Following the enormous success of 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which was widely hailed as the greatest rap album of the decade, Kendrick Lamar made a savvy return in 2017 with DAMN. Rather than try to outdo his last record in scope, he stripped things back to basics and gave us a set of loud, gratifying bangers with a confrontational & boastful edge. Somehow, he still ended up making the biggest record of the year.
DAMN was just unavoidable in 2017, from the ‘play it backwards’ conspiracy theories to the cinematic music videos, memes, and ‘HUMBLE’, which was as ubiquitous as any song all year. It’s not surprising, really: DAMN is an album pitched at the mainstream far more than TPAB ever was, and its aggressive lyrics captured the zeitgeist of 2017 like no other.
The Kendrick Lamar on DAMN was not King Kunta the righteous activist, or K. Dot the impressionable teenage hustler. This time around we were introduced to Kung Fu Kenny, the shade-throwing, ninja-creeping battle rapper who took shots at everyone from whack artists to fake friends, the media, the president, the hip-hop scene, and just about everything in between.
Opener ‘DNA’, a deliciously bassy trap slide, is pure flexing: Kendrick spits some of the fieriest and most versatile flows on the whole album right here at the start. In the second half of the track he piles up internal rhymes at a frightening rate while delivering some fantastic bars in rapid-fire staccato, seemingly never pausing for breath: ‘This how it is when you in the Matrix / Dodgin’ bullets, reapin’what you sow / Stackin’ up the footage, livin’ on the go’
It’s an exhilarating start to a record that, like Kenny himself, doesn’t often pause for breath. There’s the moody ‘ELEMENT’, with one of the stickiest hooks on the whole record, and the breezy ‘LOYALTY’, which was another of the album’s big singles. And in the back half there’s the unquestionable ‘HUMBLE’, as well as ‘LOVE’, a surprisingly tender but rather beautiful rap ballad.
DAMN. might not have the variety of voices and characters that TPAB had, and it might not have as much of a cohesive narrative as good kid, maad city. It certainly isn’t as ambitious as either of those two records, and it isn’t without it’s weaker tracks (‘GOD’ and ‘FEAR’, in my opinion). But DAMN. is purely and simply the boiled-down essence of Kendrick Lamar, and an unwaveringly confident demonstration of his plentiful hip-hop talents.
Many will try to pick apart the backwards songs, the opening skit, and the contrasting song titles in search of deeper meanings. Having sat with the record for almost a year now, I don’t think there’s a huge amount to be found there, honestly. There is a very loose sense of conceptuality around DAMN, yes, but its best enjoyed for what it is: simply the best mainstream hip-hop record of the year, immaculately produced and savagely performed at every single turn. Bitch, sit down.