For many hip-hop artists at the peak of their talents, following an instant classic type of project with another solid offering can prove to be challenging. Once a fan base generally agrees on what style an artist is best at, it is potentially difficult for them to accept that artist’s subsequent work. This was especially true in the case of Compton, California native Kendrick Lamar. After the public and critical acclaim of his major label debut good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick was thrust into the conversation of best rappers alive. His vivid storytelling and razor-sharp lyricism, topped with cohesive and comedic skits, revealed Lamar’s attention to detail. Few artists in his generation found that ideal balance of accessibility and craftsmanship in their music that fulfills the desires of fans and critics alike. K-Dot’s versatility is second to none.
His pen is intuitive, vulnerable, and logical all while being surrounded by catchy one-liners and unparalleled flow deliveries. To this day, fans rave how Kendrick changed the game in 2012 by raising the bar in contemporary hip-hop via honest ingenuity and painstaking creative direction. But in the spring of 2015, Lamar’s fan base seemed to split in half once his sophomore commercial album To Pimp a Butterfly dropped. Some (like myself) praised Butterfly’s innovative musical approach and fully conceptualized poetic programming; while others begged for more radio-centric hooks and hashtag raps. Since its release, I have devoted myself to defending the brilliance behind To Pimp a Butterfly against those who claim to be Kendrick Lamar fanatics. Call me crazy, but I take it very personally when I hear someone call To Pimp a Butterfly “wack” or “not nearly as good” as good kid, m.A.A.d city. Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinions. However, most of the people I’ve talked to that hate on Butterfly seem to correlate catchiness with greatness. That mentality will forever irk me.
If an album is not personally relevant to them, it is also wack, or so it seems. But all that tells me is that they do not use music as a source of healing. Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I do believe they are missing the point. That album, along with many other artistic triumphs, is about letting its message speak to and through its listeners. And if someone does not bother to appreciate an artist’s eloquent personal narrative (although they seemed to do that just fine on his debut), I will not bother to consider their opinion on what should be deemed as a musical masterpiece. It is this polarizing aura from his previous release that propels Kendrick’s latest effort into a stratosphere few have reached before. The merging of trendsetting hooks and multifaceted lyricism heard on DAMN. verifies that Kendrick Lamar can excel at other popular artists’ sounds simply by putting in more effort and thought than his peers.
But calling this album a copycat affair would be undervaluing its pensive and humanoid nature. Lamar has silenced all critics (along with those disguised as fans) by pumping mainstream blood into this album’s maverick heart. DAMN.‘s opening song “DNA” bum-rushes listeners’ ear drums with erratic abandon. I swear the first time I heard this I could not stop violently bobbing my head. This track signifies just how closely Kendrick’s ear is to the streets. Ask and you shall receive, you greedy, conniving pseudo K-Dot fans. Excuse my pettiness; it’s just that I’ve been waiting a long time to say these things. Digression aside, I found it quite astounding how Kendrick Lamar, after years of insightful and transparent releases, continues to show different sides of himself. You would think that a man who has bared most, if not all, of his soul across multiple albums would have nothing of great value left to say. DAMN. clarifies the contrary, reiterating Lamar’s status as the greatest rapper of his generation.
Deny it all you want, but every bit of evidence is here: elaborate yet lucid oration; infectious flows and deliveries; vocal and instrumental unpredictability; a cohesive and fully-realized creative direction. There are a couple of weak hooks here such as “YAH.” and “LOYALTY.”, and I do believe To Pimp a Butterfly still reigns supreme atop Kendrick’s illustrious discography (if you couldn’t already tell). More importantly, though, is the fact that K-Dot gave his fans what they yearned for: music they can be proud to play at any party, nightclub, or rap-friendly function. Not every track is a banger but nearly every track bangs, if that makes sense. Choosing a favorite is damn near impossible, but at gunpoint I think I’d take “LUST.” over all the rest. Its liquidy soul is reminiscent of his aforementioned magnum opus but it emits an atmosphere that is unique to this project. That vocoder solo is such a beautiful, beautiful signature touch. There are many theories and speculations regarding the concept, track listing, and release of this album. Nonetheless, its meaning could very well be right under our noses — in big, bold red letters. DAMN… as in “Damn. Kendrick Lamar really is the best rapper with a pulse.”