“DAMN,” Kendrick Lamar’s album released on April 14, 2017, shines with its thrilling tempo and its contemplative yet contradictive lyrical reflections. Most of all, it features Lamar’s trademark smooth and effortless delivery. The album progresses through an immaculate delivery of tales inspired by Lamar’s experiences, and every track features a unique tempo and style of elocution. Highlight track “DNA” is smashing and hard, with quick tempoed rap as Lamar recalls how his ingrained experiences and upbringings shape his personality. His versatility shows with “LOYALTY,” a collaboration with Rihanna that features a slower, lazier pace as he and Rihanna muse about the importance of faith in a relationship.
Staying true to his reputation of using unusual, intriguing instrumentals, Lamar’s beat and music are exciting and unpredictable. “DNA,” for example, sets a harsh, cyclical musical tone for the album. This cyclical beat stands in contrast with the more dynamic, creative instrumental themes of “To Pimp a Butterfly,” the widely acclaimed third album Lamar had released back in 2015. The originality in “DAMN” still emerges through the integration of a myriad of musical styles: the contrast of jarring drums and delicate piano in “ELEMENT,” the slow, surreal notes supporting the dark, hypnotic vocals in “PRIDE,” the drum rolls and piano riffs of rock featured in “XXX,” and even a more pop-friendly tune in “LOVE.”
Lamar steers away from the creative jazz undertones and instrumentals in “To Pimp a Butterfly,” and “DAMN” resembles more of the siren-synth beats of “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City” — his sophomore album released back in 2012 — which featured a heavier rhyme scheme, slower reverberation and a more insistent repetition.
However, the cyclic style that “DAMN” features plays a significant role in his new album. While “To Pimp a Butterfly” and some of his other previous albums focus on raising awareness and support for public issues, “DAMN” turns inward on personal matters and reflects on Kendrick’s recurring, continuous struggles to balance his experiences and values with what is expected of him as a successful and moral person.
Contradictions are not only prominent between “DAMN” and his previous albums, they are also glaringly important within the songs of his new album. “LOVE” follows “LUST,” “PRIDE” precedes “HUMBLE,” and “FEAR” is contradicted by “GOD” as Lamar unfolds his constantly conflicting messages. In “LOYALTY,” he raps, “It’s so hard to be humble / lord knows I’m trying,” quickly followed by “It’s levels to it / you and I know / b****, be humble” in “HUMBLE,” and Lamar reveals the difficulty of finding a middle ground between self desire and moral obligation with his contradictory statements.
Born in Compton, Lamar observed drug trade and gang violence, but was also influenced by faith. When he was discovered and began gaining fame and wealth, he reveals a crisis between internal temptation and holy virtue: in “DAMN,” both cannot exist simultaneously for Lamar. “DAMN” questions Lamar’s motives, his desires, his friends, and his enemies — “It was always me versus the world/Until I found it’s me versus me,” he claims — and reveals that every success comes with a loss from a discrepancy between reality and expectation. Success comes with the burden of suppressing dishonest temptation, and upholding moral value constrains pride and the feeling of success. He despairs, “Love’s gonna get you killed, but pride’s gonna be the death of you.”
“DAMN” stuns rap and music lovers alike, but it is sure to captivate even those who do not normally enjoy rap music with his meaningful lyrics, unique beats, style and tempo. The album has shattered the roof of its expectations and firmly plants Kendrick as the most accomplished rapper in the field today.