DAMN. begins with a death and a question. Weakness or wickedness? This decision is presented through the many musings of Kendrick, beginning with "DNA" and "YAH". Between these two tracks he presents the curse on Black Israelites that dates back to the Book of Deuteronomy. Kendrick acknowledges his belief in this curse, and the fear he has of its consequences. He wonders if his soul is damned because of his battles with "PRIDE", "LUST", and the elements that shaped his youth. As told in "FEAR", Kendrick no longer fears abuse at age 7 and death at 17, instead he fears what fame and fortune will do to him at 27.
This is all explained under the concept of “what happens on Earth stays on Earth.” When you die, you leave all Earthly possessions behind, including your feelings. By openly confronting these emotions, maybe Kendrick believes he can save himself and break the curse. Closing the album with "DUCKWORTH", Kendrick believes that regardless of your circumstances or surrounding world, you have free will to do the right thing. Thereby overcoming weakness or wickedness. The strength of this work comes in its capacity for multiple interpretations. Depending on who you are, the album’s message may speak to you in a different way.
Sonically, Lamar strays from the funk and soul inspired sound of TPAB. Besides "DNA", "HUMBLE", and "XXX" the instrumentals are stripped back. Downright skeletal on tracks such as "PRIDE", "YAH", and most of "FEEL". This is DAMN.'s largest weakness. While it was expected for Kendrick to develop a new sound, this feels like a step back for the artist. There is nothing wrong with a minimalistic take to music; however, DAMN. does not benefit from this approach.
As important as tracks such as "PRIDE" are to the concept, the track begins to lose steam halfway through. The instrumentals completely lack the dynamic and organic feel of TPAB. Instead you are given a consistent and repetitive beat. Musical highlights include the erupting sound of "DNA" and "XXX", as well as the sweet-sounding vocal sample on "FEAR". "FEEL" finishes with an incredibly strong buildup, but it could have used that instrumental energy earlier on. The slow build leaves you wanting more.
Vocally, Kendrick lives up to his status as one of the most dynamic MC’s. He presents his emotion expertly with pitch-shifts and tempo changes. He can explode on his harder-hitting tracks and pull-off the slurring, cloud-rap style sound on "YAH". He also provides good performances on a number of solid hooks. Highlighting the features is Zacari on "LOVE". His tender backing vocals propels the calm sound of the song, and pairs well over the top of Kendrick’s part. Otherwise B L S of Shahmen on FEAR, and Bono on "XXX" provide short but great features. Rihanna is alright on "LOYALTY", but is a tad underwhelming with her delivery.
Despite its shortcomings, DAMN. is another great album added to the catalogue of Kendrick Lamar. No, the album does not live up to the status of Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and To Pimp a Butterfly. But the project as a whole presents one of Kendrick’s best concepts, and was a necessary step in his life. Without a doubt he is worthy of being named the Greatest of All Time in hip-hop.
Favorite Tracks: "DNA", "ELEMENT", "HUMBLE", "LOVE", "XXX", "FEAR", "DUCKWORTH"
Least Favorite Tracks: "LOYALTY", "PRIDE", "LUST"