About seven years ago, it would have been impossible to envision Kendrick Lamar’s rise to prominence. He had just released a series of deeply mediocre—and occasionally outright bad—mixtapes and EPs, culminating in the inconsistent “Overly Dedicated.” A year later, he had improbably released the brilliant, deeply underappreciated “Section.80”—an album predicated on a prodigious gift for storytelling (“Kesha’s Song”) and a sudden discovery of lyrical talent (“Rigamortis”). After another year, he released one of the two best rap albums of the decade, “good kid, m.A.A.d. city,” and followed it with the well-received “To Pimp a Butterfly,” a brilliant and occasionally incomprehensible piece of art. His latest effort is “DAMN.,” out 25 months later, on April 14.
“DAMN.” is a return of sorts—a return to the “Overly Dedicated” days of Lamar’s career, a time when Lamar was a brilliant soul trapped in the body of a bad rapper. Perhaps it should make a difference that this imprisonment was self-imposed, that “DAMN.” seems to be working to satirize many of the worst tropes of rap, that by embodying the spirit of unwarranted self-aggrandizement (“DNA.” and “HUMBLE.”) and sensitive misogyny (“LOVE.” and “YAH.”), Lamar places himself in a position to criticize them. Nevertheless, it is difficult to sustain the listener’s interest in satire even over the course of a song (although Lamar has done it successfully in the past in “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and “A.D.H.D.”). It is nearly impossible to make satire the basis of an entire album. Most problematically, in order to do it, Lamar has to embody a musical style that he never sounds comfortable in.
Lamar appears to be playing with someone else’s sound (even if the intent is to satirize it). He acts the role of the influenced rather than the influencer. “GOD.,” “LOVE.” and “LUST.” all sound like disciples of the Drake school for sing-song-rapping. The spirit of Lil Uzi Vert sounds palpably present when Lamar raps “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah” on “DNA.”
But, say what you will about Drake—he always could sing. Lamar cannot. His voice tends to sound pubescent when his lyricism wanes, one reason “LOVE.,” “GOD.,” AND “LUST.,” work poorly. And say what you will about Lil Uzi Vert—he always sustained a persona somewhere between amusing and charismatic. Lamar never really could sustain a song on the force of his own personality. That is why “ELEMENT.” could serve as a precise metaphor for poor musical decision making.
Lamar could never afford to acquiesce to the tropes of mainstream rap because he frankly does not have the raw, unquantifiable, star personality of Migos, Drake, and J. Cole (among others). It does not matter if that acquiescence is in the name of satire, or if that acquiescence is an attempt to add nuance to a currently straightforward genre of music: “DAMN.” sounds the same either way. As he moves towards the artistic median of rap, Lamar loses everything that made his music compelling. On “LUST.,” a song that requires little explanation other than its title, Lamar raps (sings, gargles, and whines are equally apt verbs), “Let me put the head in,” in a way that somehow manages to be equal parts unconvincing and gross. (And, it should be added, unintentionally ironic when contemplated as a double entendre about intelligence in rap.) On “FEEL.,” presumably about how Lamar feels, he evokes Eric Garner’s death with such detached intonation that the listener is forced to question, for the first time in his career, if Lamar actually cares.
“DAMN.” trades the oddball beats of “To Pimp a Butterfly” for more conventional production by Mike Will Made It (“XXX.” “HUMBLE.” “DNA”). It trades the cohesive narrative thread of “good kid m.A.A.d. city” for an unfocused linkage of themes. It trades the generational commentary of “Section.80” for a selfishly introverted perspective. These are not acts of artistic laziness, à la Drake—they are artistic mistakes. They are mistakes that hide his prodigious lyrical ability under the guise of a disinterested voice (“ELEMENT.” “FEEL.” “LUST.”) and unpleasant crooning (“YAH.” “LOYALTY.” “LOVE.”).
Do not allow this judgement to obscure the complexity of the album. “DAMN.” is a work of art that filters its themes through one of the finest minds of our generation, and that brilliance can be faintly heard simmering under the surface of the work’s lowest frequencies. On “DNA.” he raps, “I got realness, I just kill shit 'cause it's in my DNA / I got millions, I got riches buildin’ in my DNA.” On “FEAR.” Lamar repurposes the lyrics of “DNA.” to alter a simplistic interpretation of the former track, “’Cause my DNA won't let me involve in the light of God.” It is not purposeless self-aggrandizement—it is self-aggrandizement to meditate on the relationship between his life and God. On “PRIDE.” he ingeniously creates a sense of internal conflict through its unstable relationship with the following track, “HUMBLE.” And “FEAR.” would be the heart of “DAMN.” if the album had a soul.
However, those drops of genius are hidden under such a wealth of unpleasant and misguided musical decisions that it becomes a masochistic battle to appreciate any trace of lyrical brilliance. “XXX.” opens with Lamar, presumably rudely woken up at an early hour of the morning, rambling “I'll chip a n**** little bit of nothin'.” He proceeds to rap over an instrumental built around a police siren—a sound that is quite literally designed to be as unpleasant and penetrating as possible. And then, for a moment, Lamar seems to strip away every unnecessary piece of sonic design. Over a bass, a keyboard, and drums, for a moment he just raps, sounding truly comfortable for the first time on the album: “America's reflections of me, that's what a mirror does.”
This is not to say that Lamar has to rap about “socially conscious” issues, like on “To Pimp a Butterfly,” if he wants to be successful. In fact, his first foray into attempting to become a purely socially conscious rapper, “i,” was his worst single since his “Overly Dedicated” days. It is to say, however, that Lamar owes it to himself to make music that he knows he can be successful making—to embody a sound that he is comfortable within (and that is certainly not synonymous with the general direction of rap). Lamar owes it to himself to actually add something to the progression of music instead of following Drake and Lil Uzi’s occasionally valuable sonic innovations. He may be more brilliant and more nuanced than other rappers. He may be flat out more talented than anyone in the general vicinity of a microphone. But on “DAMN,” he does his best to obscure that ability almost beyond recognition. There is nothing more reprehensible than an artist wasting his talent. “DAMN.” proves that statement’s all-caps, disappointing truth.
—Staff writer Aziz B. Yakub can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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