Kendrick Lamar: DAMN. (2017) – Album Review

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Rap is the most exciting musical genre on the planet right now, and Kendrick Lamar is easily one of its most exciting young talents. Yet the hype stirred up on Twitter and beyond by this album’s release has been beyond ridiculous – he’s been compared to Gandhi in some quarters, to Jesus in others (the Easter Sunday ‘resurrection’ album that fans predicted and, er, mysteriously never materialised).

As anyone who’s ever listened closely to K.Dot’s lyrics will know, he’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy: ‘Put the Bible down and go eye for an eye for this shit’ goes one line on this album; ‘I’ll prolly die at these house parties fuckin’ with bitches’ goes another. These are enough to give any Fox News anchor a brain haemorrhage, but they’re true to the language of the street, and they’re true to the cultural world of hip-hop from which Kendrick emerges – for better and worse. More importantly, these blunt depictions of street life contrast with the regular doses of decency and thoughtfulness offered up by the Good Kid in the M.A.A.D City: ‘pride’s gonna be the death of you and me’ he worries at one point, in a self-reminder to always be humble; at another he sweetly tells a girl that he respects ‘the cat’ and asks politely to put his head in it. ‘It’s okay,’ she replies.

The values learnt on the streets of Compton, those of violence and braggadocio, come square up against the values of the church, with its promise that the meek will inherit the earth, again and again on DAMN. ‘PRIDE’ and ‘HUMBLE’ appear next to each other in the tracklist (interestingly ‘PRIDE’ is more about humility and ‘HUMBLE’ is a boast track), as do ‘LUST’ and ‘LOVE’, as do ‘FEAR’ and ‘GOD’, to hammer home the internal conflicts at play. No simple moraliser, Kendrick is always willing, eager even, to admit his own faults and hypocrisies, much like a certain Kanye. Yet it all culminates in ‘DUCKWORTH’, a real-life street narrative involving an incident many years ago where record label CEO Anthony ‘Top Dawg’ Triffith nearly killed Kendrick’s father. That Kendrick and Anthony can now work with each other in the studio demonstrates the redemptive power of music in a hopeless world of cynical violence, absolving any former beefs with a joining together of creative powers. It offers a way out of the endless cycle of pointless street killings. It offers hope.

All of which is fascinating and compelling, a psychological and spiritual puzzle of the highest order, which makes the 5 star raves to have greeted this album not only predictable but also understandable. Still… let’s calm down, take a deep breath, and assess DAMN.’s success with equanimity, shall we?

We all know that Kendrick can spit bars like an AK-47, pen rhymes like a bard, spin tracks like a wizard – he’s one of the most talented musicians around, for sure. So I expect more from him than what’s on offer here, a slapdash mess of intermittent brilliance that comes closer to the chaos of untitled unmastered. than the coherence of a masterpiece like GKMC or TPAB. Those highlights had a clear sonic identity that emerged from their overall concepts. So the downbeat atmospherics that seeped through GKMC perfectly conveyed that album’s melancholic portrayal of a boy exhausted with the thug life in Compton; and the extraordinary jazz-funk party of TPAB contributed immensely to that career-high’s celebration of black culture. With DAMN. the only concept that seems to exist is that of trying to please everyone at once, blatantly following Drake into trap’s subgenre marketplace on most tracks, in a concession to his more commercial fanbase, whilst simultaneously juggling elements of less danceable electronica, and throwing in some live instrumentation from old faves like dynamite bassist Thundercat on ‘FEEL’, and strings arranged by Kamasi Washington on ‘LUST’, to appeal to the more traditionally minded (i.e. ‘real’ music snobs).

Kendrick has reached that rarefied station of upper-echelon artistic acclaim (see also Beatles, Dylan, Springsteen, Radiohead) where everything he does is immediately cited as proof of his genius, hence why many publications have already been claiming the musical eclecticism on DAMN. to be an example of the man’s restless desire to push into new territory. But to my ears, and I listen to albums a lot, it sounds more like the result of a lack of clear focus, and a petrifying fear of alienating various factions of his fanbase. He readily admits to his ‘fear of losin’ creativity’ on ‘FEAR’, and it shows. Especially in his tendency to switch up beats purely for the ‘WOW!’ factor, some time before they’ve had a chance to fully establish a groove. The technical mastery on display is sometimes not genius, it’s just showing off – opting for form over content, in the same way that bad guitarists do in the dick-waving look-at-me solos of the heavy metal scene.

That said, there’s always a moment on every track that makes me sit up and go damn, and usually there’s more than one. Whether it’s the Al Green falsetto sleezing up ‘LUST’, the thrill of the delivery justifying the self-satisfaction of the sentiment on ‘DNA’, the lurching between thwomping electronic beats and a minimalist(!) U2 on ‘XXX’, going all psychedelic soul on our asses on ‘PRIDE’, or riding a mutated Bruno Mars sample with Rihanna on ‘LOYALTY’, I’m so often engaged and enthused as a listener that it carries away all care of the overall chaos. And it’s my pleasure to announce that one track is a genuinely poppy R&B ballad that is wholly and unironically about love, which should annoy all the right people – namely those who believe that Kendrick’s greatness lies within his supposed links to the ‘avant-garde’ (i.e. white hipsters).

His greatness lies elsewhere, namely in a fervent desire to hold on, at all costs, to some sort of concept, romantic or religious or otherwise, of ‘LOVE’. Even in the face of unspeakable violence, the endless cesspool of racial injustice, deplorable political figureheads… and his own monstrous ego. A deservedly monstrous ego, emanating as it does from the towering proportions of his quite undeniable, virtually irrepressible brilliance.

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