it in the growing number of artists inserting conceptual and narrative ideas into their records, the resurgence of funk/soul sounds happening in hip-hop , and even as far afield as David Bowie’s last album Blackstar.
DAMN. is an album that cleverly shifts the colossal weight of expectation on its back with a classic follow-up move: strip it down and return to the basics. A cursory glance at the albums cover and single-word tracklist makes it clear that this is not another elaborate, conceptual record. This is Kendrick boiled down to his gritty, elemental ingredients. This is battle mode Kendrick. This is Kung Fu Kenny.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t conceptual ideas holding this record together. I don’t think Kendrick could release an album that didn’t have some kind of theme or structure to bind it into a whole, whether it be the campfire interludes of Section 80, the VHS storytelling of Good Kid Maad City, or the slowly unfolding poem of To Pimp a Butterfly. DAMN., as its title suggests, has a rather loose religious subtext in which our nappy-headed hero is shot dead in the album intro, and subsequently explores his thoughts on vice, virtue and everything in between.
This is an album all about contradictions, and in that way it recalls Kendrick’s breakout Section 80 more than his last two records. ‘PRIDE’ precedes ‘HUMBLE’. ‘LUST’ comes before ‘LOVE’. At every turn, Kendrick explores the contradictions and hypocrisies that he finds in the world around him but also within himself.
Having said that, it’s worth noting that DAMN. is an album which finds Kendrick more often than not rapping in his own voice and playing around less with cadence, tone and character. For some, that might be a disappointment – Kendrick’s chameleonic identity on a track is one of the most unique things about him, and his ability to inhabit any number of different voices on TPAB and GKMC really set him apart.
In place of that is a more aggressive and braggadocious style of rap that is perhaps a bit less experimental and daring but no less exciting. Tracks like ‘HUMBLE’, ‘DNA’ and ‘ELEMENT’ find Kendrick firing shots at anything and everything in sight: fake friends, wack artists, women trying to get in his head, police, the media, critics, you name it.
The confrontational lyrics are matched by a style of production more in line with the sparse, hedonistic sound of contemporary hip-hop than the jazz/funk of TPAB. The majority of the production is done by in-house TDE staff with a few tracks by Mike WiLL Made-It, and this lends the album a very cohesive sound. The songs on DAMN. are moody and textured, but not cluttered with detail. Some of them, like ‘HUMBLE’, are really quite simple in construction, but that does nothing to lessen the blunt force impact of the low end bass and drums in the mix.
There are a number of fantastic sung hooks throughout the record, too, such as on the song ‘PRIDE’, which is perhaps my favourite here. Over a warped, tropical guitar and a steady beat, Kendrick proves his vocal chops with a fantastically woozy chorus that could put a slew of autotuned mumble rappers to shame: ‘In another life I surely was there / Maybe I wasn’t there…’
DAMN. might not break much new ground for Kendrick Lamar, but it is another fascinating release from contemporary hip-hop’s most ambitious artist. While I don’t think it quite reaches the same level as To Pimp a Butterfly or Good Kid Maad City, it demonstrates Kendrick’s versatility as well as his consistency. This is a man at the very top of his game, even when he’s speaking from the depths of hell and damnation.