“DAMN.” was not made for the layman. There aren’t as many straight jams compared to “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” and the tracks that do qualify as such aren’t as instantly memorable as “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” and its kind. However, this does not lessen the greatness of this album; it just takes time to appreciate. Unlike most popular music, this record focuses on its role as art first, and entertainment second. Unfortunately, its artistic themes take work to understand. Kendrick should not expect the average listener to do a close reading analysis of his lyrics to fully enjoy his music, but “DAMN.’s” popularity shows he can do just that.
Kendrick is still a superb lyricist unrivaled in skill, and so his album’s concepts are explored seamlessly. It discusses the apparent discrimination, or even damnation, towards Black Americans, and a list of emotions and their relationship to the traits of wickedness and weakness. He relates the symbolic curse towards African Americans to the biblical smiting of the Israelites for betraying God. The blindness of white people and the inability of blacks to return from wickedness to weakness are his proposed explanations of the continued plight of Black Americans’ treatment and prejudice by other Americans of different racial backgrounds. In “BLOOD.” he calls attention to the failure of whites to recognize the challenges African Americans face, sampling a shameful FOX news report, and symbolizes this ignorance with a blind woman in his narrative. “DNA.” illuminates the difficulty of abandoning wickedness by simply being being born black, born into what he describes as a “sinful culture”. The power of vicious cycles is further explored in “LUST.”. Specifically, Kendrick argues that people resent change and lust for routine. Even in the face of sudden external changes like the election of Trump, lives on an individual level hardly change, hence the tragedy of the African American struggle. Kendrick stays away from the high levels of braggadocio, common in rap, apart from its satirical use in songs like “HUMBLE.” He balances the volume of such songs depicting wickedness with an equal number dissecting his own weaknesses. The album closes out with “DUCKWORTH.”, which completely illuminates Kendrick’s brilliant ideas. His rapping skill is just as impressive as his detailed concepts. Simply put, he may be the best rapper alive and the album reflects that; there isn’t need to deliberate further.
“DAMN.” has a different style than Kendrick’s previous work. The production is simpler, cleaner, and easier to appreciate than the volume of activity in TPAB. There are trap and pop influences, like the beat in “DNA.”, and multiple featured singers, but they are in good taste. One of my few complaints about the album is regarding its sampling. All the samples are very cool, but are misused in a few places. In “DUCKWORTH.”, the first syllable of the word “darling” is sampled and loudly repeated on the upbeat, competing with Kendrick’s rapping. It is jarring and confusing as to why it was included. Apart from this flaw, and a couple of repetitive hooks like the one in “HUMBLE.”, this album is difficult to criticize. Overall it is an exceptional and original work of art with significant ideas.
Album Review by Zachary Norton, May 2017