MTV News critics Molly Lambert, Hazel Cills, Tirhakah Love, Charles Aaron, Meredith Graves, and Meaghan Garvey spent a few days listening to Kendrick Lamar's new album, DAMN., and assembled to discuss their impressions of it.
Lambert: Hi everybody! It’s time to do the DAMN. roundtable.
Love: Whoever thought Kendrick was becoming too avant-garde on To Pimp a Butterfly and untitled unmastered can rest assured that DAMN. serves as the rapper’s reintroduction, not just as Kung Fu Kenny — as opposed to the Cornrow Kenny persona he’s taken on for the past two years — but as KDot the Homeboy. DAMN.’s downtempo trades the squeak and squelch for the low-fi street break beats of good kid m.A.A.d city and its predecessors. But that doesn’t mean TPaB’s lessons are completely absent.
Lambert: There’s a definite Old Testament feeling to DAMN. — specifically the Book of Job. It’s a long one-on-one conversation with God about why God has to be such a fuckbag. In true West Coast rap fashion, it’s a paranoid existential nightmare that also knocks. After the headphone listening of untitled unmastered, this was like stepping outside into the fresh air. The whole first listen to DAMN. felt like one long deep breathe-in and cathartic exhale.
Cills: In an era of albums that are hyper-collaborative (The Life of Pablo, Coloring Book), the first thing that struck me about DAMN. is how sparse it is. The welcome, tight spotlight focused on Kendrick throughout helps to underline the isolation that runs through the album. Sometimes that isolation plays as recognition for unparalleled career domination (“They won’t take me out my element”), but it's also contemplative, monastic — the ways you are alone in a spiritual life. But even then, writing that sentence, it feels weird to separate the two, seeing as how on DAMN. it’s clear that making music is a transparently spiritual experience for Kendrick.
Lambert: I’m obviously a homer for West Coast rap production, but the first time I heard “HUMBLE” and was physically unable not to start doing a Mac Dre thizz face — it felt like coming home again. Mike WiLL Made-It’s “HUMBLE” beat makes the Eyes Wide Shut piano theme bang. Even more musically introspective tracks like “PRIDE” beg to waft out of summertime car windows.
Love: Where Kendrick’s last two albums played on his rap-preacher stance in a looser stream of consciousness as a means to portray his unresolved spiritual, relational, and existential tensions, DAMN. frames those inner discourses as a process leading him to a more resolute understanding of self and sin. The difference here is felt in the ways that Kendrick shares his spiritual beliefs — he’s not trying to convert us anymore; instead he’s chronicling how he got to a place of spiritual reconciliation and who — voicemails from spiritual guides and Kid Capri’s hyped interpolations galore — helped get him there. Honestly, I couldn’t care less if Kendrick fashions himself a Hebrew Israelite or a Buddhist monk, just as long as he keeps releasing dope-ass music.
Garvey: I want to acknowledge, for a second, the conspiracy theories and myriad fan-fic projections that have emerged around the album — from hidden messages in the tracklist to the (seemingly debunked) existence of a companion album that was to have been released on Easter Sunday. It’s fun to laugh at stuff like that — I find the whole thing endearing, and a testament to the kind of artist Kendrick is. Like, it’s amazing to embody this sense of living mythology to the point where people’s impulse is to read random graphic-design decisions like sacred texts. On a similar note, though, I worried, before the rollout of this album began, about the residual effect of an album like TPaB on Kendrick’s “arc” or whatever. The burden of being radical and necessary at every turn, and of people needing you to be radical and necessary.
Lambert: Among other feats of impossible strength Kendrick accomplished on DAMN. — he made U2 cool again? Also, nothing has ever been more satisfying on a basic level than hearing Bono get cut off by Kid Capri. On “XXX” Kendrick diagnoses the country’s fatal sickness — continuing to riff on an earlier sample of Geraldo Rivera quoting him on FOX News (which is also addressed in “YAH”): “It's nasty when you set us up / Then roll the dice, then bet us up / You overnight the big rifles, then tell Fox to be scared of us / Gang members or terrorists, et cetera, et cetera / America's reflections of me — that's what a mirror does.”
