Abir Khan, Liam Sweeney, and guest writer Angela Brown offer their takes on Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, DAMN.
It has been two years since Kendrick Lamar’s last album “To Pimp A Butterfly” came out, and frankly speaking, we are still not over it. We’ve been avid Kendrick Lamar fans since the winter of 2012, when “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City” came out. We always saw him as otherworldly and inexplicably excellent at storytelling. Thus, on March 23, when he hinted at a new album on the single “The Heart Part 4,” we were shocked. We initially thought Lamar would wait to release an album until 2018, as did many others, but this proved to be untrue.
As a matter of fact, Lamar had something waiting for his fans that would be not only different in style from his previous albums, but altogether unexpected. Nostalgic in his content but futuristic in his rhyme schemes, Lamar has been able to not only position himself as a trailblazer for hip-hop but one of our favorite artists as well. “DAMN.” presents listeners with a different type of Kendrick Lamar; a relentless, anxious, and winding storyteller trying to find himself.
II. INITIAL REACTION AND REVIEW
AK: Evaluating an album after listening to it only once is like making judgments on someone based off of one meeting with them. It’s important to consider that “DAMN.” had big shoes to fill after the excellence of “To Pimp A Butterfly. ” Nevertheless, after listening to the album once through, I felt dissatisfied, like Kendrick Lamar wasn’t putting his all into the album like there was something missing. I felt that Kendrick had lost his touch, because of the commercial type sound of his album, and that, there wasn’t much depth to the story he was telling. However, after further speculation into the song titles and their order, I realized that not only did this album have a story, but it had a story that was a continuation of the story started in “To Pimp a Butterfly.”
AB: First listen album reviews are irrelevant. More often than not, a person’s perspective on changes as the music matures. Upon listening to it all the way through once, I wasn’t sold. I felt disappointed, mainly because of its mainstream sound and seemingly superficial lyrics. However, when I listened to it in my car, my house, and every place in between, I found myself becoming consumed with the story. Every time I listened to it, the story became more complex and dense, making it harder and harder to unravel. This complexity and malleability of Kendrick’s storytelling are what makes him so compelling to listen to.
III. THEMES AND THEORIES
AB: Abir and I keep dancing around with different theories on what the central theme of “DAMN.” is. Since all of Lamar’s previous works have a central story that becomes unraveled as the album progresses, we assume “DAMN.” will be no different. However, even though the album is still growing into itself, we can already tell this story is more tucked away than his previous works.
The storyline that makes the most sense to me is something I’ll call the “Gatekeeper Theory.” The album begins with Lamar going on a walk, and he finds a blind woman who seems to have lost something. In short, he asks the woman if she lost something, she replies with “No/but you have lost your life.” An abrupt gunshot ends the opening track. From then on, Lamar takes us through a slew of emotions, all of which comprise the album’s tracklist. From the arrogance on “DNA.,” the lethargic tones of “YAH.,” and“LOVE.,” to the tightly wound, unforgiving lyrics of “FEAR.,” Lamar has the ability to paint different pictures with the same brush. Throughout the album, Lamar is seemingly haunted by the notion that nobody is praying for him. Lamar dances with the idea of helping others, regardless of the fact that he feels nobody cares for him enough to help and pray for him. The album is essentially comprised of this emotional rollercoaster, and at the very end of the very last song, Lamar rewinds the album and takes us right back to the beginning, creating a seamless, cyclical nature to the story.
AK: The story that I see as most prevalent throughout the album can be called “The Full Circle” story. Beginning in “BLOOD.” when Kendrick is “killed,” the rest of the songs follow in what seems to be the moment when one’s life flashes before their eyes. We see who Kendrick Lamar really is, through the placement of the songs in regards to their titles, starting with the biological makeup of Kendrick, “BLOOD.” and “DNA.” and then the spiritual makeup, starting with “FEEL.” (indicating the transition to spiritual makeup) and moving on to more complex topics that make up Kendrick like “LOYALTY.,” “PRIDE.,” “LOVE.,” and “FEAR..” The album ends with “DUCKWORTH.,” the person who Kendrick is, because of his father, and the album rewinds all the way back to the beginning again, bringing the entirety of the album, and Kendrick Lamar’s life, together, as he loses his life.
IV. BEST AND WORST SONGS
AB: To me, “FEAR.,” serves as the album’s center, thus making this song the “best” in terms of importance. Lamar has a legacy of having ridiculously long songs on his albums. But these songs prove to be the most instrumental in the story of each respective album. “FEAR.” falls right in line with this trend. “FEAR.” is 7 minutes and 17 seconds long, and Lamar and takes the listener through a laundry list of fears for each. I listed this song as my favorite because of it’s one of- if not the most- unfiltered, personal, and grittiest songs in his discography.
AK: On another note, “YAH.” doesn’t really, at least right now, add to the album. There seems to be no greater message out of the song itself, other than the languid manner of the song. In addition to this, the placement in between the songs “DNA.” and “ELEMENT.,” at least right now, serve as something to note, other than a transition between Kendrick’s “biological” makeup and “spiritual makeup.”
LS: Fan anger surrounding “HUMBLE.” is completely unfounded. Kendrick Lamar stirred up quite a bit of controversy surrounding the single “HUMBLE.” The song dropped before the release of “DAMN.,” and some fans became outraged over the song.
How could an artist’s fans be so displeased with a lead single? Well, with Lamar coming off of “To Pimp A Butterfly,” fans expected to hear an extension of the thought provoking, a self-reflective masterpiece that Lamar had released. Instead, fans were treated to a more mainstream, braggy hip hop track that seemed initially out of place for Lamar, which of course led to the assumptions that Lamar is now going to “sell out” on this record.
Lamar has routinely psyched out his listeners with a more mainstream first single that when taken in with the context of the full album, gives that “sell out track” a whole new layer of depth and complexity. “HUMBLE.” is no different. When placed into context with the raw, vulnerable, and minimalist sounds of “DAMN.,” the track definitely evolves past just some attempt at hitting the mainstream.
“DAMN.” stands strong as a worthy addition to Lamar’s discography. The album is layered with strong symbolism, a raw minimalism that has been unheard of from Lamar to this point, and some of the most vulnerable songs Lamar has ever recorded.
“DAMN.” by Kendrick Lamar gets a solid 4.5 out of 5.