As a music reviewer, I have to take a lot of time to process and gather my thoughts on a new album after I give it my first listen. It may take a few days, but I will formulate your opinion in due time. Some albums are easier to analyze than others though and take less time to understand. Generally, these are albums that don’t have too much depth. For example, when I wrote my review of Drake’s More Life it only took the weekend to collect my general opinion on the whole thing. No offense Drake, but you’re not as deep as you think (Sorry, bud). In other cases, albums take way longer to analyze and require more time and many more listens. Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked At Me and Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy are good recent examples of this. There are exceptions to this of course. Albums like Scallops Hotel’s Too Much of Life is Mood, Ka’s Honor Killed The Samurai, Swet Shop Boys’ Cashmere, and Quelle Chris’ Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often are all deep and complex in their own respects. When it comes to Kendrick, you can include him in this category.
To say that DAMN was an anticipated release would be a disservice. The album is on track to be Kendrick’s best first week selling record to date and surpassed Drake’s streaming numbers for More Life. Fans were wondering what follow-up to Kendrick’s 2015 masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly would be like. “How would he top TPAB?” was the question that I saw in nearly every forum post or Reddit thread leading up to the album’s release. Let me answer that question first, then. No, Kendrick didn’t make a better album than To Pimp A Butterfly. The thing is, he didn’t need to.
People forget that Kendrick is an artist that always keeps us, the fans, on our toes. When the leading single from To Pimp A Butterfly “i” came out, people were really concerned about the direction that Kendrick was going around. It was a neo-soul influenced, funky, empowerment anthem. Not exactly what we were used to from K-Dot, but look at how it complemented the album. Same can be said about “Humble” the lead single from DAMN. Kendrick released his version of a trap anthem with ad-libs included.
The album is great, you knew that, I knew that. DAMN is a strong contender for best rap album of the year and actually is a good companion piece to Joey Bada$$’s latest record All-American BADA$$. On Damn, Kendrick confronts the demons in his life in such a way that immediately captivates the listener by doing what he’s best at: telling stories.
Kendrick’s ability to story tell is well-documented and it’s easily the best of his many talents as a rapper. All of Good Kid, M.a.a.d. City is a story of Kendrick’s life and upbringing in Compton. Songs like “The Art of Peer Pressure” and “M.a.a.d. City” are both raw and visceral in a way that draws the listener in and forces them to experience it. That storytelling continues on DAMN on songs like “FEAR” and “DUCKWORTH”, with Kendrick talking about his fears and anxieties on the former, and the absolutely insane interaction with Kendrick’s father and Top, TDE’s owner who Kendrick signed to when he was 16.
Let’s look at “FEAR” first as I will be making an entire post on DUCKWORTH soon. “FEAR”is one of the standout tracks on DAMN because of how raw and contemplative track it is, even for Kendrick. On this track, Kendrick retells a story that has 3 different chapters or sections. These chapters take place when he is 7, 17, and 27. All of these verses always refer back to the central theme of fear. Whether fear of a person, fear of society, or fear of himself. During the first part, he plays the part of his mother who constantly would try to employ fear tactics in order to get Kendrick to keep him in line, but ultimately safe from harm.
That homework better be finished, I beat yo ass
Your teachers better not be bitchin’ ’bout you in class
That pizza better not be wasted, you eat it all
That TV better not be loud if you got it on
Them Jordans better not get dirty when I just bought ’em
Better not hear ’bout you humpin’ on Keisha’s daughter
Better not hear you got caught up
I beat yo ass, you better not run to your father
I beat yo ass, you know my patience runnin’ thin
The fear his mother instilled him ultimately made him who he was, a smart young man with self-discipline and good values, but afraid of his environment as a result. That’s why when she says,
I got beaucoup payments to make
County building’s on my ass
Tryna take my food stamps away
I beat yo ass if you tell them social workers he live here
I beat yo ass if I beat yo ass twice and you still here
Seven years old, think you run this house by yourself?
Nigga, you gon’ fear me if you don’t fear no one else
He remembers learning those good values negatively and as a result, he’s afraid. This hit right on the money for me. I didn’t grow up in a particular bad environment, but it wasn’t a place where you could just walk around at night without watching your back. Crime happened, and it happened frequently. My parents always kept me in line, no theatrics no games of any kind. It was rough, and while my parents didn’t yell at me (usually) they were strict.
