Kendrick Lamar cares about going down in history as one of hip-hop’s greatest. His pen is possessed by a competitive spirit, a passion so combative that he called out legends when his name was barely on blogs and called out peers during his ascension to the top. He used Isaiah Rashad’s “Wat’s Wrong” as the platform to boast about being the best rapper since the age of 25, which was 2012―the year of good kid, m.A.A.d city.
When Kendrick speaks about being the best, his words aren’t shallow. There’s a weight to his self-praise as if he dares someone to deny his position. That’s what makes Kendrick an exhilarating emcee. He’s able to talk big because he delivers big―the crown upon his head wasn’t given but earned, and each time he’s behind a microphone the motive is to remind us of his greatness.
Kendrick's eyes aren’t on the charts, and his mind isn’t on plaques, but rather the acclaim that comes from dropping classic after classic, exceptional verse after exceptional verse; some artist are like Icarus, driven by a desire to fly near the sun with wings of wax. Kendrick is different, he wants to reach Olympus, he wants to stand in the company of Gods.
My excitement for DAMN., Kendrick’s fourth studio album, is solely based on the spirit that drives him to push beyond. “The Heart Part 4” and “Humble” both showcase an emcee who doesn’t want to sing but a man full of carnage who only knows how to wreak microphones and abuse beats. An artist with nothing to prove but all the desire to remind why he’s at the top of his class.
I believe DAMN. is the title because by the end of track 14, damn will be the only words on my lips. I believe in Kendrick because he has yet to let me down, he cares too much about his spotless discography to fumble or fall. Pressure can break a man or make a diamond, the latter has been my experience with K-Dot. What I want from Kendrick is to show me what a king, the greatest, and the best are supposed to sound like.
In usual 1-Listen fashion, the rules are the same: no skipping, no fast-forwarding, no rewinding and no stopping. Each song will receive my gut reaction from start to finish. Happy birthday to my little brother James and DJBooth's managing editor Brendan, may this Kendrick be a gift to you and to the world. In the words of a wise man, let's get ready to rumble.
The first voice you hear isn’t Kendrick, which is rather amusing considering the small number of features on this album. It feels heavily edited, robotic. I'm not sure what the first lyric was but a quick pause came after. It sounds like Thundercat if he was making music in the Star Wars universe. The production just kicked in, lush, the kind of warmth you experience in a dream. Kendrick appears, almost in a whisper. He talks about walking and seeing a blind woman. Kendrick pays attention to his surroundings. Even the most mundane aspects of life interest him. I love these strings playing so elegantly in the background, this is heavenly. So sharp and pristine. I’m sure this blind woman is going to turn out to be an angel or Tupac’s great-grandmother. THE BLIND WOMAN JUST KILLED KENDRICK! SHE SHOT HIM. THATS NO ANGEL. SHE TOOK HIS LIFE. WTF KIND OF TWIST. DAMN. A news clip plays about Kendrick Lamar lyrics about police brutality, but I’m still stuck on the blind woman.
THIS BEAT IS FUCKING MONSTROUS. Holy shit, this album just took the most sudden twist. I haven’t been this shocked since the deer collided with the car at the beginning of Get Out. I must focus. This is thumping. More Kendrick over trap beats, please. I want to join a gang. This is get jumped music. Kendrick is giving me GKMC imagery-esque lyricism. This isn’t TPAB! This is raw, m.A.A.d city levels of unfiltered brashness. It makes you want to hit the Rick Flair WOOOOO! THE I GOT/YOU’S A STUTTER is such a brilliant trick. Listening to Kendrick rap is like watching Tony Hawk land the 900 over and over. He’s a baseball player on steroids stepping up to the plate. This is an incredibly turnt up song. It doesn’t feel like a Mike WiLL beat. Let's just say, you wouldn't hear this on a Gucci album. The bass is menacing. It wouldn’t surprise me if you found it in a police lineup. I can’t keep up with Kendrick. He’s almost like a man entranced. Kendrick is in the pocket, like dancing in it. I swear he just did the Uzi Vert Yeah Yeah and I loved it. A lot of life events being mentioned. KENDRICK HAS ZONED OUT COMPLETELY. Beat switch. A rumbling bass. A news clip about hip-hop. There’s too much going on. I feel like I’m in a twister. A countdown. THE BEAT SWITCH AND IT'S BRUTAL, a true leviathan, this is madness. The aggression in Kendrick’s verse will inspire so many air punches like Cuba Gooding Jr in Boyz N The Hood. You feel this song in your chest. I’m overwhelmed by this nonstop wordplay and loving every minute. What an intricate song. I feel like the Wile E. Coyote trying to keep up with The Road Runner. The aggression! I can almost feel the blood boiling in my headphones. If instrumentals could melt, “DNA’s” production would resemble a hotdog that's been in the microwave for 10 minutes. I don’t think Kendrick is human. You shouldn’t be able to rap like this. What the fuck?
