Album Reviews Music

Musical Advent Calendar #18 Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

Earlier this year when Kendrick Lamar dropped ‘The Heart Part IV’ (the 4th instalment of The Heart series), his ever growing loyal fan base and the world went into pandemonium. The Heart preluded Overly Dedicated (a brilliant EP, check it out) whilst The Heart Part 2 featured on the tape itself. In The Heart Part 3 – a pre-release single for Kendrick’s second album Good Kid m.A.A.d City, he raps ‘Will you let hip hop die on October 22nd’ dropping the album on October 22d 2013.

So I, like many fans of Kendrick Lamar, was beyond excited when ‘The Heart Part IV’ was released – an incredible song, in which bird noises open the track to a mellow spaced out beat which Kendrick raps over. Only to switch up a third of the way through the track, a complete change of vibe. Adopting a combative flow, with impeccable lyricism as always, this track appeared to indicate his next album was going to be one of heavy content… name dropping Donald Trump as a Chump, and spitting on many a complex issue, proving nothing is too big for the Compton MC to tackle. The four minutes thirty song closed with “My next album got the whole industry on an ice-pack…Y’all got till April the 7th to get Y’all shit together” – the whole world got very excited anticipating an album release, instead he announced DAMN and its track list which kept us waiting some eight excruciating days longer for the finished product. In that period and immediately after, fan theories fuelled by the dual covers speculated an Easter resurrection –a twin album was coming, demonstrative of the fan’s immense hysteria, appetite and need for Kendrick Lamar’s music.

There are few artists these days who transcend their genre like Kendrick Lamar transcends Hip-Hop.To the casual listener perhaps he would be defined as a rapper (a term which would have to include the likes of Fetty Wap and others). To me, tying an artist like K.Dot to the associated ‘rapper’ stereotypes is downright disrespectful –an ignorance to his artistry. His 4th studio album DAMN. has to be, in my opinion without much doubt, the album of the year.

DAMN. has very distinct vibes from the Ambitious Avant-Jazz Rap Project – To Pimp a Butterfly for which Kendrick received critical acclaim. America’s political and social situation has, shall we say regressed, since the 2015 hit album and as with the contemporary ‘conscious’ rap albums of the past year (most notably J. Cole with 4YourEyezOnly and Jay Z. with 4:44) it cannot and does not ignore what is going on. There is the faintest of continuity, Untitled Unmastered (2016) although a distinguished article in its own right bridges the gap between TPaB and DAMN. – the brilliant bassist Thundercat (bass on ‘FEEL.’), and exceptional Kamasi Washington (strings on ‘LUST.’) were for me welcome returns to this new project.

‘XXX.’ (featuring U2!) incorporates political undertones but features a primarily more introspective Kendrick, a characteristic which carries throughout the album. DAMN. has already achieved numerous accolades like Album of the year, won Kendrick best male hip-hop at the BET awards, individual tracks receiving a whole heap more. ‘HUMBLE.’ Winning 7 MTV awards. International acclaim has followed too… the Danish music Awards international album of the year, for one. It’s been nominated for a total of 7 Grammys.

As a body of work, I consider the album perhaps slightly disjointed. It feels like the songs ‘LOVE.’ (featuring ZACARI), ‘LOYALTY.’ (featuring. Rihanna) and ‘HUMBLE.’ (the latter two songs I do incidentally really like) are made for the radio, for commercial success, something Kendrick hasn’t previously pandered to so clearly as an artist. However, it would be remiss to expect an album from a global superstar like Lamar, at this stage of his career not to have ‘singles for the radio’. In ‘HUMBLE.’ and ‘DNA.’ we hear of a man exuding confidence, yet with real purpose. Not so much taking shots at another shallow rapper, instead trying to pull them up with him and providing himself as an example, it feels he is yearning for the culture to do better.

Many have compared themselves to 2Pac, it can seem as though every rapper has done so at one point or another. In ‘FEEL.’ Kendrick raps “I feel like this gotta be the feeling where ‘Pac was” The difference is 2Pac rapped through his contradictions; Lamar raps about his contradictions. Clever paradoxes litter the album ‘anti-social extrovert’ amongst many others. Especially ‘ELEMENT.’, one of my favourite tracks. There is a running theme throughout of humility and Kendrick clearly has mixed feelings. DAMN. continues the characteristic use of voice change to represent his different moods and personalities, Alter Ego ‘Kung Fu Kenny’ and other characters in Lamar’s narratives present since GKmC, it is quite astounding.

This is an album that has got plenty to say, more than previous albums Kendrick looks inwards, relentlessly exploring shifting personal and universal concerns. The contradictions are everywhere; love and lust; pride and humility; fear and acceptance. It’s undeniable he has always been a master storyteller but ‘DUCKWORTH.’ may be his best story yet; a mind-boggling tale of the staggering consequences of a single decision. Surprisingly there’s a whole range of samples in this Album; from the infamous FOX 2015 exert at the end of ‘BLOOD.’ to  ‘Knock Knock Knock’ by RATBOY being incorporated into ‘LUST.’ and Bruno Mars’ ’24k Magic’ vocal riff provides the cornerstone to ‘LOYALTY.’. Then there are several tracks from the 70s including James Brown’s Funk hit ‘Get up Offa that thing’, Rock Fusion group Ostavi Trag’s ‘September’ in ‘DUCKWORTH.’, plus to demonstrate Lamar’s musical diversity there is even some Yugoslavian Jazz music. This really is an album I believe could be appreciated by anyone so if by some travesty you haven’t heard it yet, invest fifty four minutes of your life and appreciate the genius.

The dust has had time to settle since the craziness of the April release, DAMN. has had time to brew with us. The recently issued collectors addition with the track list backwards provides the listener another way to consume this masterpiece. One that perhaps makes more sense, giving the narrative new meaning.

In the album’s introduction, Lamar helps a blind lady searching for something on the ground, and she turns out to be a murderer. The meaning of this metaphor is open for debate, but one thing is indisputable: Kendrick Lamar sees himself as someone here to help people find the things they have lost –quite often, it seems, a sense of humanity itself.

Lamar is a remarkable Story-teller and DAMN. is only the most recent chapter to his stunning discography of compelling concept albums. I for one, believe he could never rap again and still go down as an all-time great, although I’m sure we all hope this isn’t the end as the world needs it’s Kendrick Lamar.


Ellis Garamszegi


King Kenny himself and others are featured on our playlist, have a look!