WHEN KENDRICK released To Pimp A Butterfly in 2015, it was a statement that stood strong and hopeful in a social landscape of turmoil, whilst also tackling Kendrick’s adjustment to fame. Tracks like ‘Alright’ and ‘Wesley’s Theory’ held messages of hope, but with an angry cry for change. As ‘Mortal Man’ came to a close, Kendrick conversed with 2pac about the state of the world, and how change was coming. Well, it may only be two years since Kendrick’s last studio record (Untitled. Unmastered. was a damn good compilation album) but a lot has changed in the world, and Damn is inevitably a reaction to that change.
From Kendrick’s glower on the front cover to the often minimalist and dark production, Damn is Kendrick seemingly without hope. Possessed by anger and frustration, the Jazz-infused beats of Butterfly are replaced by a sound reminiscent of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy meets Angelo Badalamenti at half-speed; samples are utilised into the structure of the song, the beats are reminiscent of ambient music, especially on tracks like ‘Yah’, ‘Element’ and ‘Lust’. But there’s still tight, fast paced, angry numbers in the tracklisting such as ‘DNA’ and ‘Humble’, contrasted against the odd Pop number like ‘Loyalty’ and ‘Love’. But, as always, Kendrick throws in some curveballs when it comes to production; there’s influence from Trip Hop, Vaporwave, even a Radiohead sound here and there, flecked with swing and blues. But the constant throughout is Kendrick’s, often lone, voice narrating the world he finds himself in.
When the few guests on this record appear, Kendrick utilises them to their maximum effect, without them pulling the attention from Kendrick himself. On ‘Element’ the instrumental clearly has James Blake written all over it, but instead of treating it like a feature, Kendrick utilises Blake’s murky Trip Hop and turns it into minimalist beauty. Then we have ‘Lust’ which features heavy production from Kaytranada and BADBADNOTGOOD, perhaps the only shred of anything ‘jazz’ that is left from the Butterfly and Untitled days. The effect is laid back, but somehow still violently angry, perhaps helped in part by the Rat Boy (yes, that Rat Boy) that pops up. Even ‘XXX’, with its unconventional U2 feature works just as well; Bono’s smoky vocals fitting in perfectly with the blues-like break in the fast-paced proceedings. Perhaps the most underwhelming of these features comes on ‘Loyalty’ which features Rihanna. While not a bad track, Rihanna’s contribution and a beat based around Bruno Mars’ ‘24k Magic’ make it easily the most Pop track on the album, somewhat out of place when next to murky instrumentals and abrasive synths.
Like Good Kid and Butterfly, Damn also utilises an underlying theme or premise that runs through the entire album. Unlike his past releases though the themes feel more subtle; woven into Kendrick’s lyrics as opposed to skits or spoken word elements inserted between songs. With the song titles being kept short and to the point, tracks such as ‘XXX’ and ‘DNA’ examine the continuing racial tensions in America, as well as problems with gun control and biased media. Kendrick brilliantly utilises a clip from FOX News as they criticise his BET performance, apparently taking away the completely wrong message. It’s this frustration and, again, that apparent lack of hope that keeps on resonating in this album. ‘Lust’ discusses a monotonous self-indulgent routine following the result of the 2016 election, while ‘Yah’ dabbles in suspicion and conspiracy theories. Kendrick’s tired and worn down voice seems bored with the media over analysing him and tearing his art apart.
But then Kendrick gets even deeper into his lyrics, taking things to philosophical levels. The track ‘Fear’ is perhaps one of the most disturbing moments on the entire record; the reversed vocals and eerie instrumental are Lynchian levels of weird. To make things even darker, Kendrick recites the ways he will die, and a running monologue throughout the song discusses how Kendrick’s people are being punished by God. Whether this is how Kendrick actually feels or just the sheer pressure of fame is driving him to this level of paranoia isn’t clear. But what is clear is that the topic of God and Kendrick’s status as an icon or spokesperson appears on several tracks on this album, including ‘Duckworth’, ‘Element’ and ‘Feel’.
In the latter of these, Kendrick admits he feels like he’s constantly battling demons, evils, even his home town of Compton. But none one is praying for him as he does this; it’s like a man who is nearly crippled by the weight of expectation, both from himself and his audience. Kendrick then goes on to reference his niece and other fans of his who look up to him throughout the record. His tone is almost bored, like being a role model almost means nothing to him, or the weight of expectation has crushed any emotion he had towards.
But on the other hand we have these tracks which feel like your typical banger, or radio hit. ‘Humble’, ‘Loyalty’ and ‘Love’ don’t really bring much to the overall narrative, really only acting as potential singles. Out of the three of these tracks, only ‘Humble’ really stands out as being truly brilliant; ‘Loyalty’ and ‘Love’ both feel very safe, almost like chart fodder, which feels very unlike Kendrick. While not bad songs per say, they’re disappointing when surrounded by the rest of these tracks. But even on the more solid, conceptual numbers, Kendrick is dropping these MC drops calling himself out as ‘KUNG-FU KENNY’ and that it’s time for ‘ANOTHER WORLD PREMEIRE’. But when you compare that next to the weird and wonderful instrumentation the effect is quite grating, but weirdly enjoyable.
However, even with these chart fodder tracks, Damn is still a highly enjoyable album, and like Kendrick’s previous albums, reveals more with every listen. While the themes may be sporadic and the sound varied, the anger and disillusionment runs throughout, as Kendrick dissects this new world he finds himself in. Damn is not always an easy listen, and lacks the positivity that Kendrick’s previous albums have had. However it’s disturbing beauty and often minimalist production make it another brilliant album is Kendrick’s chronology.
You can follow Andrew on Twitter.