DAMN. Should We Really Be Celebrating Kendrick?

Kendrick Lamar, this generation’s hip-hop idol and critics’ darling, just dropped his fourth full album, DAMN., the official follow-up to his classic To Pimp A Butterfly (with the 2016 set of Butterfly outtakes untitled, unmastered falling in between).  The new album features 14 tracks – all one-word, ALL-CAPPED, and period-punctuated titles – addressing the normal themes of politics, guns, black struggle, black power, racism, pussy, fame, Tupac, God and rappers’ God complexes.

In other words, the stuff that so-called socially enlightened and culturally woke – and some not-so-woke – rappers have rapped about for decades.

Kendrick’s DAMN. will likely début at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart when it’s eligible (for the one dated April 29).

It also includes featured turns by superstars like Rihanna – the biggest pop singles artist of the past dozen years – and alternative rock gods U2, a group who ranks high on everyone’s cool chart, no matter the era in which one grew up.

In other words, the safest guest stars a rapper can pair himself while straddling the line between radio-friendliness and street credibility.  Remember, this is the same guy who teamed up with country-turned-pop music’s good girl Taylor Swift (on “Bad Blood”) at the height of Butterfly’s success two years ago.

To that radio-friendly end, Lamar just accomplished something that hasn’t been done in nearly seven years.  The album’s first official single, “HUMBLE.,” debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 chart at a lofty No. 2, just behind Ed Sheeran’s long-running No. 1 single “Shape Of You.”

With that entry, Lamar’s single marks the highest début for a rapper since Eminem also debuted at the runner-up position in July 2010 with “Love The Way You Lie,” featuring Rihanna.  Eminem’s song went on to top the chart in the ensuing weeks…the jury is still out on “HUMBLE.”

That Lamar was able to début so high is likely not a surprise to anyone.  His rise to superstardom rivals that of any rapper in the past 20 years – Jay Z, Kanye, Eminem, Drake and 50 Cent notwithstanding.  He’s certainly now reached that upper echelon of rappers whose albums’ chart-topping status is a foregone conclusion as long as they’re timed not to compete with other high-profile album releases.  And just as first official single “HUMBLE.” made a lofty Hot 100 entry this week, the album’s remaining 13 tracks will likely be sprinkled throughout the Hot 100 during their first week of eligibility a week from now.

But should DAMN., and more generally Kendrick himself, really be celebrated based on this album and his latest chart accomplishments?

Don’t be surprised to see all 14 of DAMN.’s tracks on the Billboard Hot 100 later this month.

I’m listening to the album now – as I do all albums – while I write about it.  And honestly, save for a few tracks, it’s not moving me…at least not yet.  It’s certainly no instant classic like Butterfly.  Heck, I’d go as far as to say it’s actually closer to the less heralded untitled, unmastered in terms of structure and impact.  The album decidedly takes a turn towards radio accessibility and away from the more jazz-centric Butterfly, but even with that goal in mind, the songs collectively don’t measure up.  I don’t yet hear this album’s “Alright” or “King Kunta,”…you know, those jams we’ll be talking about years from now.

Let’s take the obvious radio-get, the Rihanna-featured track, “LOYALTY.”  It showcases the two artists trading deadpanned lyrics over a stretched-out trap beat with hardly any melody attached.  The most clever aspect of the song is the underlying, sped-up sample contained throughout (and that’s somewhat underwhelming and has been done before, many times).

Even the high-charting single “HUMBLE.” – Lamar’s highest to date as a lead artist – falls short.  In it, he reminisces about “syrup sandwiches and crime allowances” before reminding us about the good life he’s enjoyed since his meteoric climb to fame, and before basically telling folks (likely groupies or other rappers) to get off his dick.

There’s likely a subtle message in “HUMBLE.” where the word “bitch” is uttered 38 times (in the explicit version).  That message, however, requires some reading between the lines given the juxtaposition of its emboldened lyrics and the song’s oxymoronic title.  The other problem is his slow cadence in the song actually recalls a bad Eazy-E, and the track’s 8-note piano loop repeats throughout with no change-up from the verse to the chorus.  There’s no chord-changing bridge, in fact, there’s no chord period.  The song’s only saving grace is that it’s clipped at a short 2:57 in length.

Despite this and other shortcomings, “DAMN.” does have its good moments.

You have to wait until the last track to get to the album’s best one: “DUCKWORTH.”  That one (which bears the rapper’s real last name) is as noteworthy for its old-school storytelling as it is for its many knee-jerky sample and tempo change-ups.  It’s clear about 45 seconds in that you’ll have no idea where this song is going next musically, and that’s what’s great about it.  You’ll wanna listen again and again just to try to figure it all out.

