Kendrick Lamar

Aftermath / Interscope / Top Dawg, 2017


REVIEW BY: Daniel Camp


Who is Kendrick Lamar? After five plus years in the spotlight, after collaborating with everyone from Kanye West to Taylor Swift, after being crowned by every music critic imaginable (including yours truly) as the greatest rapper in the game, you’d think we’d have a clearer answer to that question. But outside of the most basic details – the upbringing in Compton, the early work with rappers on the rise like Jay Rock and The Game – we’re still piecing together what exactly makes him tick. With DAMN., Lamar makes clear that we’re in good company; he’s looking for answers, too.

At a surface level, DAMN. tackles a familiar subject for newly crowned music superstars: how can I keep fame from changing me? This is most clearly articulated on “Yah,” which finds Lamar admitting that, in the face of all his success, “I got so many theories and suspicions / I'm diagnosed with real nigga conditions.” Elsewhere, on “Element,” he seems to be trying to convince himself as much as the listener that “I don’t do it for the ‘gram / I do it for Compton.” His foundation, not his fame, is where he seeks strength.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Constant throughout the album are references to a wealth that Lamar, raised in Section 8 housing, could only have imagined at an earlier age. But far from reveling in luxury, Kung Fu Kenny seems almost suspicious, noting in “Loyalty” that now he must sort through the motivations of any would-be hangers-on before trusting them. “Humble,” the album’s hit single, is a reminder to himself where he started, with the chorus commanding him to stay humble no matter what further success comes.

If he’s having to be more discriminating about who he trusts now, the listener nevertheless reaps the benefits of Kendrick’s famous new friends, with Rihanna ably sharing the mic on “Loyalty” and U2 coming along for the ride with a concluding verse about America’s purpose on “XXX.” While far from the first time Lamar has featured other talent, these are certainly the biggest fish he’s ever landed, and the results are as excellent as you’d expect from such high wattage stars.

As for the album’s sound, listeners are treated to a cross between good kid, m.A.A.d. city’s deft rapping and To Pimp A Butterfly’s expert production, with what is unquestionably the most radio-friendly release of Lamar’s career. Less expansive than Butterfly but without the skits and sidetracks of m.A.A.d. city, DAMN. is the tightest album Lamar has put out yet. No time is wasted; no song is skippable.

And as for the album’s central question, the answer comes from its bookends. “DNA” is a proud anthem of self-expression, an angry declaration about what has made Lamar who he is today and a refusal to change for anyone. “Duckworth” adopts a different tone, wondering how different Lamar’s life would have been if he and his family hadn’t managed to dodge the perils of life on the street. Both songs, in entirely different ways, portray Kendrick Lamar as an artist who recognizes himself as blessed with both talent and luck, a voice and an opportunity, a responsibility and a risk.

If it lacks the surprise of his debut or the prodigious force of its follow-up, DAMN. is nevertheless leaps and bounds above most of the rap on the shelves today, an album that marshals Kendrick Lamar’s talent for storytelling and the power of his pen for something memorable, powerful, and personal. The question he’s answering may not be original, but the results? Damn.

Rating: A-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


© 2018 Daniel Camp and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Aftermath / Interscope / Top Dawg, and is used for informational purposes only.