Kendrick Lamar DAMN. album review: It's testament to his mastery that 'great' isn't enough here

Christopher Hooton

Humanity felt like it needed a new Kendrick Lamar album right now. It needed him to return and simultaneously unpack these conflicting feelings we're having of wanting to mend the world and wanting to just let it burn. It needed him to remind us of the joy of wild and pure creativity and let us revel in his genius. It just needed a new musical tapestry to wrap up in and hide from the world (while trying to understand it).

That's a crazy amount of pressure to bear, but Kendrick was ready, playfully re-christening himself Kung Fu Kenny and prepping a karate chop of a new album that came sooner than many expected. He actually added to the expectation, dropping hype track 'The Heart Part 4' - which literally promised to "slap the shit" out of his competition - shortly before it and following up with lead single 'HUMBLE.', which doubled down on his posturing as the king of rap.

When DAMN. was deployed, slightly embarrassingly a little later than it was threatened, a fair amount of the first-day conversation revolved around a theory that a second album was on the way, and I think this spoke volumes. Good Kid mAAd City didn't feel like an incomplete story, To Pimp a Butterfly was so dense and complex the notion of a sequel would never even have occurred to us, but DAMN. lent itself to the idea of more - a fairly short, tonally uneven and less cohesive album than those before it.

Make no mistake: it bangs. 'BLOOD.' into 'DNA.' might be my favourite intro to a Kendrick album, hitting you back-to-back with a cautionary tale, a sample of Fox News trying and failing to call him out and an anthemic opening line: "I GOT LOYALTY GOT ROYALTY INSIDE MY DNA." Kendrick is at his most fierce and defiant ever here and it's the type of line to be shouted from a rooftop while thumping your chest.

Kendrick Lamar - DNA.

The album's strong opening continues with the more buzzed and introspective 'YAH.' and 'ELEMENT.' and is studded with other gems like 'XXX.' and 'FEAR.' that see Kendrick outdo himself in terms of flow and lyrical dexterity, managing to deal with several high and low issues in the same line. His voice is as rich and moreish and packed with emotion as ever; if listening to Drake offers the shallow indulgence of making you feel like a million dollars, listening to Kendrick more impressively makes you feel like you've got a handful of ones but DAMN are still you gonna conquer the world.

And so now this is the paragraph where I have to say 'but' or 'unfortunately', loathe though I am to, as there are also tracks here that don't captivate me or, more specifically, don't captivate me in relation to my vertiginous expectations of Kendrick.

'LOYALTY.' (feat. Rihanna) is a good pop song. That's really all I have to say about it. 'FEEL.' initially has a pleasant 'last days of summer' haze to it but ends up dragging. I don't begrudge Kendrick making a more mainstream record after the jazz meanderings of untitled. unmastered., and I'll welcome 4-minute trap-influenced bangers just as much as 8-minute concept tracks, but not if it means songs like 'LOVE.', a saccharine-synthed, straight up wet track that just makes no sense being on this record.

I'm going to quickly rifle through other gripes with DAMN. now because I feel horrible about it when they're coming from an artist I have so much respect for: Why is Bono on this album? He doesn't add anything, Ash Riser from Section.80 etc. could have consummately sung the part and it's very possible K-Dot wanted to include U2 just to confound people. The album is messy, and - before you say it - not in a 'wow this is so fragmented and disorientating', good way, but more of an 'okay, it's this genre now?' fashion. GKMC and TPAB sucked you in, they were maelstrom-like masterpieces, but DAMN. has you skimming the surface, never fully immersed. 'Kendrick is at his darkest yet'? Nope, 'u' was darker and more affecting. 'It's staggeringly dense' - yes, but not in as effective a way as TPAB - an example being the Rat Boy sample in 'LUST.' that just feels parachuted in. One more: the Trump criticism is so scant and underdeveloped that it probably wasn't worth including.

Still, an 'okay to good' Kendrick album is a brilliant album by pretty much any other artist in the game's standards and I'm still very happy to put it in my ears. This album isn't a 'Holy shit I need to text my friend imploring them to listen immediately' mind blower, but it is a valuable addition to his oeuvre and a record I will have on for weeks. It's the type of album that in decades' time people regard as not his greatest but one which has its loyal fans who will bitterly defend it.

"See, in a perfect world, I would be perfect, world," Kendrick tells us on 'PRIDE.' and this is an anxiety he's shared on track time and time again; I guess I need to actually cut him some slack.

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