Kendrick Lamar’s latest record begins with his death. The opener, “BLOOD” features Kendrick being shot dead by a blind woman on the side of the road. The track sets the stage for “DAMN,” a cerebral, cryptic and heavy project, unlike anything the Compton rapper has made before in his career, but just as insightful, intelligent, and introspective as we have come to expect from him.
Gone are the mountainous beats of “Good Kid M.A.A.D City” and the multilayered jazz and funk instrumentals of “To Pimp a Butterfly.” The production on “DAMN” is trimmed and sparse, down to drum, bass and synth, topped off with the occasional samples. Unlike the grandiose nature of his past work, “DAMN” feels compacted, as if it takes place in a void. As a result, there exists an eeriness that pervades the album’s vibe. This was hinted at a few weeks back with “The Heart Part 4” in which he says, “I’ve died/ What you’re hearing now is a paranormal vibe.” With Kendrick shot in the first track, these could very well be a rush of thoughts through his head before he dies, or perhaps even insight from the afterlife.
Apart from giving the album its own signature feel, the stripped-down production also makes the album much more accessible, but no less thematically varied. Bangers like “DNA,” which rockets off the opening track like a fist to the jaw, the lead single “HUMBLE” and “XXX” (featuring U2, no less) will more than satiate those looking for something to bounce to, but they are each introspective and pointed. “DNA” breaks down the components that make him who he is, all the way down to his flow, before building into a furious finish, while “HUMBLE” is a sharp jab at the bragadocious attitude that infests the hip hop industry, and where Lamar himself stands amidst all the foolishness.
Other tracks explore new sounds and ideas to huge success. “LOVE” is a beautiful, melodic track that is new territory for Lamar, while “FEAR” feels bleak and vulnerable. “PRIDE” is a spacey jam, glazed with distorted guitar strums and falsetto. These variations in sound and ideas are threads that tie the album together, but is ultimately a look inside Lamar’s head; an intimate study of what he believes his place in the hip hop scene is and the value of life.
There is just an absurd amount to take in on this record. Lamar accomplishes so much so incredibly well. “DAMN” is a solid as bricks in its structure. The final track, “DUCKWORTH” (Lamar’s real last name), rewinds itself to the opening lines of the record, suggesting an infinite cycle; a constant repetition of the thoughts that make up this album. Lamar takes on the rap industry and media perception while simultaneously exploring his own feelings on life, death, love and identity, all while shifting to new musical territory he has never explored before. And he makes it seem easy. In “HUMBLE” Lamar states that “If I quit this season I’ll still be the greatest.” Whether intended to be taken as irony or not, he’s probably right.