DAMN. isn’t the personal journey that To Pimp a Butterfly was and it doesn’t try to be. DAMN. is Kendrick Lamar dead and Kendrick Lamar alive. It is Kendrick Lamar condemned and Kendrick Lamar redeemed. It is a meditation—or rather, a series of meditations—of Kendrick’s technical and emotional capabilities. Those meditations, on subjects explicitly named in songs like “PRIDE.” “LUST.” and “FEAR.” are bound together as an examination of Kendrick’s own existence: his past, his present, his future, his disciples, his worshippers, his enemies and his worldview.
Two short years ago, when To Pimp a Butterfly came out, Kendrick was coronated hip-hop’s king and savior. Here he embraces the image, turning himself into messiah and martyr. He finds himself crucified on the very first track—his desire to do good, his outstretched hand to the blind of the world, turned upon him and used to undo him. On “DNA.” he’s “Yeshua’s new weapon,” born of Immaculate Conception and eager to lead his people. But Kendrick Lamar is not Jesus. He can’t help being human, and like the best among us, he is capable of, and often beholden to, a dark part of the mind. In highlighting the struggles inherent in his morality, he forces his listeners to consider their own. There are the fears that have altered his perception of the world around him (“FEAR.”), the deadly sins he finds himself consumed by (“PRIDE.” “LUST.”) and the hypocrisy he recognizes in some of his more instinctive notions (“XXX.”).
All of this self-examination is used to fuel an album that essentially marks Kendrick’s return to the world of rap music. But the way Kendrick does commercial is still on a level separated from anyone else working today. He can take a collaboration with U2—something that, on paper, shouldn’t work—and turn it into one of the album’s best songs, in part because of Bono’s vocals, not despite them. He can take a relatively standard hip-hop beat and use it to deliver eviscerating verses, as he does on “DNA.” while “ELEMENT.” and “GOD.” show that he can do moody R&B rap well enough to make Drake nervous.
Kendrick could have easily, and forgivably, fallen short on DAMN., as the expectations swirling around his Butterfly follow-up reached heights known to very few musicians. He hasn’t though. DAMN. doesn’t feel like the earthquake he produced in 2015. It’s unlikely it will ever carry the immense weight that To Pimp a Butterfly did, both for the music world for the artist himself. But it does prove that the millions of fans who have recognized in him an unstoppable creative force are not wrong. With DAMN., Kendrick Lamar plays by the rules and then sets the rule book on fire, and continues one of the most impressive runs of albums of any artist in recent memory. Will that run advance if, as rumored, he drops another album on Sunday? We can’t wait to find out.