Breakdown of Kendrick Lamar’s “Damn”

Examining one of the most anticipated albums of 2017

| April 20, 2017

In the early hours of April 14, one of the most eagerly awaited music releases of 2017 was unveiled to the public. “Damn” marks Kendrick Lamar’s fourth studio album and the response over the past weekend has been nothing short of enthusiastic. So what makes this marvelous rap record so exciting? Below is a simulated conversation to explore just such a question. If you enjoyed this piece, check out a previous one of Drake’s “More Life.”

Album art courtesy of Top Dawg Enterainment.

Random Person: Oh no, your back.

Me: I sure am!

You seem extra chipper today.

Yeah, I just listened to “Damn” for about the fourth time.

Fourth? Hasn’t that just been out a couple of weeks? I haven’t even listened to it once.

I’m speechless.

Okay, well I’ve heard “Humble” and seen it’s terrific music video.

Well, “Humble” is great, but it only scratches the surface of what this album has to offer. The whole thing is not as dense and thematically complex as his last studio record, the acclaimed “To Pimp a Butterfly” or even “Untitled Unmastered” (which was essentially a collection of tracks from the ‘Butterfly’ sessions that never made it onto the album), but it does offer Lamar a chance to stretch some muscles as an artist, proving once again why he’s one of the greats.

Stretching muscles? That doesn’t sound like a groundbreaking record to me, sounds like something an artist does to by time or prepare for something grander.

Don’t think of it as a boring exercise routine, think of it as a the best baseball player in the world stepping up to bat and hitting one home-run after another just to remind all the other players that they will never be on his skill level.

Okay, now I’m intrigued. How does this compare to his other records like “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City” or “To Pimp a Butterfly”?

“Butterfly” is still likely to go down as his ‘masterpiece’ or ‘important’ album.’ “Damn” is nowhere near as jarring musically or thematically as that record but that also makes it a lot more approachable. “Butterfly” is incredible, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a dense work of art about race and black identity that takes multiple listens in order to fully comprehend. It’s sort of like how “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band” is undeniably The Beatles greatest achievement from an artistic standpoint but might not necessarily be the album of theirs you listen to just for kicks. As for “M.A.A.D City,” it offers a personal look at Lamar’s day-to-day world and wrestles with the ‘what if’ of his life if not for music. The themes are more approachable, but if I have one complaint its that the skits tying all the tracks together slow down the albums flow. “Damn,” to me, is Lamar’s most approachable record; one that demonstrates his intense skill level as a rapper and unique worldview, while also delivering tracks that are just plain fun. It’s also easily his most precise and compact record, with each track coming as perfectly timed punch to the gut.

Sounds pretty great, any key songs I should look out for?

Favorite song? That’s hard to say, they are all pretty great. For now I’m going to say “DNA” is probably my favorite. It’s the second track on the album, coming after a spoken word intro (track one) detailing Lamar being gunned down by a blind woman.

Wait, what?

Yeah, it works though, trust me. Anyway that track concludes with a sampling from Fox News after they blasted Lamar for a performance he did at the 2015 ‘BET Awards,’ which they viewed as encouraging violence against police. That sound bite is immediately followed by “DNA,” with a power and force strong enough to leave you speechless. Of all the individuals as take downs that happen on the record, Fox may have it worst, as Lamar blasts the absurdity of their comments, adding as an extra cherry a clip of them talking of how hip hop may be doing more damage to African American youth than racism.

Nice, so there’s nothing to nit pick or anything?

I didn’t say that.  The one negative comment I will make is that two of the tracks, “GOD” and “LOVE,” feel a little out of place.

What do you mean?

They aren’t bad songs, they just feel extremely poppy compared to everything else on the record. In fact they feel like maybe the most commercial sounding tracks Lamar has delivered thus far in his career. “HUMBLE” has clearly been the big single from this record but “GOD” and “LOVE” are likely to become radio friendly hits here in the coming months.

Ok, I have one more question that I have to ask.

Go for it!

I saw U2 is on one of the tracks, should I be worried? I mean, I’m still recovering from when Kendrick worked with Maroon 5 and Taylor Swift.

Well, there is nothing to worry about. That track, titled “XXX,” is actually really good. Bono and company are only used briefly in the latter third of the track, adding a jazzy groove to Kendrick’s lyrics of American oppression. You likely won’t even notice it as U2 when listening to it. If anything, it shows the mass respect and acclaim Lamar has garnered across all musical genres. For a band as big as U2 to simply surrender themselves to his vision and sound is almost unheard of. These two artists come from different worlds but surprisingly, their combination work’s beautifully. While we are at guest appearances, I have to mention Rhianna.

Uh oh! I’m having “Views” flashbacks.

You can rest easy, Rihanna isn’t just thrown on as a romantic foil or eye candy for some video. The track “LOYALTY” belongs just as much to her as it does Lamar. Musically, it sounds more like something off her impressive “Anti” record last year than say “Too Good.” Sorry Drake.

Nice, well this record sounds great. I can’t wait to listen!

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Category:Arts and Entertainment, Music

Jesse Nussman is a senior at UNCC majoring in Communications and minoring in film. He is an avid film lover and writes about various pop-culture subjects within film, television, and music.

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Jesse Nussman is a senior at UNCC majoring in Communications and minoring in film. He is an avid film lover and writes about various pop-culture subjects within film, television, and music.

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