“My left stroke just went viral, right stroke put lil’ baby in a spiral”
Artist: Kendrick Lamar
Released in: 2017
Genre: Hip Hop (Conscious, West Coast)
Label: Top Dawg Entertainment
Issue Date: 2017
Best Track: DNA.
TRACKS: 1) BLOOD., 2) DNA., 3) YAH., 4) ELEMENT., 5) FEEL., 6) LOYALTY., 7) PRIDE., 8) HUMBLE., 9) LUST., 10) LOVE., 11) XXX., 12) FEAR., 13) GOD., 14) DUCKWORTH.
Kendrick Lamar (born in 1987) is a Californian rapper: while he had been releasing mixtapes since the early 2000s, his acclaim rose exponentially with the release of each of his records in the 2010s. He is primarily known for the major-label releases good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012) and To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), both of which were considered among the best albums to be released in their respective years. These records have quickly made him an important figure in the current hip hop industry, and have also influenced other works such as David Bowie’s Blackstar (2016).
Given that the public at large has been wondering how Kendrick Lamar could follow up on To Pimp a Butterfly, it’s best to start with the record in question. Two years after its release, what else can be said about it? For the sake of full disclosure, I had never experienced anything similar to its release in my reviewing “career” thus far, and it was fascinating to see an already popular artist cause such a commotion. Rarely does an album get the distinction of “instant classic”, but Butterfly certainly did, and given that its acclaim still has yet to wane, it very much seems on its way to become one, though only time will tell.
For my part, I don’t consider said record more than good, but it does have all the ingredients for a classic: not only does it boast some daring musical experimentation (for mainstream music, at least) due to its intricate production and heavy integration of soul, funk and jazz in its beats and melodies, but its material also comes together to create a story of growth that is both personal (regarding Lamar himself) and social (regarding the black community in the USA). Given the tense racial climate of the US in 2015, Butterfly was very much the right album in the right place at the right time.
Of course, after an effort like that, people were thinking about what would come next. The compilation untitled unmastered (2016), consisting of outtakes from Butterfly, helped further cement its parent album’s popularity by allowing fans to say even its B-sides were great — which isn’t the case, as it lacks the production that made Butterfly interesting in the first place — , but it was still only a stopgap to keep everyone waiting. Time went by, and expectations grew until the release of “The Heart Part IV” in late March, announcing an album in April. On the 14th of that month, DAMN was officially released.
What strikes immediately about this release is the fact that Lamar has, in every way, pulled back on the scale of the music: DAMN clocks in at 55 minutes, as opposed to Butterfly‘s sprawling 79 (for reference, a CD can normally hold up to 80 minutes of music). What’s more, the musical backbones are much less intricate and smooth sonically: the jazz and R&B influences are limited to the sampling (and, occasionally, the melodies) so as to put emphasis on a rough, sharp trap sound in the percussion, though not without an exception here or there (“PRIDE” has a cleaner and slower beat, fitting the track’s soulful groove). In that regard, DAMN is actually rather a continuation of good kid, m.A.A.d city, which also made use of trap beats in its most accessible material.
This downscale is also present regarding the overall atmosphere: Butterfly had a nearly bombastic dimension to some of its material, whether it was upbeat or dark, but DAMN is much more mellow and somber. This reflects on its very personal lyrics, touching upon Lamar’s struggles (“FEEL”) and successes (“GOD”) in the wake of his last full-length album, his moral values (“LOYALTY”, “PRIDE”), religion, and other topics that appeared on his previous releases. There are still some social or political statements (“XXX”, featuring rock group U2), but the record is more of a presentation of Kendrick Lamar’s thoughts than it is a concept album.
In some ways, this is an excellent move: when following up on such a massive offering, it’s tempting to make something similar, if not even larger in scale, but such a sequel to To Pimp a Butterfly would have to live up to a lot of expectations, along with running the risk of being excessive, if not even redundant. DAMN doesn’t fall for this problem, and it ends up much more digestible as a result: the material is both diverse and consistent, with enough variation in style for each song to have its own identity, meaning that the album rarely feels as if it’s overstaying its welcome — Butterfly, on the other hand, badly suffered from this.
However, the decrease in scope is not an entirely good decision, as it affects the vocals as much as it does the production. In a couple of tracks, Lamar delivers more relaxed performances, but he fails to make them work in conjunction with the slower beats: as a result, these songs feel lethargic, and they make the album drag because of this. “YAH”, “LOYALTY”, and “GOD” are all guilty of this, and are more or less disposable. “PRIDE” has this same issue, but it has the decency to have a memorable groove and chorus, even if its 4-and-a-half-minute length is excessive.
Putting aside these four songs as well as “BLOOD” (it’s simply an introduction, but the ending twist does succeed in establishing the album’s dark tone), there are still 9 good cuts to look at. For those looking for mellow tracks that are actually well done, “LOVE” is sure to satisfy through its mix of atmospheric keyboards with a smooth chorus (featuring singer Zacari), resulting in the record’s most tender number. The 8-minute “FEAR” sustains itself surprisingly well thanks to Lamar’s rapping, even though there is little progression musically, and “LUST” sports an unnerving mood thanks to its sampling and its reversed beat.
Faster tracks are few and far between, but they are present, and among these, it’s interesting to see how much the lead single “HUMBLE” sticks out: the song’s intent is visibly to sound just like an average trap song, given the simple beat, the tacky piano line and Kendrick Lamar’s self-assured delivery, but while it’s easy to say the track ironically lacks humility, it’s actually very catchy, with a fair share of memorable lines. Nevertheless, it does pale next to “DNA”, the best track on DAMN without a doubt, as it boasts the rapper’s strongest and most energetic performance. “XXX” isn’t much worse either: its intense first half is good, particularly after the beat change a minute in, but it only becomes great in its calmer second half, where Bono of U2 delivers an engaging(!) chorus.
Fans of Kendrick Lamar that are looking for another To Pimp a Butterfly will definitely be disappointed, as DAMN simply does not try to equal or surpass it in scope. However, the rapper’s lyrical maturity and tendency to experiment are still alive and well, and the album could be enough evidence to show he can stand on his own with a much simpler approach in composition and production. Still, it seems that the quality of Lamar’s albums continues to slip downhill: just like how none of Butterfly‘s material reaches up to good kid, m.A.A.d city‘s best cuts, the highlights on DAMN are not as good as that of Butterfly.
PERSONAL RATING: ***½
RECOMMENDATION RATING: ***½
LETTERED RATING: A (Leaning Towards Alpha)