Pressure — if the force is strong enough, it can collapse metal or create diamonds, depending on the material and situation. In music, after every great album, an artist’s expectations for a follow-up are astronomical — even unrealistic. After 2012’s classic good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick Lamar’s major label debut, K-Dot was skyrocketed into the conversation of the best rapper in the game. The flurry of anticipation for his sophomore effort was at maximum levels, due in part to the three years it took him to give us To Pimp a Butterfly — and he did the improbable by following up an undeniable classic with an even better album. This feat instantly puts an artist into a category of cementing themselves in music lore; think The Beatles with Rubber Soul to Revolver or Prince with 1999 to Purple Rain as examples.
This is important context to understand before diving into DAMN., Kendrick’s newest album. Kendrick Lamar is at a mythical point in music where an artist’s horde of followers earnestly awaits anything they make, and everyone expects every song to be a life-changing experience. With this understanding of where K. Dot’s legacy is heading, let’s delve into the importance and genius of DAMN.
Kendrick Lamar is the most talented rapper right now. Period. His music is culturally important, addressing many issues and concerns that connect with millions, and his creativity in the studio is only rivaled by a few artists today. Still, DAMN. does something he hasn’t done yet; it gives Kendrick the popular success his legacy desperately needed. Prior to 2017, K. Dot’s highest-charting single as a lead artist was “Swimming Pools (Drank),” peaking at No. 17 in the U.S. On DAMN., Kendrick trades in the production of jazz and underground, “old school” hip-hop beats for Mike Will Made It-banging, club-friendly beats. Normally, it scares me when an artist goes “pop,” but DAMN. is anti-pop; it’s full of radio-geared production and choruses, but countered with the introspective and ever-important social commentary that Kendrick has made a staple of his brand. Take a look at his lead single, “HUMBLE.” (which was his first No. 1 song as a lead artist), where at first glance, you find a typical hip-hop song, aggressively attacking the rapper’s peers. But it’s during the verses when Kendrick exemplifies why he’s better by rapping about non-superficial content: “I’m so fuckin’ sick and tired of the Photoshop / Show me something natural like afro on Richard Pryor / Show me somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks.”
The brilliance of DAMN. lies in the album’s ability to express complex ideas in a simple way for his message to be tangible to the listener. Let’s delve straight into one the deeper and lyrically complex songs on the album: “FEEL.” The track starts with the common theme throughout the album that nobody is praying for Kendrick Lamar — explaining the visual of the album cover where Kendrick looks exhausted and depleted. This is something artists must remind their fans; that they too are people that need prayers for their own emotional hardships as they make music to help the listener work through the same emotions. This is represented in the lyrics, “Feel like you wanna scrutinize how I made it / Feel like I ain't feelin' you all / Feel like removin' myself, no feelings involved / I feel for you, I've been in the field for you / It’s real for you, right? / Shit, I feel like ain’t nobody praying for me.”
DAMN. isn’t Kendrick Lamar’s greatest album; it’s not the album that tackles deep philosophical ideas, nor is it the album that gives the majority of America a relatable look inside the hardships of the inner cities. DAMN. is something different for Kendrick, and different is necessary for the growth of an artist and the important to the legacy of his career. DAMN. is the album Kendrick needed, where he takes the popular world by storm and forces the radio and clubs to listen to important issues instead of superficial songs about fake love or drug usage. DAMN. is truly where Kendrick Lamar becomes the moniker he’s yelled for years: King Kendrick.
by Bryce Browning
Song You Need To Hear: "DNA."
Top Dawg / Aftermath / Interscope