Most rappers claim to oppose haters, but in the two years since To Pimp a Butterfly came out, Kendrick Lamar’s been listening to his detractors attentively. Whenever an artist releases an ambitious, challenging project that defies immediate parsing and denies the listener instant gratification, a select coterie of fans bitch and moan. Where’s the real rap, they demand. Where are the hooks, the beats? What’s all this dreamy jazz noodling? Why couldn’t he just have recorded an album of bangers? Why couldn’t he have recorded my own personal fantasy of what an accessible Kendrick Lamar album sounds like? Out since April, the new Damn is that album. The aesthetic strategy is so straightforward it’s shocking: Lamar plays bangers. And boy, do they bang. Damn is simple, tough, and direct like nothing in his catalog, muscling into abrasive beats and addictive loops that would sound commercial if not for a style of spare crunch currently absent from both rap and Top 40 radio. Kapow!
Several months after its release, Damn still sounds strong. It successfully points Lamar in a new and welcome direction, at a time when critically acclaimed stars are expected to make each album count as a statement and a change of pace. Besides last year’s outtakes collection, his two most recent albums, Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City (2012) and To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), were long, thorny, endlessly multifaceted, almost novelistic epics, whose messy narratives found Lamar slipping into different voices and perpetually circling back on himself over music whose stark, grand, through-composed beauty fit the semi-tragic tone — Good Kid in the way its coldly expansive electrobeats frame several pained, weary, chirpy voices around Lamar’s centralized own; Butterfly in the way the beats leave space enough for a whole live jazz ensemble, lending the music a magically breezy, liquid fluidity while also functioning as a built-in racial metaphor. These are albums you could spend months getting lost in the details, and they take time to open up, although once they do, Good Kid’s everyman story and Butterfly’s political invective will be yours to savor. Critical detractors were few — the idolization that greeted Butterfly in particular, which affirmed idiotic myths about art’s power as a sacred transformative force, does an artist no favors. But charges of strain and pretension popped up, and Damn answers these. The album’s fiery force simulates the purging of pent-up frustrations — his own and his audience’s both. Ambivalence over his anointment as a generation’s voice of protest, over his success in the entertainment industry, over his own frequently miserable mood, and especially over the present political nightmare, a subtext that frames, hijacks, and demands response from any active artist in 2017 — these factors and more, shallow and profound, inform Lamar’s decision to go hard.
Play 10 seconds of “DNA,” whose clickity drum track and hypnotic guitarish electroloop throb with a rage all the scarier for being so calm and contained, and marvel at the sheer aural power, and how tenaciously Lamar spits his rhymes and grits his teeth. I’m skeptical, though, about Damn’s power as a gesture. Musically, there’s no denying the hot simmer of “DNA,” the mocking piano figure on “Humble,” the percussive oomph that defines the album. To mistake musical directness for conceptual strength is to subscribe to a tiresome valorization of overt force, tied to codes of masculine defiance. Failure to bang sufficiently is cited frequently enough as a flaw by well-meaning rap fans that Damn in places feels like a capitulation, an easy bone thrown to the audience while Lamar spins his wheels. His voice — high, piercing, and congested — was made to babble and chatter and run off at the mouth, to cram bunches of rhymes into frantic run-on sentences, to quaver with anxiety and jitter while adjusting the tempo, to cry out in pain. Reciting regular iambics in the rhythmically steady “Humble,” he just sounds uncomfortable, maybe bored. Skidding over a murky vocal sample, “Feel,” whose every line begins with “I feel like,” teeters on the edge between song and skeletal song concept. Masculine defiance suits neither Lamar’s weedy timbre nor his style of cerebral brooding; politically I’m not sure it’s an appropriate response to the state of the union. Externally imposed standards often whip an artist into shape but just as often produce misbegotten results, and if he’d gone all the way with it, the album would be intolerable. In fact, one of Damn’s strengths is that he doesn’t — within the more straightforward template, he keeps messing with form, tweaking hooks and adding irritants, always getting stuck on undue complication. Damn fascinates for its vision of a performer caught nervously between presentational modes, determining in each moment how closely to adhere to convention. Once you’ve adapted to the album’s austere, almost empty shape, behold a trickier, more imaginative listen than is initially evident.
The most engaging moments on Damn sweat with palpable tension, as the conflicted Lamar gets stretched in multiple directions. Typically, so-called conscious rappers focus on how political events constrain ostensibly personal realms, but Lamar, oddly, is more detached than that. His songs address societal patterns on a macro level, with his own subjective presence an afterthought. At his best, the music benefits from the contradiction between his scope as a lyricist-observer and his individuality as a performer. “Loyalty,” a song he was born to write, deploys sampled vocal squeak to approximate deeper soul popcraft; the circular beat grows in hysteria over time, as the pitch-corrected sample becomes so increasingly aggravated that it can’t inhabit the R&B cool of Rihanna’s guest vocal. Lamar spends the song interrogating, chewing on, and finally affirming a value — loyalty — that means more under desperate circumstances than in places of privilege. “Lust” terrifies — a haunting minor-key guitar figure crawls over shifty scratch percussion for two choruses and a verse until suddenly substituted by a scraped violin, mimicking the same chord progression in a chilling shock moment. “I need some water/something came over me/way too hot to simmer down/might as well overheat,” he drones, nailing the eerie feeling; later, when he impersonates a lech asking, disingenuously, to only put “the head in,” the extent to which desire correlates with self-hatred is unclear. The next song, “Love,” resolves the dilemma: buoyant, swaying electrosoul bleeps, softer synth color, and guest singer Zacari’s sweetly affectionate chorus catch Lamar in an uncommonly cheerful mood. Elsewhere his looped keyboards sound more automatic, but always there’s a sense of unease. These beats pound like hearts pound, shiver like spines shiver. It’s the same mood that pervaded Butterfly, but where on that album it coexisted with relaxed, lyrical beauty, few other elements spoil the mood on Damn (“Love” is an exception). Tonally, this is the definitive Kendrick Lamar album. He’s refined his craft down to its quintessence.
Simultaneously direct and nuanced, Damn thrills and unnerves. I’d rather an ambiguously fascinating album than a flawlessly boring one, and so would Lamar. He’s recorded a searing study in the inner structure of confidence.