There are “albums” that are collections of songs (glorified mix-tapes), and then there are albums that construct context and either literal or thematic cohesion from track to track; providing truly a genuine conceptual experience. Kendrick Lamar has managed to craft yet another experience with “Damn”, and while this album is not as blatantly ambitious or diversionary from contemporary hip-hop norms as certain moments on “To Pimp a Butterfly”, it does provide both solid music, and intellectual/emotional depth.
First, I will clarify my opening statement: if you expect this to be another “Good Kid Maad City”, you’ll not find nearly as clear of a straightforward narrative here on “Damn” (though plenty of storytelling, both literal and metaphorical, fills the album – particularly on “XXX”). The themes of representation and conflict with media and society take the forefront on this album, featuring a particularly bleak and un-amused Kendrick Lamar. While I have no doubt that after enough spins, listeners (including myself) will be able to craft a myriad of interpretations, from those of a narrative nature to those of thematically and meaning, from the album, I believe that the strongest appeal of “Damn” is the fact that it can be so musically flexible. Songs on the album can stand on their own as beautifully constructed, detailed, reasonably diverse, from just a purely musical standpoint, whilst also providing more than a hearty serving of lyrical and thematic discourse for the deep analytic folks to really sink their teeth in. This is an album that you will have plenty of reasons to want to replay from start to finish, likely many many times.
“Damn” feels incredibly concise, almost eerily so. I found myself surprised that after what only ‘felt’ like a few minutes had passed, that I already managed to make it to track 9 of 14, “LUST”. I still find it hard to believe by the end of album that 54 minutes had truly passed, and its a unique experience I haven’t had with any other album – not even smaller albums that would clock in around the 20 or 30 minute marks. Kendrick Lamar rarely wastes your time, nor let musical ideas drag on far past their usefulness; an issue Kendrick has rarely had in the past, but stands out in particular on this album. “FEAR” may stay past it welcome for some, but I was thoroughly entertained, at least.
After my first listening I honestly could only find maybe 2 or 3 tracks I didn’t find captivating or at least enjoyable. Most tracks I wanted to go back to and re-play to really comprehend what I had heard, making my first pure play-through difficult to do.
As for any weak spots on this album, I would say the first half of “GOD” was a bit boring, if only because the beat and vocal performance of Kendrick on this track felt rather generic. Luckily the song becomes slightly more interesting on the latter half. “YAH” feels a bit too lethargic and chill after following a track after “Damn” but does maintain the overall introspective and critical theme of the album, just with a weak chorus. “LOYALTY” is an excellent track during it’s verses, but the chorus, once again, is kinda annoying to me. I’m not too surprised by this, however, as I’m not much a chorus or hook fan to begin with – and it’s easily been my least favorite aspect of Kendrick’s music since Section 80 (Ironically, the one album where I don’t have a problem with really any his chorus based songs).
There are only a few real bangers on “Damn”, with “DNA” being easily the heaviest and hardest song Kendrick has done since Backseat Freestyle. “DNA” is an incredible second track, with a merciless lyrical and instrumental assault that builds up to an incredible, yet sudden, ending. “Humble” is an upbeat, self-aware braggadocios venture, and likely a standout track, though I much prefer “DNA”.
This album is also full of songs that are complex, merging either ferocious and relentless lyrics with more subtle and lurking instrumentals, like “ELEMENT” and “FEEL” for example. From “LUST” to “DUCKWORTH” you have a captivating series of unique and interesting tracks, ending the album. “LOVE” is a near perfect atmospheric and emotional track that flows naturally into “XXX”, which is a unique and haunting song which slips into captivating intensity just enticing you for future replays.
I will say, this is an excellent album worthy of at least somewhere between a 8-9 out of 10, no question. I will say, it lacks some solid identity that previous projects “Section 80”, “Good Kid”, and “To Pimp” all had in spades, and were inherently obvious. “Damn” is quite a bit more complex, a bit more unwilling to take your hand and walk you through it’s purpose, and still an incredible album. At this point, it’s incredible that Kendrick can continue to produce consistently high-quality albums. Purely from a musical perspective, this album has some of the most efficient and enjoyable songs in Kendrick’s career – and that’s saying a lot considering his catalog.