A strong thump. Kendrick went from sounding like a murderer to a drunk swaying in the studio. Such a dusty beat with lively drums. So hip-hop. There’s something enthralling about his voice, but his voice also seems so low in energy. “My momma told me I’m going to work myself to death,” damn. I don’t know how he transforms into a completely different rapper every time. Not like how The Game can mimic his features, but Kendrick has a way of changing his style so drastically that he doesn’t even sound like who he was on the previous song. He just mentioned Fox News wanting to use his name for purchase and followed up with his proud niece bragging about him. I like this, wow. This has depth. I’m loving the introspective Kenny. I’ve wanted to know what goes on in that mind of his and this is offering a few snapshots. The hook is simple, but as I’ve mentioned, the way this song has been delivered is so enthralling. I could get lost in the song for hours but it’s also sadly short. "YAH." is like watching a boxer shadow box after drinking an entire bottle of Hennessy; you just can’t look away. Even when in a drunken stupor his form is electric. I wish it was longer, I want more. Will rewind, immediately.
What? Kung Fu Kenny? I'm loving the new name. Oh shit, Kid Capri. “What happens on earth stays on earth,” gospel. DJ scratches, loving the vintage hip-hop build up. The passion! This is a rapper who is ready to take a head off. Kendrick said he will put the Bible down and go eye for an eye. I take back what I sad about him being a gospel rapper. Also, whoever beat up Kendrick in front of Momma Duckworth will spend the rest of his life apologizing. THE BEAT DROPPED AND THIS IS A GROOVE. LeBron played this on his Instagram, easily an early favorite. The first verse is impeccable, the hook is catchy, and this beat surges through your body. Kendrick is pulling off the kind of tricks you expect from Drake. Something about the beat feels like “0 to 100,” the key and drum patterns maybe, sparse but impactful. I'm loving the keys. It's funny how the beat is able to twist and turn and Kendrick is unaffected. He’s the type of man who would drive through a hurricane unbothered. Kendrick is pulling cards, he’s talking SHIT! “Just say his name and I promise you’ll see Candyman.” I CANT KEEP UP. The beat just slowed down, chopped and screwed. Damn, this album is a lot to take in. The rush this album is giving me has to be similar to doing a line of the best Colombian coke. Kendrick has a banger, not for the club but for riding on your enemies in the sexiest way.
It’s impossible to keep up with all that’s happening. If you thought TPAB was a lot, this album is less jazz but a double dose of content. Voices. Kendrick’s voice. It’s like being back in the “u” hotel. “Nobody praying for me.” Another sparse, dusty beat. Sounds like it was made in a basement surrounded by crates of oldies and old people. I now realize I can think clearly when Kung Fu Kendrick isn’t hitting me with a million words. He just arrived and his mouth is moving like a motor. He’s really being honest about his feelings, hence the title. Did he just say something about a daughter? I'm not sure. I just realized he was supposed to die at the beginning of this album but I'll be damned if he doesn’t sound alive. A strong first verse and the second verse is keeping the energy flowing. It feels like this was a song he did in one take. The energy is so natural. He doesn’t sound hurt but the sincerity is like he is rapping with his hand on a Bible in a court of law. Another claim at being the greatest. No tricks on this one, it’s as straightforward as a bullet. WOOOOO!!! So many Instagram caption bars on this one. I haven’t been this excited to quote lyrics for Facebook since Drake’s Take Care. THE FLOW IS RIDICULOUS. “I feel like the whole world wants me to pray for them but whose praying for me,” good question Kenny. I don’t know but it’s interesting that this is the album he makes after untitled unmastered. His faith in God hasn’t wavered but you can feel his angst toward his fellow man and rappers.
