It’s too early to properly evaluate DAMN.‘s place in history. But the album’s aspirations reveal a whole lot about Kendrick’s.
Since Kendrick Lamar dropped DAMN. on us at 12 A.M. EST on Friday, April 14th, I’ve listened to it (at least) 20 times. Once while in bed at approximately 12:40 A.M. that night, after I saw a tweet reminding me it was just released (and while my increasingly annoyed wife laid next to me, very obviously pondering whether the whole “married to a writer” thing was worth it). Once while it streamed through my TV during an impromptu get together my wife and I hosted Saturday night. And the rest while in my car at various times. According to PEOPLE ON THE INTERNET—who maintain that an album must be seasoned enough to be fossilized and assessed through carbon dating before offering any public thoughts on it—enough time hasn’t passed yet to give it a thorough review, so I won’t dare do that.
That said, I can state the following without reservation:
1. “DNA” is the latest entry on my playlist of “Songs to listen to at full blast with your window down when driving through an affluent shopping district and you want to offend white people”;
2. “Loyalty” confirms that I’d rather hear a whole album of Rihanna rapping than Big Sean;
3. “Duckworth” solidifies Kendrick’s place as hip-hop’s preeminent storyteller (a title Nas held for two decades);
4. “Lust” is basically “She Lives in My Lap” Pt. 2—an amazing song I have an awkward relationship with because it reminds me of this woman I dated for a couple months several years ago who listened to it at least once a day. She almost got me killed because her ex still had a key to her apartment and woke me up in the middle of the night, standing over me with a shotgun, a take home container of what looked to be curry goat from Leon’s Caribbean Food on Warrington Avenue, and a Superman shirt; cursing at me in broken patois while I laid in bed naked, confused, and distracted by how awesome the curry goat smelled. (I hate that fucking song.)
“He’s trying to say something, and through that effort he creates artifacts that are intended to last.”
I can’t, however, determine whether DAMN. is a classic. (It is actually far too early to determine that.) That doesn’t matter right now anyway. What matters is that he tried.
The most endearing part of Kendrick Lamar Duckworth—and one that makes the separation between him and his peers even more vast—is that he’s not afraid of effort and caring, nor is he afraid of exposing that effort and that care. You will not find him exhibiting any form of performative apathy or the type of reflexively self-conscious brand maintenance that would cause someone to call an album a fucking playlist just to temper critical expectations. Kendrick wants to be the best, and he wants us to know that he wants to be. His now pantheonic “Control” verse wasn’t just a prophecy; it was a mission statement and a directions package shoehorned into a pamphlet, specifically articulating exactly how he’s built and why he’s built that way.
And although his messaging can be sloppy and his politics can be messy, I appreciate that this effort manifests as him creating albums that aspire to tell a complex and cohesive story instead of a collection of arbitrarily connected tracks whose only purpose is to exist in someone’s game-night Zune. He’s trying to say something, and through that effort he creates artifacts that are intended to last. DAMN., like Untitled Unmastered before it, and To Pimp a Butterfly before that, and Good Kid, MAAD City before that, was conceived with the transparent ambition of still being considered the best rap album of the year 10 years after its release. He’s trying to win 2027 in 2017.
Was he successful? Again, I don’t know yet. I just know that he ain’t scared of y’all motherfuckers, and that makes me happy.
Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VerySmartBrothas (VSB) and a professional Black person. He can be reached at @verysmartbros or email@example.com.
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