Lyrically, the song speaks of a chance meeting between Kendrick’s father and the future label executive for whom Kendrick now works, Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith.  As the story goes, Tiffith, a hardened hood at the time, meets “Ducky” at the KFC drive-thru where the latter worked.  Ducky gives him free chicken and biscuits to get on the criminal’s good side, knowing that he’d robbed the place before.  It works, and Tiffith spares Ducky his life, straightens out his own and winds up heading the label where the “greatest rapper” now works.

Unfortunately, that the song doesn’t follow the standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus formula will prevent it from getting much radio love.  But it has a chance to dominate personal playlists and streaming charts more than the other tracks from DAMN., and its otherworldly innovation will have you wondering where that creative spirit was when the rest of the album was being made.

“PRIDE.” – the album’s second-best track – is one that sees rap music’s savior rapping somberly over a melancholy melody and a call-and-response chorus that I could see pop radio eating up, followed by “FEAR.” (best line: “If I could smoke fear away I’d roll that motherfucker up.”) and “XXX.”  For that last one, U2’s Bono lays down a vocal that laments – as the entire song itself does – the state of America today.

The irony that Lamar is assisted by an Irishman in this accounting is as big a statement about how the country is viewed by the international community as anything else on American radio.

Lamar, whose previous full-length album Butterfly blatantly yet deftly tackled issues of racism and police brutality during an era when those topics dominated headlines, still addresses those issues (the first two tracks “BLOOD.” and “DNA.” include excerpts from Fox News clips in which the network’s anchors are heard ignorantly condemning Lamar’s anti-police brutality lyrics and hip-hop in general).

Indeed, the album caters to Kendrick’s audience, and his loyal fans will likely eat it up like Skittles.  They’ll see things about it that I don’t (yet).  But that doesn’t mean the album isn’t hard to figure out musically.  It may take many listens before I and others find DAMN.’s best virtues.

The real problem is that this project – like most hip-hop albums – preaches to the choir, i.e., those that are most likely to be willing to give it a listen in the first place.  In that sense, it only serves to remind us who already know how fucked up our collective state of affairs are, rather than bringing those messages to those who really need to hear it, those in denial or who are in positions to do something about it.

Perhaps this is asking too much of a 29-year-old rapper who, at his core, is still just an entertainer.  But given Kendrick’s vast audience, and the fact that he’ll likely have our attention for years to come, wouldn’t it be nice if he could deliver a set of messages that actually changed the paradigm for hip-hop, one that purged itself of excessive self-indulgence, blatant references to “bitches” and “niggas,” and repetitive attacks of easy (albeit still deserving) targets like Faux News and the current White House occupant (not that I’ll ever tire of hearing revolts against No. 45’s regime, but it’s just too easy…I’m just sayin’).

Forty years into hip-hop’s existence, there’s hardly any ground that hasn’t been covered already.  Rappers surely can’t be faulted (too much) for treading ground that others have traveled before them.  Other musicians in other genres do it all the time.

Still, it would be nice if a rapper like Kendrick Lamar who’s been exalted to God-like status by critics and fans alike, would somehow break new ground…ground that DAMN. – save for a few tracks – sadly does not.

What do you think?

DJRob

Advertisements

27 thoughts on “DAMN. Should We Really Be Celebrating Kendrick?”

  1. Great review. So far I’m not super impressed by this album as I was “To Pimp a Butterfly”, and I think basically Kendrick was running away from getting trapped in that “Arrested Development”, “alternative Hip Hop” bag. But even if he wanted to do the style everybody else is doing, he’d still have had to do it uniquely if he’s truly going to be a great artist. As it is he’s more of an artist with flashes of greatness right now, which is okay too. But again, every rap artist with content is like water in the desert to longtime Hip Hop fans.

    1. I agree, Enrique. On the one hand, you’d like artists of his pedigree to grow with each album, but on the other, you’re almost happy that he has any substance at all in this day and age – and considering most of his generational peers.

  2. DAMN…don’t y’all forget that I’m an artist and I’m sensitive about my shit lol – E. Badu. Great read, let’s see how this goes for Mr. Duckworth.

  3. To be fair, DAMN doesn’t have a clear cut theme as GKMC or TPAB, it’s more of a state of his mind currently kinda album which I think was the goal he had. He clearly says it in Element that in his last album he tried to lift the Black Artist. He’s been heralded as a Rap Saviour but he’s just trying to tell people that he’s just a human being… Not a prophet, not a leader, just a human being with issues.

  4. Contrary to what is written here. If you can ignore the instrumentation, and follow the lyrics and delivery through. You’d realize this is probably his deepest album so far. Even the so called radio-friendly loyalty and Humble are very deep work of arts on the album. Just because they were shaped in a radio friendly manner doesn’t make them bad. When you have the chance to make yourself sellable, take it. Sellable song doesn’t always mean bad song. And maybe he rapped about what others have always rapped about for years, his terrain is relatively different because in any field of art, you have to make your art relatable, else, its no different from an encryption. I by far, prefer this to TPAB, which sounded like a different genre entirely.