6. "LOYALTY." (ft. Rihanna)
I'm not sure what’s going on? It sounds like lyrics are being played in reverse. Like if an angel was tongue-tied. Weird. WHAT THE HELL? The way the vocal dropped was so unexpected but I’m vibing out. Is that SiR, uncredited? Who is singing the hook? More like vocals assisting K-Dot. Kendrick just said there’s a secret society on a song that feels like it could go on the radio. This is wavier than the summer X Games hosted in Hawaii. This has such an infectious groove. That isn’t Rihanna. Kendrick really just suddenly tagged her in during his verse. What the hell, wooo, this is smoother than Rihanna in a silk dress. This isn’t a pop hit, it’s more like a rap R&B record. Rihanna has so much swagger. Kendrick went out and got a Rihanna feature and let the hitmaker kick bars. Nothing about this album makes sense, NOTHING. Kendrick has a thing for tripling L words on his hooks―"Levitate" and "Loyalty." Both sound incredible. This has hit potential. It doesn’t sound traditional, but there’s a trap-banger feeling. In terms of execution, this is Kendrick borrowing from Future’s palette and doing a 720. This could have been on HNDRXX. It's catchy without being corny. this is what "Poetic Justice" would sound like with 2017 Kendrick. I have to know this sample. Rihanna singing at the end, I can’t believe she went the entire song without having to hit a note. So hard to be humble, I bet it is RiRi.
I don’t know what Kendrick is doing and I don’t know what he’s going to do next but I’m lost in this project. Complete switch up. Is this KAYTRANADA singing? I don’t know whose voice that is but they left the kind of haunting message you would hear on a new season of Bojack Horseman. The voice faded out, the beat dropped, and I just lifted off the ground. Kendrick's singing and these vocals are taking my soles off the floor and sending my soul to the heavens above. Kendrick rapping now, he sounds a bit under the beat, but there’s a brightness. The introspection here makes me feel far closer to Kendrick than I’ve been with any of his last three projects. Far slower flow. “I can’t fake humble because your ass is insecure,” it’s lyrics like this that tell you Kendrick puts together albums a very particular way. A line about faking humble before “HUMBLE.” This bridge is out of this WORLD. I can’t put my finger on who this reminds me of but there's a familiarity about how he’s delivering his vocals. Steve Lacy put his foot in this. It’s such a simple beat but these chord progressions are hot. Kendrick’s poetry is potent. I'm loving the way he’s painting the picture of a perfect world. Kind of like if he did a modern "Heaven & Hell" without the abrupt cutoff. The alien voice is missing, but the way he’s pitching the bridge is new for him. I like this a lot. I’m sweating, I need a drink, damn this is good.
HUMBLE JUST CAME IN LIKE AN EARTHQUAKE! If a song could separate California and send the state into the ocean, it is "HUMBLE" Mike WiLL can make the most simplistic beat into an elephant that completely thrashers through a house. I never expected Mike and Kendrick to be such a dynamic duo but they are two for two on the album. Syrup sammiches sound like what Future calls his combo when sipping lean and eating at Subway. “HUMBLE.” has grown on me in the week since the release, and I can’t wait until Kendrick starts performing it and the crowd reacts to the Left Stroke line. It’s going to be the trick that will run this entire summer. Kendrick had a hit with "Alright" but this is different. Talk about burn down the club music. I wonder how mad Big Sean will be when he walks into the club and they play this back to back to back? No matter how you feel, the Photoshop line will also ring off. I need a pair of Polo socks, holla at me Ralph. This entire album has been intricate. A mind maze. "HUMBLE." was made as a break from the brain blast. He knows how to make a record for the radio and the club, while not sacrificing what makes it a Kendrick song. What makes Kendrick a genius isn’t the number of hits he can make but the way he crafts them. Let's not forget that "Swimming Pools" is a single about alcoholism that still makes hordes of people go absolute ape.
