It was a truly Good Friday for fans of hip hop with the release of Kendrick Lamar’s long-awaited album.
“DAMN.,” Lamar’s fourth studio album, is the answer to the question of how the Compton rapper could possibly follow up one of the most innovative rap albums of all time, “To Pimp a Butterfly.”
Lamar has proven that his creativity greatly trumps that of any of his competitors. His compilation album of B-sides, “untitled unmastered.,” released in 2016 between the two projects, showed that even his throwaway songs are better than most others’ hits.
After the incredible commercial and critical response to his recent albums, Lamar was tasked with the daunting role of having to fill his own large shoes with the release of “DAMN.” But he does so extremely well by introducing and fully exploring a raw and vulnerable side to himself.
Where “To Pimp a Butterfly” sought to look outward by commenting on racial prejudice and celebrating black culture, “DAMN.” looks inward and presents a conflicted look at the inner mind of Kendrick Lamar.
“BLOOD.” opens the album with Lamar describing a scenario where he is shot dead on the street. His fictionalized death in the song serves as a tool for the rapper to look at his own life from an external perspective and examine his successes and failures through the rest of the album.
He begins his introspection in “DNA.,” a celebration of his own career. On top of a bouncing beat that dominates the track, Lamar flaunts his own pride in his race, accomplishments and ability. “I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA / I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA,” he raps in the first verse.
The second half of the song features a beat switch accompanied by a vicious response to a clip of Fox News host Geraldo Rivera claiming “hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years.” Lamar continues his longstanding fight against racial prejudice by putting Rivera’s ignorance in the spotlight, but also stands up for himself by refusing to let such criticism taint his work.
“ELEMENT.” continues Lamar’s self-praise, detailing the sacrifices he made in his own life to attain his fame. “I don’t do it for the ‘Gram, I do it for Compton / I’m willin’ to die for this s––,” he raps and details the level of dedication he has put toward his work.
Lamar certainly has earned the right to celebrate his success, and “ELEMENT.” is how he acknowledges his current achievements and previous struggles.
But “DAMN.” is not simply a braggadocios proclamation of one man’s victory. Lamar simply begins by rapping about his fame and fortune so he can brutally tear himself down later in the album to reveal his true successes.
In “PRIDE.” Lamar talks about himself caught in a struggle between his own pride and his faith. He calls out his failures as someone in a position of power to achieve substantial change in society. As a Christian, he painfully admits the dangerous amount of pride he has in himself. The song paints a picture of someone weak, reminiscent of the tormented artist Lamar introduced in “u” from “To Pimp a Butterfly.”
Lamar details being consumed by his sexual desires in “LUST.” A deep, throbbing drum and bass creates an effect that makes the song’s instrumental layer seem like it is being played backward. The effect challenges what listeners find appealing in music and replicates the disorienting sense Lamar recalls feeling as lust consumed his lifestyle.
“LOVE.” provides a resolution to the inner conflict presented in “LUST.” Here, Lamar sings an emotional love song, presumably directed toward his fiancé Whitney Alford, solidifying the devotion he has for her.
The song features Zacari, whose vocals echo through the chorus as he repeats, “Just love me.” The simple line is so brightly sung that, when paired with Lamar’s musings over love, make for an unexpectedly sweet and romantic ballad that shows he can master any type of song.
“DAMN.” is very much an album about personal successes and failures. Lamar began by rapping about his fruitful career, but by knocking himself down and calling out his failures, he finds the greatest value in his life from his faith in God and love for his fiancé.
Though not completely devoid of the social commentary that dominated “To Pimp a Butterfly,” this project is an anthology of the mind of Lamar.
With the ability to look so deeply inward and continue to push the boundaries of music with innovative beats and sound effects, Lamar has undoubtedly produced another masterpiece.