The next chapter fast forwards to when Kendrick is 17. A decade later and this time a new fear arises. This time around, the fear comes from Kendrick as a young black male living in Compton. He’s afraid of dying. Whether it be dying from the police, dying because one of his homies snitched on him to save himself, or due to having sex with a girl and her friends/family finding out and them hunting Kendrick down and killing him (This is a reference/call-back to the track “Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter” from Good Kid, M.a.a.d. City where Kendrick is seeing a girl and it almost ends in him getting killed).
I’ll prolly die from one of these bats and blue badges
Body slammed on black and white paint, my bones snappin’
Or maybe die from panic or die from bein’ too lax
Or die from waitin’ on it, die ’cause I’m movin’ too fast
I’ll prolly die tryna buy weed at the apartments
I’ll prolly die tryna diffuse two homies arguin’
I’ll prolly die ’cause that’s what you do when you’re 17
All worries in a hurry, I wish I controlled things
Listening to these set of verses was simply heartbreaking. Here, we see Kendrick’s mindset and thought-process. He’s not a bad kid, he’s not some awful person. His environment around him is toxic. Going back to an earlier track on this album “DNA”, Kendrick talks about how it’s his DNA to do things like murder, steal, etc.
“Realness, I just kill shit ’cause it’s in my DNA
I got millions, I got riches buildin’ in my DNA
I got dark, I got evil, that rot inside my DNA
I got off, I got troublesome, heart inside my DNA”
Finally, let’s talk about the last section: Kendrick at 27 years of age He’s older and smarter, but now faces a whole new set of problems are offset by his fame and success as a rapper. The fears that he had accumulated for 10+ years have built up and now he’s just used to it. The violence, gang affairs, and crime is just daily routine now. However, since he’s famous now, people put him on a pedestal like he’s some paragon of his environment. Here we see really Kendrick diving deep into his insecurities and anxieties and it hits HARD. Some of the most depressing, yet, relatable lyrics are in this section.
How many accolades do I need to block denial?
The shock value of my success put bolts in me
All this money, is God playin’ a joke on me?
Is it for the moment, and will he see me as Job?
Take it from me and leave me worse than I was before?
At 27, my biggest fear was losin’ it all
Scared to spend money, had me sleepin’ from hall to hall
Scared to go back to Section 8 with my mama stressin’
30 shows a month and I still won’t buy me no Lexus
What is an advisor? Somebody that’s holdin’ my checks
Just to fuck me over and put my finances in debt?
I read a case about Rihanna’s accountant and wondered
How did the bad girl feel when she looked at them numbers?
The type of shit’ll make me flip out
And just kill somethin’, drill somethin’
I mentioned earlier that the central theme of this song was FEAR, but another underlying theme is also Kendrick as a human. At the end of the day, no matter how much we prop him up as being some deity, he’s just a guy. He still has his insecurities and anxieties. Still has those worries that keep him up at night. He’s just like you and I. That’s what makes DAMN so great. It’s Kendrick’s ability to be relatable in a period where he is no doubt at the highest point of his career. Take the song ELEMENT for instance. A brilliant track where Kendrick asks a simple question, “Who will pray for me?” After all of his sacrifice and lost, who will stand by him while he stands by everyone else? This is kind of a call-back to “Mortal Man”, the closer to To Pimp A Butterfly.
The major flaw of DAMN can also be considered to be the one thing that it gets right over GKMC and TPAB. Kendrick’s previous albums, whilst being great, lacked replay-ability. Drake’s Views or Big Sean’s I Decided, for example, are two albums that I can start listening at any point and it will flow perfectly without missing a beat. Kendrick’s albums lacked this because his projects are usually so tight-nit with a compelling narrative. They’re like audio-novels and normally, you can’t start reading a novel at chapter 4, then skip to chapter 9, and so forth.
DAMN is unique in that it is the first album that Kendrick has released that has full replay value from front to back, while being able to pick out certain songs and play them individually. This is mostly in part due to the change in sound that Kendrick undertakes. Tracks like “GOD”, “LOYALTY”, “HUMBLE”, and “LOVE” are some of the most radio-friendly songs that Kendrick has put on. This will no doubt turn some fans off to the album and I completely get that sentiment. Thankfully, “GOD” is the only track I feel like goes too far in that direction. It doesn’t feel like a song that I should be hearing Kendrick on. Big Sean? Sure. Kendrick..? Not so much. It’s too pop friendly to the point where it no longer plays to his strengths. That was the only dud on the album for me though.
Despite that, DAMN is just brilliant. Is it better than TPAB? No. Is it better than GKMC? No, but it doesn’t need to be in order to be great. It’s an album that stands well on its own and in comparison to Kendrick’s discography. It’s easily one of the best albums of the year and I highly recommend that you give it a listen if you haven’t already.