‘DAMN.’ – a return to the creator
Adam Ramos | Monday, April 24, 2017
Despite all of the recent growth rap and its mother genre hip-hop have undergone, the discussion over who is top dog continues to fixate both artists and audiences alike. In the past, these arguments have typically been waged between two specific rappers, each side with a devoted populace — think Biggie vs. Tupac, Nas vs. Jay Z or Kanye vs. 50 Cent. Today is no different, but when one of the top two biggest rappers can’t even put together an album, the consensus has never been this clear: Kendrick Lamar is now the greatest rapper around. In his latest release, “DAMN.,” we get confirmation (for now).
For Lamar, cover art plays an important role in disseminating his records’ major themes, and despite its glaringly unappealing aesthetic, (Times New Roman font?) “DAMN.” continues the trend. In the way that the artwork for 2012’s “good kid, m.A.A.d city” captured the record’s area-specific epicenter and 2015’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” (“TPAB”) forecasted the work’s expansion to the more universal struggles of Black America, “DAMN.,” with its simple portrait, marks the spotlight’s return to the creator, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth. The album artwork depicts a spiritual 29-year-old who, despite his insecurities, recognizes his own unrivaled superiority in hip-hop.
In Lamar’s previous two albums, he framed himself as the vehicle, stripping away his humanity in order to focus on larger and complex problems. Now, Lamar concedes this distance on the basis that “I can’t change the world until I change myself,” as he explained to Zane Lowe in a recent interview. The most cohesive, and basically only, album-wide theme is Lamar’s psyche. Each track presents a distinct exploration into a specific emotion or idea, conveyed with its own ambiance and direction. The disjunction may be a weakness in some ways, but it also provides Lamar more time and space to showcase his immense talent as a pure rapper.
Kendrick has always excelled as a storyteller, but at this point in his career he’s at his sharpest. Album closer “DUCKWORTH.,” tells the chilling origin story of Top Dawg Entertainment’s CEO Anthony Tiffith and his chance encounter with Lamar’s father in a distant, reportedly true, past. In telling the story, Lamar’s cadence and flow is flawless. He effortlessly rhymes phrases like “The object was to process and digest poverty’s dialect / Adaptation inevitable: gun violence, crack spot / Federal policies raid buildings and drug professionals” over a mellow atmospheric boom-bap beat. Though Lamar has always called Eminem a major influence, that inspiration has never been as obvious as it is on “DUCKWORTH.” “HUMBLE.,” the only single released early and accompanied with an already iconic music video, has an undeniable radio friendly aesthetic with aggressive lyrics and a catchy bass hook. Even Lamar’s singing, a historically weak facet of his game, is strong on “DAMN.” – particularly on tracks “GOD.” and “ELEMENT.”
From a production standpoint, there is a high standard throughout “DAMN.” Certain producers bring exciting flairs on various songs. Mike WiLL Made-It, featured on three tracks, helps amplify the sting of Lamar’s bars through thumping basses and rattling high hats. R&B whiz kid James Blake proves his versatility as a hip-hop producer in the expansive “ELEMENT.” Other new collaborators like The Alchemist and BADBADNOTGOOD find their own space amongst familiar producers Sounwave, Cardo, Thundercat and Kamasi Washington.
In humanizing himself, Lamar is forced to be more vulnerable and candid. In “YAH.,” Lamar sneers over a lethargic groove, “Somebody tell Geraldo this n— got some ambition.” His frustration over FOX news’ chastisement after the BET awards performance proves evident, despite the languid delivery. It’s rare to hear Lamar speak as unbridled as he is pointed, and the effect is powerful. “Last LP I tried to lift the black artists / But it’s a difference between black artists and wack artists” Lamar admits in “YAH.’s” successor, “ELEMENT.,” a telling line regarding Lamar’s reaction to the response of his previous record. While Lamar’s signature intricate and enigmatic images are still a very real part of his art, in “DAMN.” these moments of clarity and directness are frequent and illuminating.
In general “DAMN.” recognizes its existence in a post-“TPAB” hip-hop landscape. While Lamar has always seen himself as the greatest rapper alive, “DAMN.” is the ultimate acknowledgement, and it has to do with the record’s order in the discography. Even after only two years, it’s easy to identify “TPAB” as one, if not the most ambitious and successful hip-hop album of all time. Gloriously redemptive, the album finds an equilibrium between being both a testament to the beauty of and a call to action for African Americans and other marginalized communities in today’s America. “DAMN.,” with brazen bars and short term retrospection, is the spiritual exclamation mark to “TPAB.” In many of the album’s 12 tracks, Lamar drops unabashed lines like, “My resume is real enough for two millenniums” (“LOYALTY.”) or “Everything I touch is a damn gold (“GOD.”) – and he’s right, of course. No other rapper has ever matched Kendrick’s commitment to experimentation with sound or his consistent success.
Regardless, this is Kendrick Lamar Duckworth we are dealing with. While “DAMN.” may recognize the rapper’s superiority, it also constantly uses images of religion and human weakness as a balancing mechanism. “Ain’t nobody praying for me,” Kendrick harps on multiple tracks. Despite his kingship, Lamar is a human — a self-admitted prideful, lustful and fearful one — a man who may need prayers now more than ever. As much as Lamar cares about hip-hop and his rank within it, other matters in this life will always take precedent. In a way, that’s what makes him so special.
Artist: Kendrick Lamar
Label: Top Dawg Entertainment
Favorite Tracks: “DNA.,” “XXX.,” “DUCKWORTH.”
If you like: Eminem, Vince Staples, 2Pac
Shamrocks: 4.5 out of 5