The Best Albums of 2017 (So Far):
Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
OF all the albums I have assessed so far in my...
investigation of this year’s finest (up until this point); few are striking and important as Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. (or ‘Damn’; depending on whether you are a fan of capital letters and misplaced full-stops). A fulminating, sermonising; searing and finger-pointing album with a dose of braggadocio and political accusation. It is the fourth album from the stunning visionary, Lamar. He first came to my attention with his 2015-owning masterpiece, To Pimp a Butterfly. From its cover – black faces outside The White House – that is both ironic and striking; its music, Jazz-flavoured yet intense and provocative: a stunning work that, rightfully, swept the end-of-year lists. DAMN. is as vitriolic and exclamatory as its title suggests but contains little compositional D.N.A. of To Pimp a Butterfly. Whereas that album has flowing and silky horn beauty: DAMN. is a more punctuated, precise and ‘traditional’ soundtrack. It is purer in its Hip-Hop tones and beats: the songs, as such, are more urgent and have less time to ruminate and explore.
The sheer mass of producers that are credited on DAMN. suggests a militaristic approach to music – a process born out of precision, marketing meetings and committee rancour. In actuality; what one gets from DAMN. is the focal master exerting as much ease, individuality and expression as any of his previous records. One might not witness as much compositional variation, nuance and, perhaps, quality as To Pimp a Butterfly. DAMN. is, in my view, a more essential, timeless and essential disc. It articulates the anger, confusion and divisions of To Pimp a Butterfly but is a more personal, focused and accomplished album – Lamar’s raps, flows and rhymes and slicker, sicker and more compelling than ever. If DAMN. sounds like it was the result of group meetings, big drawing rooms and record label gatherings: the actual origins are a lot more humble and domesticated. He claims most of the album was penned in his mother’s kitchen. The album is the perfect blend of Lamar’s lyrical vision and vital contributions. Mike Will was essential when it comes to inspiring beats – one of the key voices when it came to DAMN.’s finest and most invigorating creations.
Given the hustle, divisions and anger percolating in the U.S. (before the album was released); one can interpret some of DAMN.’s fiery and most judgmental moments as a shot against the Trump administration. In truth, a lot of the songs are more personal and disconnected. There are political references and observations but, for a large part of the record, one hears Lamar switch from bragging and boastful superstar to a tenderhearted young man talking about his roots and family. Blood, the opening track, is Lamar telling a story in which he is shot by a blind woman he’s assisting – not the cosiest and most family-orientated track but one that does not instantly suggest political aggression. The song is inspired by the Book of Deuteronomy and features, in the introduction, an audio clip from Fox News (criticising Lamar).
DNA/DNA. Is Lamar’s most virtuosic and astonishing display on the album – perhaps the finest moment of his career. Few songs are as confident, slick and peerless. Personal and staggering; filled with sick and stunning spits – a tour de force from Lamar. Yah calls out Fox reporter Geraldo Rivera; references religion and breaking the rules of God – the consequences of doing that and the moral choices we make. Element features damning dissing; Feel is one of the deepest and more startling tracks on the album – Lamar looks at the isolation of fame and how he feels detached and distant from his family. Humble is Lamar, with ease, showing why he is leagues above his peers – without letting ego overtake his focus and skill – whereas Lust, in one sense talks of fatigue fighting against the Trump victory and sadness of that, it also looks at material loyalty (and extra-marital temptations). Fear compartmentalises Lamar’s anxieties at various stages in life; Duckworth (Lamar’s real surname) the connection between the American and his father. There is so much going on throughout the album: that balance of personal and the metaphysical/political/socio-economical.
For me, the album could have flopped after To Pimp a Butterfly – Lamar released mix-tapes between albums and showed, even his ‘lesser’ work, was still miles ahead of the competition. The previous L.P. was so celebrated and appreciated: if he were to pen a very similar-sounding album; that could have been a risk. One would understand the temptation of falling back on that album and trying to replicate it. Instead, against all odds; Lamar created something less extravagant, inventive and cross-pollinating. DAMN. lingers because of its directness and incredible words – rather than the luscious and broad-minded compositions. The lyrics are on-point, hugely inspiring and thought-provoking. Lamar’s vocals are at their heightened and class-leading best. There is that mix of old-school and modern; soul-baring and widespread – these contrasts make DAMN. such an exhilarating and unpredictable thrill-ride. The occasional cameos (Rihanna’s on Loyalty the most memorable) could have shifted focus and made the record crowded – the fact Lamar is the only voice one hears is no slight at his cohorts; proof he is a presence that cannot be equalled.
Lamar’s voice adopts a variety of guises and personas – inhibiting various worlds and making each song sound new, crucial and hugely impressive. There are few artists, if any, with the confidence and command of Kendrick Lamar. He has every right to be this forthright and assured: his sales, reviews and popularity have arrived off the back of a sublime and faultless body of work. DAMN. shows he is adaptable and ever-evolving. Taking a step back sound-wise means he has the chance to leap forward in terms of his story-telling and performance. Maybe new ground is no broken but is afford Lamar chance to revisit old ground and return to his roots – both musical and familial. The sheer dynamism of his rapping is enough to convert those who prefer their music a little calmer and less controversial.
He is, you know, not an artist who alienates, plays to elites or those who ‘get’ Hip-Hop. He speaks on behalf of the world and, as a result, makes music for everyone. There are few artists who do that: fewer who can create an album as timeless (as we shall surely see) and mesmeric as DAMN. Its title is very apt given the quality, aggressions and resonance. Those aggressions are never petulant, profane and spiteful – every harsh and anxious moment is sublimely tuned and channelled into some of the most astonishing music you will hear. DAMN., in my mind, is going to sweep the end-of-year lists – exactly the same way To Pimp a Butterfly two years ago. It only takes a single listen of DAMN. to realise what a trajectory…
PHOTO CREDIT: Noel Vasquez/GC Images
KENDRICK Lamar is on.
Top Dawg, Aftermath, Interscope
Anthony ‘Top Dawg’, Dr. Dre; 9th Wonder, The Alchemist; Bēkon, BadBadNotGood; Cardo, DJ Dahi; Greg Kurstin, James Blake; Mike Will Made It, Mike Hector; Pluss, Ricci Riera; Soundwave, Steve Lacy; Terrace Martin, Tae Beast; Teddy Walton, Ying Exclusive
Element; Loyalty, Humble; Lust, Duckworth