Sunday, April 16, 2017

album review: 'DAMN.' by kendrick lamar

I've talked a little before about a 'review-proof' album. The record that you know that everyone is going to buy and talk about and thus have a firmly established opinion on well-before you have time to really state yours. I think it's even more a truism today, in the age of reaction videos where more than a dozen people will have uploaded something before I even get that chance to hear it. And that's not counting the critics who will rush to have something up to get the page views of being the first one out and not take the necessary time to digest the record. And sure, I myself can be guilty of that last one, but if there's one thing I've felt increasingly sure about with Patreon, it's that my audience will generally be remarkably accommodating to me taking my time to talk about it when it's done.

But hell, I wanted to hear this: it's Kendrick. The Compton rapper who despite a string of radio guest verses I found utterly forgettable was known for insanely strong albums. I don't think it's hyperbole when I say that good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp A Butterfly are some of the best records of the decade - hell, even a collection of b-sides on untitled, unmastered. were better than the majority of projects people dropped last year. Did I have concerns going into this record? Well, sure, but that was more because he's the sort of rapper where it's not a question of when he'd slip, but if - and that's not something you'd say about a lot of people.

That said, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't concerned. 'HUMBLE.' was good, sure, but I didn't love it as much as some hardcore fans did, and it seemed to reflect a simplification of flow and style that Kendrick didn't need. I had hoped it might just be a momentary thing - it's not like 'i' was reflective of To Pimp A Butterfly - but there was also the timing to consider. I get striking while the iron is hot with buzz in the mainstream, but I'm not going to deny I was concerned that the time hadn't been taken to refine a sharper project. But again, that wasn't going to stop me from listening to DAMN., and I think I've wasted just about enough of your time, so how did it go?

Okay, full disclosure: on the first two or three listens, I was pretty seriously underwhelmed by this project. Don't get me wrong, Kendrick is a great enough rapper that it was never going to be a bad or even mediocre project, but it didn't nearly feel as lush or expansive or biting or ingenious as To Pimp A Butterfly. And to be fair, this record wasn't ever trying to play in that sort of territory - it's a more personal, self-contained story, intentionally smaller in its scope and a lot of its sound, not quite back to his roots but not bringing the level of comprehensive detail on bigger complex subjects that made To Pimp A Butterfly such a universally accepted work by so many critics. I can many people finding this record a lot more divisive, and I can see why: it's more fragmented and aggressive, still careening through different styles of black music but in tones that feel more modern, almost to the point of mainstream crossover while still taking real risks. So where do I fall on it? Well, as you can probably tell, I wouldn't quite drop it on the same tier as To Pimp A Butterfly, but I do see comparison points to good kid, m.A.A.d city - maybe not quite as groove-heavy or as directly cerebral in universal topics, but the devil's in the details on this one, in more ways than one.

So let's start with Kendrick himself, and let me get this out of the way right now: if you're expecting him to get as visceral or violent in his delivery as he has on songs like 'The Blacker The Berry', you're going to be disappointed - but that's consistent across the board, as it seems like Kendrick has tamped down on the wild, more theatrical elements of his delivery. And on the one hand I'm not entirely bothered by this - I didn't really love the half-sobbed delivery on 'u', I think a little more subtlety could have worked on that song two years ago - but it also means you don't really get the bigger, more intense emotions that came with that territory. And given that this record has more than its fair share of straightforward, braggadocious material, it can lead some moments to feel a little stilted or lacking in potency. Take a song like 'HUMBLE' - which yes, gets so much better within the context of the album, I'll say that - but it's indicative of a flatter style that even with the injection of more melody on a later song like 'GOD.' doesn't really save it. And sure, while it is a credit to Kendrick that he can make those braggadocious songs still sound memorable and good through his flows and interweaving rhyme schemes alone, it's not like I'd say any of these songs bang at a level equivalent of modern Run The Jewels tracks or something. But a lot of that ties into the production and... well, I'm not going to say I don't like this, but there's a part of me that wishes the production rose to the character and flair of the rhymes. 'DNA.' probably hits the hardest thanks to the guitar and keys against the bass-heavy trap beat, which nails the beat switch against the tremors of guitar, but again, go to a song like 'GOD, where the thinner trap beat tries to hold against the more opulent synths and it just doesn't have the groove or momentum to work all that well for me. In fact, I'd say groove is probably the most consistent issue I have with the production on this album - not that it's bad, but compared to the g-funk and R&B and jazz of To Pimp A Butterfly, there are songs here where I wish the beat was better supported and had a little more flow. Again, not always an issue - more conventional hip-hop tracks like the hollowness 'FEEL', the rattling guitar and keys of 'PRIDE.' the warping, borderline psychedelic guitars against the scratch of the beat on 'LUST' - another case where the falsetto can ring a little thin on the hook - or just the great soul samples on 'FEAR' and 'DUCKWORTH' can really work - hell, even 'LOVE' with the spacious crooning from Zacari and the hollow watery synths might as well be one of the best instrumentals Drake has never rapped over, it had a lightweight, sinuous groove to it. And yet sometimes you get tones or samples you just don't like, like the layered semi-chunk blur that made up the backing instrumental on 'LOYALTY'.

