Kendrick Lamar is that polarizing MC wholly interested in his art becoming a vehicle for personal expression. There’s the message and there’s your message, then there’s everything between.
Kendrick’s last effort was 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, a project that oozed with the power and struggle of Black America. The internet fell in love the album, while casual hip hop listeners may have found it hard to replay. It undoubtedly produced some of Kendrick’s most powerful moments in “King Kunta” and “Alright”, yet the element of activism was almost too hot to handle. TPAB was a record for the times; the dangers, injustices, and violence of life in America captured on wax.
DAMN. is Kendrick’s 180 degree about face. The turn finds him with nowhere to focus but on the man in the mirror. The stare finds the eyes of a rapper feeling maximum pressure to deliver art in its highest, most critical form. Kendrick has admittedly called DAMN. an album about “his own self-discipline”. But more than that, it’s an album about human experience and feeling. Even the song titles, “Lust”, “Love”, “Element”, “Pride”, all reflect those instances of vulnerability that we struggle to express.
If DAMN. really is an album about a rapper coming to grips with human emotions, then it’s only fitting that Kendrick never lets his foot off the gas. It’s a record pulsing with highs and lows, without a minute of letdown. The record boasts a raw power that is unparalleled in rap music today. “Blood” serves as the intro (or conclusion depending on your take) and dumps us head first into the vicious “DNA”. From there it’s a thirteen song escape into the head and heart of an artist in his prime. It’s impossible to ignore the passion on “Humble”, while “Duckworth” is a lesson in modern day storytelling.
Rihanna and U2 guest on “Loyalty” and “XXX”, while Geraldo Rivera’s open criticism of Kendrick’s views fuel the undertones pinned to DAMN. The most genuine twist throughout is the appearance of mixtape legend Kid Capri. His drops give the record a raw, throwback feel.
Like his heroes Jay-Z, 2pac, and Eminem, Kendrick is looking to etch his face into hip hop’s Mt. Rushmore with DAMN. Each of those heavyweights has effectively edged his way into our consciousness; whether it’s Jay-Z’s cool confidence, Pac’s endless rebelliousness, or Eminem’s dastardly word play. Like those legends, Kendrick applies his influence on the culture at critical times, setting and surpassing his own standards with each release.
Conspiracies aside, Kendrick’s excitement for fans to personally explore his art is at the center of his appeal. He wants us to take it or leave it; to pick it apart, or to digest it at our own pace. Either way, DAMN. is a study in true craft. It’s a record that forces you to investigate what it means to feel without restrictions. If not that, it’s just a master class in the art of flexing. On DAMN., Kendrick is laying down the challenge to any and all MC’s three minutes at a time. If you want the crown of The Greatest Rapper Alive, come and take it.