Nine songs in and I’m lost in this world. A slow build up. Some soft keys sound like a sample swirling in the background. It feels almost like something will leap out and grab me. I feel too calm and I don’t like calm with Kendrick. He has been hitting each song so early that this build up is a mood setter. This is a BADBADNOTGOOD production. I'm loving the drums, the production sounds like they sampled Andre's “Vibrate” from The Love Below. This would be the song for Andre. I'm so disappointed he hasn't worked with Kenny. Kendrick’s singing voice has so much personality, it reminds me of hearing Gambino’s “Redbone” and being shocked by his pitch change. A woman’s voice. Okay, Kendrick's rapping. Who is this woman rapping? Like a ghost. I don’t know. This entire verse is too dreamy. I’m almost sure it’s meant to feel like hallucinating or tripping off a drum. I love the drums. “Lust” is P&P 2.0 but far more mature. I just wish this felt lustier. I wouldn't have sex to this song unless it was zombie apocalypse sex. Kendrick has more flows than Frieza has forms and the production has gone through more changes than Cell. The last verse is about the election. Did he just call us drones? WOOOO THERE GOES THE JAZZINESS. This truly feels like an Outkast song now. What's the song that has George Clinton on it? "Syntheziser," it's "Syntheziser!" This has been the longest song on the album, and the most baffling, but it will throw you into a trance. I liken the experience to being hypnotized. “LUST.” is the teacup with a stirring silver spoon. Just when I wish it was shorter the song ended.
10. "LOVE." (ft. Zacari)
Kid Capri is back! Still letting it spin. Woo, I’m exhausted. Zacari sounds like Starrah. I believe that’s Zacari. It sure as hell isn’t Kendrick. Oh man, this song feels like being pushed into the ball pit at Chuck-E-Cheese―sudden but thrilling. Kendrick doesn't have many love songs, does he? Well, this is one. It doesn't feel forced. I really like this. It’s wild how he has a different approach to rapping to every song. His mind works like a chess player with 100 moves for checkmate. Does this feel like a Drake song? Yeah, it does. Kendrick said hit the shoulder lean, Young Dro back. I don’t know what to think. This is such a warm and pleasant song. I can see it on the quiet storm playlist. A bubbly trap song that you play while making your wifey a bubble bath. THIS FLOW HE’S USING!? This is like mimicking Drake but better than Drake. I'm not comparing them, but this isn't Kendrick. He's channeling someone else and doing it damn well. The production is a hill covered in snow and Kendrick’s flow is a sled. “I wanna be with you.” I hear radio potential.
11. "XXX." (ft. U2)
Okay U2, don’t treat this song like the album that invaded my iPhone. Singing about America, HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT!!! THE BEAT SWITCHED!!! THE DJ SCRATCHES! KENDRICKS VOICE. THIS IS INSANE. You have to Diddy shimmy to this. My shoulders have caught the Holy Ghost. I don’t know what happened. The drums are hitting harder than when Ethan Hawke hit the Angel Dust with Denzel Washington in Training Day. Guys, I quit. This song is amazing. I can’t even fathom a word to describe how amazing Kendrick sounds right now. If you thought U2 was going to ruin this album you are wrong, very wrong. THIS IS FUCKING RAP MUSIC *joyful tear emoji*. This is 2017 Ice Cube rapping, this is I grew up on NWA rapping, this is goat emoji rapping. I’m so lost in the sauce. Stop the album, I just want to feel this excitement for the rest of my life. Another beat alteration. Smooth. Donald Trump and Obama mentions. America is getting Kendrick’s glare. There are more flows on this song than keys on my keyboard. Everything sounds great. Give him a GRAMMY, now.
I really could stop listening right now. There’s nothing left for Kendrick to prove. Three more songs. Another calm introduction, we hear a women's voice and now a man's voice. As soon as the drums hit and the soulful keys you know Alchemist has arrived. Jesus, this is butter. A deep voice, who the hell is that? Asking, "why God"? Those hi-hats are nasty. Kendrick is back to his alien-esque voice. Is he rapping backward? What the hell? Kendrick has threatened so many people on this album. Wait, is he talking to a child? His child? Strike parent Kendrick is like if Martin and Gina raised a son. I’m loving this, but I’m actually thinking he’s rapping from his dad’s perspective. Dog, Alchemist is not playing around. I think we should petition for no more, "Life's a bitch" lines. Kendrick changed his voice and changed his perspective. I’m loving the direction he took rapping about fear—the fear of dying in Compton. This might be a new favorite. It's melancholy but the imagery he’s painting is exquisite. Kendrick is a true illustrator. He's deep diving in his thoughts again. Rapping as an adult and the fear of being Kendrick Lamar the rapper. THIS IS SO GOOD! Yo, Kendrick is being brutally honest. "Sing About Me" last verse honest. It just hit me that the song titles are the themes of each song. Holy shit, another concept album with no narrator. I could cry, this is the kind of rap music you dream about. Rewind, rewind, rewind. Just give him all the GRAMMYS and trophies. I’m glad he isn’t a journalist, I would hate for this man to be my competition. Someone is speaking. A voicemail. He's giving a scripture. I wish I knew my Bible better. I love how the best sounds. Wait, he's talking about being Israelites? Earlier in the album, Kendrick mentioned not being Black but an Israelite. This is deep. Religion and God are indeed playing a big part in this album's message.
