Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Kendrick Lamar - DAMN. Review

"Is it wickedness, is it weakness?" is the first of many questions posed by Kendrick Lamar on his latest LP DAMN. "You decide, are we gonna live or die?" follows up that aforementioned line on 'BLOOD,' before Lamar himself is shot by a blind women he attempts to help search for something. The process by which the line is delivered beckons for a choose-your-own-adventure novel, except this time Lamar's life is at stake. With enormously high expectations coming off of To Pimp A Butterfly and a mightily strong collection of B-sides Untitled Unmastered, the mute lead-up, and the braggadocios Trap of 'HUMBLE,' a conceptual enigma wrapped inside a web of itself wasn't what many expected from DAMN. From the onset, theories bounced off the Internet's data streams like bugs smashing their bodies against a light source. The problem was, what many sought out searching for, in a desperate plea for answers, was under their nose the whole time. There was no second album; DAMN just has two endings. Kendrick Lamar's genius shows once again. No, it's not as engrossing as good kid m.A.A.d city, nor as ambitious as To Pimp A Butterfly. DAMN, rather, is a subdued, yet highly creative concept record, tangible enough for both conscious thinkers and radio players alike.

Despite DAMN's relative accessibility, make no mistake, the album's formidable execution was a calculated decision years in the works. The primary criticism of To Pimp A Butterfly was that of its lengthy, dissertation-like examination of modern America. Spread out over 79, labor-intensive minutes, the instant epic drew disdain in the long run from those who wanted something bite-sized, but were forced to consume a three-course meal. DAMN rectifies that by removing the skits, eliminating the concept from constant discussion, and trimming any excess that would've spilt outwards from a track's runtime. DAMN says what it wants within 55 solid minutes, and with production, styles, and accentuations that bring about a slew of Hip-Hop sub-genres, ranging from Trap to Pop to Conscious, Kendrick Lamar's latest record is easily his most down to earth. This time around, he isn't trying to reinvent the wheel, choosing instead to prove why he's the best at using the tires given. Call it a criticism if you will, in some light I might, but DAMN's Lamar's effort at beating popular genre stalwarts at their own game. In certain cases, it shows. Others, the result's more weary.

As far as production goes, DAMN feels like the proper follow-up to good kid, m.A.A.d city. No longer is their one unified influence overseeing the production, like the Jazz, Funk, and Soul of To Pimp A Butterfly. Just like how his legendary debut breezily shifted from bangers to crooners to storytelling to anthems, DAMN does the same. Difference being, there's no narrative concept guiding the transition between tracks. Here, each song is very much singular, thus making it easier to admire the parts more than the whole. And that's exactly what happens from the get-go, as the thunderous 'DNA' sets off a minefield with Mike Will Made It production, Kendrick, solider in war, sprinting past explosions, wrecking havoc on those who oppose him. Namely; FOX News, and fellow conservatives who misconstrue Lamar's positive messages because the surface level is as far as they go. On 'DNA,' Lamar boasts about his black heritage, vigorously tackling poor political beliefs with anger, like Run The Jewels, rather than thought, as he's prone to do. Musically, the banger is stunning, with one of the most well-crafted beat switches I've ever heard. With the guitar breakdown, chopped n' screwed bars, FOX News sample, rocket launching countdown, and a delirious bass, 'DNA's' confrontational switch is truly a marvel.

And then, like The Life Of Pablo's baffling detours, 'YAH' flips the script, working off the high of 'DNA' with a low of its own. The farty, almost Cloud Rap-like 'YAH' continues the early political themes of DAMN, calling out Geraldo Rivera and the harm bad publicity can cause on Lamar's character. However, with 'ELEMENT's' nondescript braggadocio, that unquestionably bears some resemblance to Drake's darker hits, it's clear that DAMN's concept isn't as meticulous and careful as his former works. There's an underlying vision, of course, but with Lamar's focus on individualized songs that can work out of context, the bulk of DAMN's tracks free themselves from the restraints of others. If we're to acknowledge the various theories musing about, the narrative explores each track's general topic and nothing more. In fact, of all facets on hand, Hip-Hop braggadocio seems to be the most lucrative here. Beyond 'ELEMENT,' the lead single 'HUMBLE,' along with 'GOD,' 'PRIDE,' and a few more, bear the confidence and go-getter vision Lamar's rapping side has been wanting to unleash for some time. The beauty of DAMN is that these fits of unrequited bragging have checks and balances for when things get too bumptious.

