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Kendrick Lamar’s ‘DAMN.’ is a blunt instrument

By Jonah Koslofsky

Section: Arts

April 28, 2017

Kendrick Lamar’s fourth studio album “DAMN.” dropped about two weeks ago, and that seems like almost enough time to be able to talk about it. Long story short, I don’t think it’s as good as Kendrick’s prior release, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” but I feel it’s a better record than “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City.” Dubbing himself “Kung Fu Kenny,” the Compton king of hip-hop has finally crafted an album that is not a couple tracks too long, as even the masterpiece that is “To Pimp a Butterfly” feels a bit bloated.

I’m not disappointed in the album itself, even if it is far from Lamar’s best. The Tuesday morning before “DAMN.” released, Lamar unveiled the album art for which, let’s face it, is not exactly breaking new ground. The minimalistic brick wall, the large red font and Lamar’s dead expression are a far cry from the striking imagery on the cover of “Butterfly.” Judging each album by its cover art, “Butterfly” is imminently provocative and puzzling (with Lamar and his friends perched in front of the White House in black and white), while “DAMN.” looks like an album on a nineties Best Buy hip-hop rack.

So it’s clear from the covers that the scope of “DAMN.” is smaller than “Butterfly” and that leaves me a bit conflicted. But to be honest, how do you top “Butterfly”? The structure of adding a line to a poem (that both summarizes the track you just heard and develops the narrative) that runs through the striking emotional journey to the fantastic jazz and funk style is genius. Lyrically, in “Butterfly” the depth of tracks like “These Walls” or “How Much A Dollar Cost” is on a whole other level. In “DAMN.,” Lamar doesn’t exactly measure up on any of those fronts. The structure is messier and much more scattered, the production is not as groundbreaking (although a lot of this album positively bangs), and the only track that really blew my socks off lyrically was “DUCKWORTH.”

I know I am coming off rather critical here, but there is also a moment on “DAMN.” that has really perplexed me. At the end of the nearly seven-minute-long track “FEAR,” Lamar plays a voicemail from his cousin who proclaims that the plight of Hispanics, Native Americans and African Americans in the United States today stems from the pre-colonial years of those peoples following non-Christian gods. This is pretty dumb. I don’t think I’m being too controversial when I say that the problems faced by minority groups in America today are the result of a history of oppression and racism, not a lack of Jesus. I should add that Lamar never completely endorses his cousin’s narrative, and it’s possible that his current “fear” is his own, but he chooses to include this blatantly incorrect interlude on the album.

At 14 tracks, I guess I could have used a bit of clarification, and maybe two weeks is not enough time to decrypt this ambiguous album. But I think this desire for clarification is a lot of where the demand for a second album comes from.

Lamar released “DAMN.” on Good Friday, and also happens to “die” on the album at one point. Many online, mostly on the Lamar subreddit, speculated that like Jesus, Lamar would be resurrected a few days later in a follow up album. Theories raged like wildfire, but Easter Sunday came and went without any new music, and Lamar has since clarified on Twitter that he does not have anything else coming in the next few days. There is a lot to love on “DAMN.,” but it also feels like there is something missing, a void that could have been filled by a second album.

I have more than a few favorite tracks though. The album opens with this heart-stopping parable on “BLOOD,” which transitions (with the help of a perfect Fox News sample) into the astonishing “DNA.” I’m not the first or last person to say this, but the beat change in the middle of the song during Geraldo Rivera’s ignorant comments about rap is simply incredible. I’m also a huge fan of the James Blake-produced “ELEMENT.” The track “LOYALTY” (featuring Rihanna, which is never a bad thing) is another standout. Soon after, we get the previously released “HUMBLE,” which I already knew I enjoyed (but I will say that the song is much more significant when paired with its music video).

Next, we get the one-two punch of “LUST” and “LOVE,” the former containing one of the creepiest choruses in recent memory and the latter always making me feel great. The Zacari feature on “LOVE” is unabashedly perfect, and the song as a whole shows a different, more clearly caring side of Lamar. It is probably my favorite song on the album. After “LOVE” comes “XXX,” an absolutely bonkers track that contains a great U2 feature and crystallizes a lot of where Lamar stands on America as a whole.

Getting into the last few tracks on the album, there is the aforementioned “FEAR,” which I love despite the questionable content at the end. Lamar takes listeners on a journey through what scared him most at ages seven, 17 and 27, and it is layered and nuanced. You get a sense of Lamar’s coming of age as both a man and an artist, and I usually just skip the voicemail at the end. The album concludes with “DUCKWORTH,” a song that finds Lamar telling a story that is so crazy that it’s true. I don’t want to spoil anything, so listen to the track, which is also a flawless conclusion to the album.

Now that just a bit of time has passed, we really have a clearer picture of where “DAMN.” stands. There is no second album, and there is no topping “To Pimp A Butterfly.” But there is a straightforward, listenable record here. It is possible that there is even more going on here than I have been able to pick up on in just two weeks; that the album does clarify some of the questions I have. But as of today, it does not look like Lamar has exceeded expectations, but he has measured up to the high bar he has set for himself. That’s more than good enough for me.

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