Review: Rapper returns to pure hip-hop in ‘DAMN.’

Kendrick Lamar preaches colloquial sermon in fourth album

Kendrick Lamar just can’t seem to stop. For many critics, the rapper’s 2015 multi-genre masterpiece “To Pimp A Butterfly” was a peak in modern hip-hop, one he seems to lay claim to in his latest full-length LP (long-play record) “DAMN.”

The brilliance of “DAMN.” must be traced back to a March 1 cover story for T Magazine, where Lamar first spoke on the sound of his fourth album. He called the album “urgent,” and said his audience was shifting more toward the people he grew up around.

“My focus is ultimately going back to my community and the other communities around the world where they’re doing the groundwork,” Lamar said in the interview. “‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ was addressing the problem. I’m in a space now where I’m not addressing the problem anymore.”

Lamar’s fourth album doesn’t carry the same musical complexity as his last LP, but if anything, it may paint an even more vivid picture of struggle in America. Where “To Pimp A Butterfly” showed a level of genius in bending genres, “DAMN.” displays the Compton rapper’s ability to create an album based on the true mastery of commentary hip-hop.

The album’s themes focus most heavily on emotional struggle, such as in tracks like “FEEL.” and “LUST.” The songs show Lamar’s inclination to write lyrics about the moods of confliction and terror, specifically referencing today’s political climate as a factor for his negativity. The latter of the two tracks, “LUST.,” also proves Lamar can still make political hip-hop better than any other rapper.

While “DAMN.” contains many tracks right up Lamar’s alley, it also marks the first time the rapper has made conventional, radio hip-hop tracks. The most apparent example is the track “LOYALTY.,” featuring Rihanna. The song doesn’t sound like something Lamar would make, but the fact he combined both meaningful lyrics and a song with commercial potential should be enough to make a certain competitor rather fearful.

The production value of “DAMN.” exemplifies the largest level of variety seen yet in Lamar’s work. The rapper’s ear for beats has gotten better with each album, and that’s no different for his latest work. The LP contains multiple pure, abrasive rap beats, such as the instant anthem “DNA.” or the surprisingly sublime “XXX.,” which features U2. Lamar also transitions to soothing R&B-influenced music at a moment’s notice, like he does on “LOVE.”

The only flaw with “DAMN.” may be Lamar’s attempt to balance the line between an accessible album and one that, like “To Pimp A Butterfly,” requires specific musical taste. To a hip-hop purist, this album may sound like a numbed version of Lamar’s last masterpiece. But when considering Lamar’s goal, which was to make an album for an entire community, “DAMN.” lands right where it should.

In creating an album more sonically comfortable than “To Pimp A Butterfly” without sacrificing his genuine artistry, Lamar has made another superb album. Because of its balance between classic influences and the ever-changing landscape of hip-hop, “DAMN.” seems to be an album able to transcend multiple generations. By doing this, Lamar has achieved his true goal — “DAMN.” is an album for the innovators.

“DAMN.” by Kendrick Lamar: 4.5/5