    1. I understand your viewpoint. Thanks for commenting. My assessment was done within 24 hours of the album’s release and after repeated listens. My perspective on some of the tracks has changed since, and there will likely be as many different opinions about this album as there are people listening to it – even more given those whose views will likely mature with the album.

    2. I still haven’t been able to figure out how reviews of a work of this magnitude can be done within 24 hours of it’s release. I’m not exactly over the moon, neither am I scathing in my judgement yet. Kendrick’s work in my experience, is one that requires one to live through it. It’s an experience that cannot be flipped through. Its art, its poetry. I don’t get how anyone can ascribe “classic” status or damning criticism without the benefit of time. And this is not just about Kendrick. Reviews are generated within hours these days and it just doesn’t sit with me

      1. I did use several qualifiers in my discussion, like “yet” when stating that the album didn’t move me. I also gave praise to several of the album’s tracks. I don’t know that “scathing” is an accurate description when it come to this piece. But I appreciate your viewpoint.

        1. Djrob, beautiful review… I felt the same way you did after listening to damn didn’t actually move me in an instant like To Pimp A Butterfly did. In my opinion, this is nothing close to the former, both in terms of lyrics, energy and depth. I still think To Pimp A Butterfly is Kendrick’s deepest still yet cos a lot of songs you couldn’t handpick were and I still bump ’em till date while they remain fresh in my head like it’s the first time I’m listening, “How much a dollar cost” is epluribus unum. He either rushed the album or he did it on purpose, try something new? I really don’t know but what I do know is, Kendrick is gonna know that this didn’t measure and he’s gonna come back hard, so the next album is gonna be something else, that I’m optimistic about for sure!

          1. Snowballangelo, thanks for the feedback! If you’ve seen my site’s Facebook page, you’ve probably seen all of the reactions to this article. I knew it would generate mixed reactions and generate conversation. Nonetheless, “HUMBLE.” just made it to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, while “DNA.” enters at No. 4. This will easily be his biggest commercial success yet, judging by early returns. But, as I’m sure you know, commercial and critical success do not always go hand in hand.

  5. I don’t know if it’s because I have listened to the Album several times so your initial assessment seems bland to me. I honestly feel u need to take a second listen or perhaps I just have a different opinion of good music from yours but i feel ur review is misleading… FEEL. LOVE. GOD

    1. I listened to it several times before writing it. Not everyone is going to agree about this or any album. That’s why we have opinions (and blogs). Thanks for reading. I have new respect for DNA.

      1. I think over time CLASSICS have been reviewed or critiqued without a second listen because when you just listen,without it even appealing to you,you clearly figure without having to dig deep. The reason we have a second and repeated listens most times is because of who the artists in view is. The level Kendrick is right now,does he need to wanna “sell a record” to make it? Spoken word poets and other literatis listen to h for content first before anything else. DAMN, no matter how die-hard fanatics of Kendrick wanna look at it is just an okay album. If this were to be some other artists, we’d say it’s overrated. Let’s call a spade a spade. I’m a Kendrick fan,but damn,i ain’t feeling DAMN even after almost a week’s listen. Forgive me.

        1. Thanks for your comment, Leonell. I’ve been called all kinds of names for my review of this album, but I appreciate balance – as opposed to blind praise – when it comes to reviewing art.

    2. Thank you. He didn’t mention any of these tracks and they really stood out in the album. I don’t think he’s trying to beat himself he does what he does how they come to him

  6. One thing tho. Be humble bitch and sit down. Kendrick the man. All these analysis.. That ain’t why we listen to music blood. We listen to it for it. So take all yo lame ass analysis and stick it where the sun don’t shine.. Not ur ass tho, that be gay.. Ur thoughts bro. Bless up🙌

  7. Chukwudumaga, thank you for your comment. But I hardly think you can call a set of “outtakes” (untitled, unmastered) from an album (TPAB) a “continuation” of that album. Those cuts didn’t make TPAB for a reason. Also, I don’t typically check with other folks’ opinions before I express my own, so if Pitchfork and others think the album is dope, that’s fine. But I respect your opinion. I have given DAMN. several listens since I wrote this article and do respect his work and what he’s trying to do with this album.

    Thanks for reading the blog.

  8. I feel you. The jams you rated are the real dope shot. That Fear would be my no.1 at first pick though.

  9. Nigga u talking some really good shit. Tpab was a very good album, but a slow digest for many people, cause of all the spoken word and jazz experimentations. This is an easier pickup. If all this criticisms (hating) are for this album,i pity for poor Lil yatchy and uzi vert

    1. The fact that I even spent time reviewing this album means Kendrick is in a league of his own (and held to a high standard). Lil Yatchy, Lil Uzi Vert and Migos (and others like them) wouldn’t even get a paragraph for that BS they put out.

Your thoughts?