What will you say about God, Kendrick? “This what God feel like,” I’m laughing. I can’t believe this is how he’s starting a song called God. He is more unpredictable than a winning lottery ticket. Cardo is taking us to church. If he sent this beat to Chance a full choir would be on here. This is so good but in such a strange way. At first, I thought the hook would be annoying but I can’t wait to sing this in my best drunken voice. It’s so warm, so honest. The aggression is gone in Kendrick’s voice. Cardo supplied Kendrick with another banger. This is a trap joint, but the approach is so far from what most rappers would do with such a slapper. Play this on the way to church on Easter service. Gospel. With each passing second, "GOD." grows on me a bit more. Experimenting isn’t something Kendrick fears, not a single song sounds the same or even remotely similar.
The final song. Again the voice sounds like Thundercat raised in the era of Darth Vader. I'm loving the keys under the verse. WOW, shouting, surprisingly. “We’re going to put it in reverse,” a sample just came through. THIS SONG HAS MADE THREE CRAZY SWITCHES IN 10 SECONDS. Kendrick is back and he’s snapping. I love the drums. I love them like children and skittles, men and steaks, women and stunting 1,000 likes on Instagram. 9th mother fucking WONDER! This is SOUL. I can’t help but think about how Drake came into the game praising Little Brother and it’s Kendrick sounding like the newest member of LB 2.0. We need more Kendrick and 9th! THE BEAT JUST SWITCHED AS IF IT HEARD MY PRAYERS. I need to get caught up in this narrative. He’s telling a story, immaculate storytelling. CLOSE YOUR EYES AND VISUALIZE. Wait, is this about his parents? I believe so. He said back in ‘84 and Kendrick was born in ‘87. He’s saying his name is Duckworth. I'M LOVING THIS. THERE'S SO MUCH SOUL IN THIS PRODUCTION. 9th Wonder sampled an angel. NO, THIS WAS ABOUT TOP DAWG AND HIS FATHER? WTF WTF WTF. STOP EVERYTHING STOP EVERYTHING. TOP DAWG COULD'VE KILLED KENDRICK'S FATHER!? NOOOOO WAY. WHAT THE FUCK?
Final (first listen) thoughts of DAMN.:
DAMN! DAMN! DAMN! DAMN! I’m at a complete and utter loss for words.
Did Kendrick just pull the plot twist of the year? How can I think about the entire album after that grand finale? My mind has been bent, twisted, and completed loss by all this album has thrown at me.
There were only a few moments where my jaw wasn’t ajar, mesmerizing in a way that GKMC and TPAB aren’t. This is the feeling Kanye gave me so many years ago, how each album was a surprise. You could never tell his next move. Kendrick’s in that class of unpredictable artistry. It’s scary to think he’s getting better, improving on his strengths.
Kendrick doesn’t make albums, he makes experiences. Each one will touch a different emotion, pull on a different heartstring. DAMN. is indeed the title because, by the end of the 14 songs, damn is the only word on your lips.
Kendrick is one of the few artists who make a 1-Listen review difficult because one isn’t enough. If I had to compare his music to an art form, I would choose cinema. Just like seeing a fascinating movie, your eyes aren’t able to capture all the beauty and nuances in one viewing. The first watch will blow you away to the point that you must see it again and that’s Kendrick. Hell, even twice might not be enough.
I’m still trying to fathom how the album begins with his death and ends with the story of how his father and Top Dawg knew each other as youngsters. Can you imagine the odds? That there was a moment in history where Top Dawg and Kendrick Lamar’s lives crossed? Destiny is a strong word, but I’d be damned if the Gods don’t have a sense of humor.
I have to listen again, we should all listen again. And again.
Kendrick delivered. He gave us a rap album unlike anything he’s ever created and unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. By now this is what we should expect from the King. He is a king and the crown on his head is immovable.
By Yoh, aka Kung-Fu Yoh, aka @Yoh31