“Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide?”
That is Kendrick Lamar's question and reflection on the intro of his fourth studio album, DAMN. Two years after the release of the hyper-political and irate To Pimp A Butterfly, hip-hop's "Kung Fu Kenny" is ready to further explore his inner contradiction and thoughts, a process that has produced some of the more compelling music to ever hit the genre.
While his subject matter and song titles show a carousel of emotions, the Compton rapper has never been so in control with his music. After he opens with the ominous questioning of his own intent, he beckons you to listen in to his story and follow him on the journey that is DAMN.
The album plays through like a hip-hop musical: sporadic paragraphs of bars, in which he levels his peers and rivals (“DNA”) pieced together by stand out R&B (“LOVE.”), jazz (“LUST.”), and funk (“FEAR.”) segments all and narrated in pieces by either K-Dot himself or a choir of haunting vocals all presumably serving as an insight into the rapper’s subconscious.
In his last album Kendrick sampled live instrumentation aspects of both jazz and funk to experiment with his sound and broach a new subgenre of hip-hop. On DAMN., he wields it like a black belt of his trade. His prolific rap skill and vocal cadence are not the only things on display here though. The album credits show his awareness of the industry is unlike anyone else's, earning the oft-used title of the “most woke rapper” in the game. With the world at his feet, Kendrick recruits the round table of both producers and artists. Producers Soundwave, Terrace Martin, and DJ Dahi, all of whom contributed to previous albums, make return appearances here as Kendrick returns to the well that made him so popular to the masses. 9th Wonder and Mike-Will-Made-It, who produces several beats on DAMN., including the fiery single “HUMBLE.”, are just a few of the new names in production.
The interesting vocal features show Kendrick has a vision unparalleled in the rap game. On the song “LUST.” Kendrick uses the Montreal based DJ Kaytranada for a vocal sample despite him being one of the top up-and-coming producer/DJs of 2016. On “XXX.” Lamar calls on rock icons U2, a decision that was initially questioned by fans. The combo makes for one of the more compelling tracks on the album, a feat that seems unfathomable as Kendrick opens with bars over a repeated chirping and a crawling bass line. The collab that makes the most sense, and is perhaps a bit overdue, is the song “LOYALTY.” which features Rihanna. The duo dazzle as their vocals orbit each other, swimming between both rap and R&B. This track is one of many where Kendrick’s cunning and extensive vocal range is on display.
He’s become a Jack-of-all-trades in a genre where artists are evolving into niched products who are either pandering to radio or club plays.
With DAMN. Kendrick Lamar didn’t have anything to prove, no statement to make. His previous work already showed the world a musical prowess that is so unique that is has proved unavoidable. Instead Kendrick Lamar crafted an album that shows him thriving musically on a level in which he has little to no company. He’s even bold enough to take the words right out of your mouth that you find yourself repeating after each track: “Damn.”
He’s the Prince of his generation. Taking music to heights that were inconceivable to his peers and at times underappreciated, as we lack the perspective and knowledge of just how far his influence will span for future generations. DAMN. continues one of the most successful run of hip-hop albums by anyone not named Kanye West. An instant classic and a must listen.
Critic's Rating — 5/5