Graves: Pop music continues to engulf and digest everything it can mow down, with the defining characteristics of genres lost in the blur, replaced by upbeat diasporic sampling, a pitch-shifted moment fractured from a lost Motown B side — anything guaranteed to grab the ear of Funk Flex, as rap and pop merge into one uniform, sponsor-friendly genre. DAMN. doesn’t sound like any of that — like Hazel said above, it’s a "tight spotlight" of isolation, and as such, DAMN. is a test that requires some studying to pass. “HUMBLE” bangs like a gavel, but when it maxes out at two clean and mean verses, no features, does it satisfy the needs of the club? Rihanna has sung the hook on a lot of incredible dance tracks that place her in the position of being either lover or loved-object, but Kendrick chose her for “LOYALTY,” having her use her lower register like an emery board, gently taking any gendered edge off lyrics that could theoretically have been sung by any person. It absolves itself completely of the ‘something for everyone’ quality central to pop-adherent projects like More Life, taking time to explore a steady, nuanced perspective rather than subjecting itself to the peaks and valleys of a “playlist” designed to be picked clean of singles. Which is all to say — it’s truly a rap record for rap fans, neophytes need not apply.
Lambert: There is no better burn on Drake than having Rihanna on “LOYALTY” — channeling Kendrick’s documented love of Adina Howard, whose smoothed-out, sexed-up shit-talking female perspective was always a welcome yang to ’90s gangsta rap’s “bitches ain’t shit” yin.
Garvey: But I don’t really want to lean too much on the distinctions between DAMN. and TPaB — admittedly, this one has already gotten more spins from me in the four days it’s been out, for whatever that’s worth. I’ve seen a bit of dichotomizing between TPaB as experimental or conceptual and DAMN. as a capital-R Rap album. And I appreciate that much of the glue of this album is Kendrick just rapping like it’s the only thing that makes sense, and the inclusion of songs that could maybe be called “approachable.” That view still feels incomplete, though. I think my favorite thing about DAMN. is its sense of, like … can pragmatism be defiant? That’s how this feels. I keep thinking about the line on “FEAR”: “If I could smoke fear away, I’d roll that motherfucker up.” Or the faded, comfortable sounds of “LOYALTY” and “LOVE” — songs that are almost of a piece with what Future was doing on HNDRXX or Drake on More Life, but which feel more urgent. These days the apocalypse is always in the corner of our minds, and sometimes when it feels like the world is falling apart around us, the only thing that makes sense is to surround yourself with the people you would die for, and vice versa, not having the answers but inhabiting the uncertainty. And for me, that’s what this album feels like.
Aaron: Kendrick Lamar Duckworth’s been flailing through a spiritual struggle all the way back to “Faith” on 2009’s The Kendrick Lamar EP, asking God, “What is my purpose?” while scrolling through a brutal litany of misfortune besetting him and his extended family. The answer back then was the same as it is now: music, rapping, the art of war with words. In 2009, despite prodigious skills, Kendrick was still at a somewhat formative stage. But on DAMN., his fifth full-length release since that EP, he’s creatively peaking, his voice like a flexing muscle of emotion, jabbing at the spare, coiled, yet atmospherically varied beats (from longtime producers Sounwave and DJ Dahi to Mike WiLL Made-It and 9th Wonder). Though this is not billed as a concept album — like good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp a Butterfly were — its adamant theme is salvation through ferocious introspection. “Why God, why God why do I gotta suffer?” a voice intones on “FEAR,” and the age-old dilemma of African-American belief is thoroughly rinsed out. A kid who was beaten and abandoned, babysat by gang members and alcoholics, or left to fend for himself, Kendrick raps about being unloved, unprayed for, and unsaved. Occasionally he gets trapped in a false dichotomy — “cursed” or “chosen” — or he moralizes about others. But mostly he meticulously explores the flaws of his own soul from a panopticon of his own design. It’s a remarkable tribute to Kendrick’s deft, dogged songwriting and expressive gifts that an album of teeth-gritted self-examination moves so nimbly and powerfully.
Lambert: Yeah, for all its density and intricacy and apocalyptic themes, this album is also a lot of fucking fun. Maybe pleasure feels even more essential in the end times. Kendrick’s tours of Los Angeles are just like Thomas Pynchon’s. There’s a huge cast of characters and places, a vastness of space and sky, doom and fear, but also hard, body-racking laughter. “Life is one funny muthafucka / A true comedian, you gotta love him, you gotta trust him” he says on album closer “DUCKWORTH.” After musing at length on all-caps issues like GOD, LOYALTY, LOVE, and FEAR, Kendrick etches out a small-scale story over a warm 9th Wonder beat. It’s a circuitous redemption fable that ends up being the true story of how Kendrick’s father was almost murdered by Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, who would later discover and sign Kendrick to his label Top Dawg Entertainment. He ends DAMN. circularly, by looping back around to the album’s first line — the endless daily cycle. After ruminating on whether fate and free will exist, “DUCKWORTH” suggests they must, that there are no coincidences. The small mercy that one man chose not to shoot another one day becomes a holy act, a miracle.