And while we're on that song, let's briefly talk about guest performances, because there are two big ones that deserve a lot of attention. The one that probably attracted the most surprise was U2, who show up on 'XXX' for a hook and really don't overextend their welcome. Hell, I was surprised - and a tad disappointed - we didn't get a guitar solo from The Edge to end things out - but Bono and crew acquit themselves fine on the second half of the song, after Kendrick rides the hollow darkness, scratches, and whirring sirens to a gutpunch of a beat switch, and really, it makes sense that they're here. U2 have always had a fascination with fading and breaking societies and Americana blended with religious iconography and would-be questions of messiah - hell, it's less that I'm surprised they're working with Kendrick and more that it took this long, given the themes. The performance that surprised me a lot more was Rihanna on 'LOYALTY' - quite frankly, if Drake thought he had good chemistry with Rihanna, Kendrick amps it up a notch, especially as Rihanna is quite game for the faster flows, not to mention strikingly good at it. But what's left within the margins is that for as much Drake jabbed at possibly stealing Kendrick's girl on 'For Free?', Kendrick got Rihanna to perform opposite him on a song about commitment despite all odds - and from what I know about Drake and Rihanna's history, that's probably a crueler blow.

But of course it runs deeper than that, and thus we have to get into the themes and writing on this record - and remember when I said this record was naturally more introspective? Well, that's because Kendrick is not only extremely self-aware about his place at the top of the game right now, but also the twin downsides that now face him, brought up on the very first track: weakness or wickedness. Now this is not an unfamiliar contradiction - hell, forget lines like 'you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain', Joey Bada$$ brought this up extremely recently on 'SUPER PREDATOR' with Styles P, showing the dichotomy between his success as a competitive rapper and thus seen as even more of a threat by white society - but with Kendrick it runs deeper and might as well be the theme of the entire record. And it's telling that right from the first few tracks he sets up the underlying frustration: even on songs like 'Alright' on To Pimp A Butterfly, where he was speaking of positivity and a path forward towards better things, it was still misconstrued and misquoted by FOX as violent and aggressive - so where to go when people refuse to listen or understand? So in each pair of songs we get two sides: one song that represents what culture has defined as 'weakness', the other representing 'wickedness'. And to be fair to Kendrick, it's complete bullshit and he knows it: being empathetic or questioning oneself in the eyes of God and larger society isn't weak in the slightest, and it's not 'wicked' to slap down your competition and fight for dominance in hip-hop - but Kendrick's also self-aware of his position enough that he can't entirely control the message, especially when he feels so much of what he tries to convey isn't understood or is unappreciated - as he says on 'FEEL.', everyone wants him to find the way and pray, but nobody's praying for him. 

And that gets to the moral core of this album, and a complicated relationship with God that has colored a lot of Kendrick's recent work, particularly surrounding his vices. Let's face it, he knows the consequences that fall both ways between society is perceiving as 'weakness' and 'wickedness'. In the latter case, he might pivot towards pride because of success he has justly earned - which makes 'HUMBLE' a hell of a lot harsher when you realize it's the mid-record heel turn and the hook might as well be hitting him as it does his enemies - but he follows it through both on 'PRIDE' and 'LUST' to show how not only does the hip-hop life lead to paranoia and distrust, desperation and loneliness as you're surrounded by scavengers - and when 'PRIDE' follows 'LOYALTY', it's another telling indictment of where another certain rapper is right now - but on 'LUST' he shows how tedious it can feel, both in trying to fake the life of vice and live it as a rapper even as the world changes for the worse around him, with the acknowledgement just how seductive it can be to fall back into routine with a certain president now in power. But on the flipside, embrace 'weakness' and empathy and it's rapidly shown not to matter as much - he's still going to be willfully misunderstood and feared, and as a song like 'FEAR' highlights it's still so dangerous at any age and strata of life as a black man that he could still very much end up dead, as each verse takes him through being 7, 17, and 27. And holding the two ideas together only highlights a hypocrisy that increasingly wracks Kendrick with more guilt - his 'wicked' side might spur a friend to kill the man who killed his child, damn any ideology, only for him to step out and speak about gun control, showing again a broken system. But as I said earlier, the duality is complete bullshit when the system is as utterly broken as it is, highlighted on 'XXX' with gentrification and corporitization allowing certain parts of society to wall off their communities, then perpetuate a gun industry to 'keep them safe' only to then stigmatize black men for carrying a weapon - a 'stigma' that often comes with a police bullet, as the opening track 'BLOOD.' shows, with a blind woman likely symbolic of 'justice' shooting Kendrick. It seems like he, like so many other black men and women in America, is damned wherever they turn... and yet it's telling that instead of completely dissolving into pessimism, Kendrick ends the record with 'DUCKWORTH', telling the story of the titular character working at a KFC and a young man named Anthony - and knowing that Anthony was probably going to rob the restaurant, Ducky gave Anthony extra chicken every day, likely saving his life. Anthony would later become the president of TDE, and Ducky was Kendrick's father - it could have all changed for the worse and Kendrick could have grown up without a label or a father, and yet he can't help but laugh - God's funny that way. And then the record rewinds back hard to its opening, with Kendrick walking down that same street as he did on 'BLOOD.', and the uncertain story begins anew, because until the system changes, each choice holds that weight, where even kindness or confidence can be left damned.

So yeah, at the end of the day it is bleak, and uncertain - and honestly a little too rigidly constructed in its duality to flow all the well, and there are points where the pairs can feel stretched in theme at best - but the conceptual construction and execution do deserve a lot of credit, especially when you have a rapper as charismatic, versatile, and emotive as Kendrick at the helm. Now let me make this clear, I'm not crazy about this project - DAMN. might be a great album netting an 8/10 from me, but my recommendation comes with the acknowledgement that he has made more sprawling, ambitious works, whereas this could use a little more meat and groove on its bones to really become something special. That said, this is not a L for Kendrick - indeed, with the simpler formula on some of these tracks, I can see a fair amount of mainstream crossover to be misinterpreted anew. But for Kendrick... well, parts of society or even his own mind might damn him, but he's on the path towards exaltation, and it's worth watching that journey.

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