It’s always unfortunate when an artist has to follow an epochal album. Considering Kid A in the wake of OK Computer was never fair. Pink Floyd‘s awful Final Cut was doomed after The Wall. Placing Kendrick Lamar‘s previous album, To Pimp a Butterfly, in such a legendary ballpark is obvious to anyone who’s heard the record without blinkers. As a result, Lamar’s fresh follow-up was always going to find itself trapped under expectations and heft. Released five days ago, Damn has more written about it in comparison to its predecessor than its own merits.
This is natural. Unfortunately, i’m just not entirely sure it’s appropriate. Works of talent and passion deserve to stand on their own. Lamar has always brought these things to the table in strides. After all, that’s what’s given him such intense success in the first place. It’s obvious from almost everything he does just how capable and exciting of an artist he is. To make it clear and established by the second paragraph, so I can move on, To Pimp a Butterfly really is one of the finest releases of its medium, not just its genre. Its clever production and interweaving themes put Lamar on my radar in the first place. After two years of digesting its sixteen tracks, the release of Damn was something I greatly anticipated. With all of that stated, I hope I can detach from the legacy of previous material to discuss this latest album.
Damn has its own ethos, and should absolutely be heard in isolation from Lamar’s previous work. It’s a surprisingly straight release. This, on first impressions, can make it seem like a fairly muted affair. In actuality, focus seems a key word throughout. The tracks evolve on their own insular production, and the lyrics follow suit. It’s hard to ascertain anything particularly over-arching, but thread remains. Lamar and his collaborators seem to stand up for straight-up craft on every corner of this album. With each passing song, you find yourself in tight little worlds that are far more rewarding than they may first seem. While it’s true that most of the record’s offerings are far simpler than we may have expected, this does nothing to effect their power.
Instead of jarring arrangements and a musical melting pot, the old-school approach represents a rather brave move. On a casual and distracted first listen, you could even accuse Damn of being somewhat lazy. Much of it concentrates on guitar, bass and synth arrangements that rely more on their compositional integrity than they may first sound. Through a bad sound-system, the beats can (at times) feel all too familiar. When let loose through high volumes or, preferably, quality headphones, the level of intricacy within is astounding. Sometimes that reverence comes from its restraint too. Where much of the album has opportunity to disappear up its arse, it simply never does. It stays on-point. In many ways, that in itself is jarring.
Practically every track is a slow burn. It tends to take a few lines before you settle in and realise the creativity within. It’s not even all about the subtle hints of a thin concept either. Isn’t it simply refreshing to hear a rapper as gifted as Lamar not chained by some grand contrivance? The essence of Damn is what it is when it hits your ears. This not a bad thing. It’s all well and good to have something you can digest and uncover for life. Just as valuable is something that can grab you by the balls (or, to reluctantly quote Trump, the pussy) and clearly intone its statements immediately. It’s not actually that easy to do, but Damn just gets on with it. While there are a few clever motifs hidden in there, this is an album of strong songs; not of its all-consuming tapestry.
Let’s be honest. Does anyone truly like skits? Across my lifelong experience with hip-hop and rap, they’ve proved to be nothing more than dull pit-stops to display the humour of their creators. There are exceptions, of course, but Damn entirely jettisons them. Aside from an obligatory introduction track, this record is packed to the nines with chillingly instinctive production and wordplay. It’s as if Lamar wanted to make clear that he doesn’t see himself as an artist of alienation. I’ve often heard of intimidation towards concept works of the depth of To Pimp a Butterfly. The other extreme is represented here, as Lamar beckons us all to join him on an aural exercise in cutting out the bullshit. Underwhelming at first, while overwhelming in consideration, Damn is an album that may yet have far more endurance than its peers.