“I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA / I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA.”
In “DNA,” Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar establishes the central thematic through line of his new album, or, more accurately, confesses that no such single through line actually exists. DAMN. lacks the driving narrative force of Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and the political consequence of To Pimp a Butterfly, but that doesn’t mean it lacks purpose or emotional potency. Lamar has a lot to say, and unlike his past two studio albums, he doesn’t use a storytelling device to say it. After two critically-acclaimed concept albums, it may be tough to swallow Lamar’s return to a more standard album format (i.e. 2011’s Section.80). It was initially for me. However, Lamar remains as deceptively dense as ever in how he balances vocal delivery and lyrical content, crafting songs that are as poetically meaningful as they are sonically enjoyable.
Lamar wears many hats over the course of the album’s 55-minute run time, and DAMN., perhaps more so than any other album of his, showcases his near-chameleonic ability to adhere to both the genre trappings of his instrumentals and the varying tones of his songwriting. He barks with intensity on “XXX” and the aforementioned “DNA,” sings with endearing imperfection over sparkly synthesizers on “God,” and meanders in the trippy, slow-going “Yah.”
For Lamar, how a line is spoken may be just as important as the line itself. His emphasis on nuanced vocal performance sets him apart from and above his contemporaries. Lamar has the mind of an actor, and it gives dimension to nearly every track on DAMN. even in the absence of a broader narrative arc.
That absence also grants Lamar more freedom in his songwriting, for better or worse. Much of Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was bound by story context — “The Art of Peer Pressure” and “m.A.A.d city,” for example — and while that contextual rigidity made for a very carefully thought-out album, it could also be reasonably viewed as a hindrance. On DAMN., the topics are much broader in their scope; it is, perhaps, no coincidence that every track has a single-word title. Indeed, in “God,” the subject is Lamar’s continuing faith in God, but he doesn’t give much insight into his relationship with religion beyond general details. This vagueness is even more egregious in “Loyalty,” in which Lamar and guest artist Rihanna repeat the title of the track for the near-entirety of the chorus. It’s far from a bad song, and will likely be a hit single from the album down the line, but it demonstrates the general lack of focus from which DAMN. suffers.
The production occasionally stumbles into the same pitfalls. “Element,” credited to five separate producers, including Sounwave and James Blake, tragically resembles some of the sleepier and more generic beats of Drake’s career. “Love,” meanwhile, fails to transcend its robotic dance beat and is further hampered by guest vocalist Zacari, who, while definitely not awful, veers dangerously close to imitating The Weeknd.
That said, most of the production here is stellar. “XXX” blares urgently before transitioning into a warm outro featuring surprisingly tempered guest vocals from Bono of U2; “DNA” features a similarly drastic beat change, and likewise to great effect. A few tracks on DAMN. even harken back to Section.80: “Yah” and “Fear” are deliberately-paced jazz cuts reminiscent of “Kush & Corinthians (His Pain),” while the watery synthesizers of “Feel” parallel those of “A.D.H.D.”
Lamar displayed an intense ambition with both Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and To Pimp a Butterfly, primarily in the way each song added to a larger context, either narratively or thematically. DAMN.doesn’t operate in the same fashion, instead adhering to a more traditional album structure. It’s occasionally sloppy and uninspired, and it doesn’t really aspire to be greater than the sum of its parts, but that can ultimately be forgiven if most of the parts are as good as they are. And they are damn good.