"Damn" is right. This thing requires some serious unpacking.
Kendrick Lamar dropped his highly anticipated new album on Friday, and the internet promptly exploded. I have a suspicion that many of the hundreds of thousands who started listening to "Damn" the moment it hit the ether, at midnight, were perhaps subconsciously hoping that all the hype surrounding Lamar since he dropped the game-changing "To Pimp a Butterfly" in 2015 would turn out to be marketing rhetoric and nothing more. Lamar has been touted by many, myself included myself, as modern hip-hop's great hope, the pied piper capable of leading the form back to its roots in classic soul, funk, R&B, jazz and socio-political commentary. Naturally, there has been a backlash against the "woke" nature of Lamar's art and its attendant success. There's always a backlash.
Sorry, haters. Go back to listening to Future and Drake. Lamar is just getting started.
"Damn" doesn’t overshadow the enduring significance of "Butterfly," but it equals that album's visceral impact, substituting '70s soul for the burning post-bop that lingered in "Butterfly's" secret heart. There are many here among us clinging to the belief that hip-hop needn't look back in order to move forward. But Lamar manages to do just that, finding a rich vein of African-American music to channel into his own forward-looking art.
What a beautiful sounding collection this, an inescapable observation even when you're listening in the digital medium. It's all so warm – the gently rumbling and enveloping bass, the subtle and supple drum figures and loops, the richly layered harmony vocals, and Lamar's lovably nasal sing-spit.
The listener expecting "Butterfly Part II" will be surprised by the opening strains of "BLOOD"; a capella harmonized vocals give way to a Latin-tinged soul backdrop, as if Isaac Hayes had crashed the party to drop off a supply of hot buttered soul. So it goes through the album's opening minutes, Lamar offering a Hip-Hop corollary to later-period Radiohead – this is a headphone album if ever there was one, with sonic Easter eggs galore buried in the mix, and a production ethic that values (and exploits) the full sonic spectrum.
I listened to the album at midnight on the eve of release with my son, a devout Lamar fan, and while I waxed ecstatic about the gooey soulfulness of the soundtrack, he opined that this was an album of relatively simple sonic and rhythmic backdrops, meant to allow the listener to focus on the lyrics. I suspect he's right – the text is the sometimes angry, sometimes benevolent overlord here, for certain. And while "Butterfly" rightly posited Lamar as the movement's pre-eminent poet, as he told the New York Times recently, this time around, he's "in a space ... where I’m not addressing the problem anymore,” which suggests that "Damn" is more interior view than external observation.
That's partly true, but perhaps overstated. During "Damn's" 55 exquisite minutes, Lamar takes aim at Fox News, Donald Trump, Geraldo Rivera's claim that hip-hop is worse for African Americans than racism – easy targets, all, and he proves that the pen is mightier than the bully pulpit without seeming to break a sweat. If, as advance buzz suggested, "Damn" was going to drop the political criticism in favor of navel-gazing, well, maybe our man changed his mind at the last minute. There's plenty of ammunition here for the listener eager to fight the power.
Still, "Damn" is not an explicitly political album, but rather, one where a narrator who has perhaps been given too much too soon attempts to poke through the facade of stardom and success, as well as the rampant "savior of music" hyperbole, in search of some bedrock values and a moral compass.
I'll leave it at that, for analytical texts can and surely will be devoted to un-boxing Lamar's rapid-fire linguistics and riddle-wrapped-in-an-enigma wordplay, and most of them will likely miss the point that the language is open to interpretation, and not all about name-dropping, dissing and the like.
Text and context aside, there's enough rich music here to satisfy anyone who found "Butterfly" irresistible. Like that album, "Damn" finds Lamar gathering a bevy of his deeply talented friends to lend support, among them Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, producer 9th Wonder – who works his estimable magic throughout the mighty "Duckworth," which seamlessly fuses samples of Hiatus Kaiyote's "Atari" and Earth Wind & Fire's "Be Ever Wonderful" – BadBadNotGood, U2, (Bono in sublimely understated cameo during "XXX") the Alchemist and James Blake.
Did hip-hop need a new Messiah? The answer is yours to decide. Regardless of individual thoughts on the matter, however, it got one. "Damn" is another modern masterpiece of the form from an artist showing no inclination of slowing his roll.