DAMN.’s very album title instantly evokes braggadocio like “DNA.,” in which Kendrick Lamar comforts his inferiors by telling them his dominance has been inevitable since his very conception, and “HUMBLE.,” his big hit only kept from the top of the charts by fellow Taylor Swift-collaborator Ed Sheeran.
And while this is his first album not buoyed by a concept since he became the undisputed greatest rapper alive, there’s far more to DAMN. than K-dot’s emphatic demonstrations of dominance.
Though “HUMBLE.” had hinted at Kung Fu Kenny tapping more consciously into pop sensibility, “LOYALTY.,” “GOD.,” and especially “LOVE.” shatter what expectations we already had. “LOVE.” is the both Kendrick’s sweetest hook and his sweetest song, thanks in no small part to Zacari’s vocal.
Meanwhile, “GOD.” sounds like the first victory lap Kendrick has ever allowed himself. It’s the one song on which he lets himself celebrate his success rather than taking yet another opportunity to reinforce it.
If there’s an issue with DAMN., it’s definitely its refusal to present its fourteen tracks as anything greater than the sum of their parts. Though many of the songs reference each other, the likely intentional lack of vision can make DAMN. a difficult product to think about holistically.
On the flip side, their inability to be thought of merely as part of a larger statement elevates the status of the stories Kendrick tells. Take the tantalizingly-titled closer “DUCKWORTH.,” about Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith and Kendrick’s father, “Ducky” and how the former of the two men so important to Kendrick’s development into a superstar nearly killed the latter at a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Untethered from the rest of DAMN., “DUCKWORTH.” is allowed to stand on its own and exist unto itself as a piece of mythmaking in Kendrick’s canon.
And while it might be initially captivating for its surprisingly melodious moments and its king-of-the-world singles, what keeps DAMN. in the company of Kendrick’s other work is that any listener will end up spending many hours over many months plumbing its depths, examining every detail about, say, Kendrick’s journey from age 7 to 17 to 27 on “FEAR.” or what in the hell “BLOOD.” might actually mean. On the heels of To Pimp A Butterfly, this young millennium’s best album, Kendrick decided the best course of action was to head in a more manageable direction. And though there are some cracks showing from the transition in approach, DAMN. provides a very sustainable model for continued greatness.