See to 'XXX' and 'FEAR' for those rebuttals. DAMN wouldn't be a Kendrick Lamar record without internal conflict. Never before has Lamar created a vision for one purpose. As we know, 'Swimming Pools' wasn't a drinking song, 'i' worked thanks to 'u's' doom and gloom, and 'How Much A Dollar Cost' exceeded merit because of 'Wesley's Theory's' ignorant nature. With DAMN, those bouts of stripped back hubris find meaning in 'FEAR's' lifelong trepidation. Over a classic Alchemist beat, Lamar details various anxieties, from the domestic violence of age 7, gun violence of 17, and self-worth of 27. Lamar's always showcased himself as multi-dimensional, something that sets him apart from the bevy of Hip-Hop artists who either brag, think, or rap incessantly. He's never been just one, but all three. On 'XXX,' he conquers all three in one song. Despite the U2 feature, 'XXX' is truly the most experimental song here, constantly changing directions as new tunes, moods, and tones settle in. One minute Lamar's ruminating about lost innocence, another he's hollering with a megaphone similar to Public Enemy, the next Bono's singing as if he's in a moody Jazz club. It's disorderly, a perfect supplement to Lamar's American critique at the end.

While 'XXX' undergoes numerous transformations, something 'DNA' and 'DUCKWORTH' also tease, the bulk of DAMN's production stays fairly on-track whilst in track. Almost immediately, numerous comparisons, some of which I pointed out already, flickered up in my mind. Unlike To Pimp A Butterfly, which would only find a handful of influences in Hip-Hop, DAMN's overloaded with them. In this sense, the record's regressive, even if the production certainly isn't stale. 'PRIDE,' with the buttery pitched vocals, collage of synths, and acoustic strumming, brings about comparisons to Childish Gambino's Funk-take on "Awaken, My Love!," namely 'Redbone.' With 'LUST,' Lamar continues his appreciation of Outkast, acting as a Stankonia deep cut, with inconsistent vocal changes, a wobbly low end, and an electric guitar solo for good measure. Thanks to Zacari, who sounds like a combination of The Weeknd and The Dream, 'LOVE' oozes the Alternative R&B movement led by the former. Masterfully produced, the soon-to-be radio hit dazzles with exquisite synth work and gorgeously seductive vocals. However, while those three tracks succeed in miming the past, 'LOYALTY' fails at doing the same. With Rihanna front and center, the track doesn't attempt to pull the seamstress from her comfortable territory, unable to nudge her past Views' 'Too Good' or Hndrxx's 'Selfish.'

Along with 'GOD,' 'LOYALTY' amounts to DAMN's worst material. The best aspects of both are the hooks, something rarely lacking across the entire LP. A mark of an enjoyable album, almost every chorus is both catchy and memorable. Interestingly enough, there's only two tracks without said hook; the intro and the outro. 'DUCKWORTH' concludes DAMN's assessment of styles with a return to Hip-Hop's roots, thanks to some superb storytelling over 9th Wonder production. As it goes, 'DUCKWORTH' tells the story of when TDE founder Anthony "Top" Tiffith intended to rob a KFC, treading eerily close to murdering a kid named Ducky, who just so happened to be Kendrick Lamar's father. The chance coincidence is at the heart of DAMN's message, concluding with a revised history that finds a lifetime sentence, a dead man, and a fatherless adolescent dying in a gunfight. After we "put it in reverse," as stated by DJ Kid Capri, DAMN's two timelines become clear; one in which current Lamar reflects on the decisions he's made, another in which fatherless Lamar never learns them. Loosely supported, the theory makes relative sense, enough for me to be satisfied from Lamar's creative standpoint. While artistically a setback from his gleaming beacons, DAMN thrives with gratifying Hip-Hop that aims to prove why Kendrick Lamar can conquer any style.

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