DAMN. is thematic, earnest, and cohesive, a fully realized project meant to be listened to over and over again. Kendrick Lamar explores multiples themes throughout the project, all tied to his own identity as a black man in post-civil rights USA, leaving the overall impression that every musical decision was carefully plotted and held meaning. He was invested in his story from start to finish, each song a different chapter with a well considered order that communicated with its neighboring tracks, the multiple samples, and the overall vision of the album. Many of the songs are fine as stand alones but carry so much more meaning in their relationship to other parts of the album, strengthening the overall cohesiveness of this project.
Musically, this album marks a slight shift from Kendrick Lamar’s usual sound and is more reminiscent of civil rights era protest music. Genius compiled a list of samples used on this project but even without it, from the heavily filtered guitar, piano, and voice, to the reliance on musical motifs present in protest rock and blues in that tumultuous period of American history, it’s hard to deny the late 1960s and 1970s vibe it has. However, there are some brief 1980s influences (I’m thinking of the Zacari feature, “LOVE.”), and solid representation from 1990s R&B and Hip-Hop (I’m thinking the Rihanna feature, “LOYALTY.”, “DUCKWORTH.”, and perhaps even “LUST.”).
Because of the variety of inspiration and samples represented on this album, I’ve seen other reviewers complain that DAMN. doesn’t have an overall consistent sound (at least compared to Kendrick’s previous albums), jumping from rock to hip-hip, the 1960s to 1990s, seemingly without reason. But I would argue that that is specifically the theme that Kendrick Lamar was aiming for. I had the overwhelming feeling that I was time traveling with Kendrick Lamar as he searched for an answer to the question of his own selfhood and that of society: “How did we get here?”. As if Kendrick is musing about the state of his own identity as a black man in the USA from the end of the post civil rights movement until now but not necessarily in a linear time line, connecting everything thematically instead of temporally.
I especially liked how Kendrick changed up the quality of his voice in line with the temporal leaps in order to reflect the complexities of his musings. On the more dangerously introspective songs, like “PRIDE.”, the U2 feature, “XXX.”, and “FEAR.”, Kendrick sounds ready to burn the world (or maybe himself) to the ground, gravelly and incensed. These songs show Kendrick at his lowest and most depressed as he sifts through the last four decades of black male identity. These were the most filtered tracks on the album as well. The overall effect of Kendrick’s low voice and filtered instrumentation seemed to tint everything in sepia colored nostalgia. A snapshot of the past or perhaps something deep down inside of our own consciousness. “XXX.” is a song that especially jumps around in terms of temporal inspiration and tonal decisions, reflecting the confusion Kendrick Lamar feels as he progresses deeper into his own mind and the ambiguity of the past and present and their overall connection to now.
The two songs that added much needed lightness to the album are “LOYALTY.” and “LOVE.”, featuring Rihanna and Zacari respectively. And unlike most of the other tracks, which are heavy and darkly representative of the deeper recesses of his mind, the layering of Kendrick’s voice with the lightness of the Rihanna and Zacari adds much needed space to the tracks and allow us to breathe steady again. These songs also feel more modern in terms of sound, pulling Kendrick up and out of the murkiness of his mind and the past. It’s interesting to note too that on these tracks Kendrick’s voice is higher and he sings lightly along with the singers, a marked difference from the smoky, dark tone of his voice on tracks like “XXX.” or “FEAR.”
The second to last track, “GOD.” is maybe the most modern sounding song on the album. With the synths and lo-fi sounds, it seems to be branching into future hip-hop territory and I would argue it is the only track that looks forward instead of back. On this song, Kendrick is no longer jumping around in space and time or frenziedly searching for answers to his contemplations (like “FEAR.”, the preceding track, which is the darkest and most disturbed song on the album, confusing and lost but in a good way). “GOD.” is more musically focused in terms of melody and chord progressions compared to the rest of Kendrick’s solo works on this album. His voice too is high and light again–grounded, but also resigned (though is does drop dangerously low again around the 2:45 mark). He doesn’t sound happy but I can’t decide if he’s bitingly sarcastic about the world he’s encountered while searching for answers through time or just coldly apathetic.
The last song of the album, “DUCKWORTH.”, is a great way to wrap up this project, but perhaps not the most positive. We jump completely back in time to the earliest point on this album musically, marked by the mostly unobstructed Ted Taylor sample and the backwards rapping and beats (leaving me with the question: Where are we in time?). Kendrick’s voice starts rough but becomes grounded again as he objectively tells the story of Duckworth, experiencing his own story as an omnipresent God instead of the subjective sufferer, using his own identity (the same complex identity we’ve been listening to the entire time) as an answer for “How did we get here?” He never explicitly answers this question, but after listening to DAMN. in its entirety, and especially “DUCKWORTH.”, it is not so difficult to understand Kendrick Lamar’s identity and draw your own conclusions about the current state of America. If you left this album less thoughtful than you were at the beginning, perhaps you should listen once more.
What is most disturbing about this album’s conclusion is the use of reversed rapping and beats and the return to the beginning of the album with a rewinding of sound until we’ve reached the opening thrust of “DNA.”. I couldn’t decide if this was good or bad. Is there no escape from our location in space and time? Are we doomed to always be stuck in this viscious time loop, slaves to the identities pushed upon us by society? Or is Kendrick perhaps concluding that he is still proud of his identity, regardless of the struggle it may be to endure it, by ending with the most proud track on the album?
Kendrick Lamar’s pain and crisis of identity is palpable and so human but also incredibly specific to his identity in 2017 as a black man in the USA. Tracks like “DNA.” and “HUMBLE.” are proud of that identity and ready to take on anyone who thinks otherwise (looking at you specifically FOX News), overflowing with confidence and brash dignity. But then other songs, such as “FEAR.”, are frustrated with the suffering that Kendrick must endure because of it. The complexity and ambiguity of one’s identity to oneself and society has never been more confusing or, simultaneously, so well executed. It’s a chilling endeavor and Kendrick seems lost consciously (though not artistically) and I was grateful to be privy to his dark search for identity.
My favorites from this album (though honestly I’ll fight for every single track) were “DNA.”, “LOYALTY,”, “HUMBLE.”, “LOVE.”, “FEAR.”, “GOD.”, and “DUCKWORTH.” Yeah…basically half the album sorry not sorry. Though because I do love pop music and R&B, the more melodic and mainstream of those seven are ones I’ll listen to on repeat (ie. Mike Will Made It’s “DNA.” and “HUMBLE.”, and Rihanna’s feature, “LOYALTY.”).