Friday 28 April 2017

Review of 'DAMN.' by Kendrick Lamar

Loyalty. Pride. Love. Fear. God.

You don’t have to dig far to work out the themes on this new album by Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar - the track titles are a bit of a giveaway. But that isn’t to say this is a surface-level listen. Kendrick? Surface-level? Don’t be silly.

To Pimp A Butterfly – the rapper’s last record if you ignore the untitled unmastered b-sides release – was a jazzy epic that tackled external issues of race, sex and class. DAMN in contrast focuses on internal issues of pressure to succeed and fear of losing creativity. And it’s definitely not for jazzheads. ‘DNA’ swiftly establishes that with its 808s and seismic beat shift, certain to even have gold-grilled ganglords in their traphouses wincing.

We’ll return to the sonic side of DAMN in a moment. Lyrically, let’s discuss these internalised lyrics first. Whilst previous albums have been told through characters and allegories, this record is all delivered from the perspective of Kendrick himself (with the exception of ‘DUCKWORTH’ – the surprise story of how his dad was almost killed before his birth). And yet whilst the themes are signposted in big bold capitalised lettering, the message behind these songs isn’t so clear this time around. It’s as if he simply wants to vent his feelings and let us make sense of them this time: ‘And I can’t take these feelings with me so I hope they disperse/ within fourteen tracks, carried out over wax/ wondering if I’m living through fear or living through rap’.

Hearing Kendrick sounding so lost and vulnerable was unexpected – you’d think a dude with Kendrick’s level of success would have no concerns. But clearly fame isn’t everything. If anything, this vulnerability and self-consciousness only adds to Kendrick’s relatability and likability.

Back to the sonic side of DAMN. It’s not all trap bangers like ‘DNA’. In fact, it’s a mixed bag – the likes of ‘LOYALTY’, featuring vocals from Rihanna, show a more poppy side, whilst the likes of ‘XXX’ meander experimentally all over the place boasting police sirens, detuned pianos and guest vocals from Bono. Kendrick’s delivery meanwhile constantly and creatively shifts to match each song, singing soulfully on ‘YAH’ and then dropping mean bars on ‘XXX’.

There are points where, unusually, Kendrick does seem to be picking up styles that don’t quite suit him. ‘LOVE’ ventures a little too far into generic love balladry – not helped by the Bieber-like sung hook from Zacari.  ‘GOD’ meanwhile sees Kendrick using a horrible vocal tone that sounds like a bad Fetty Wap impression.

These dud tracks don’t ruin DAMN, but they do prevent it being the masterpiece that its predecessor was. For its lyrical content, there’s no faulting it. Kendrick’s more personal and introspective approach makes it standout from other records in his discography, and proves his further knack for conceptual albums.