At this point, every Kendrick Lamar album is an event. When DAMN. hit the web a little early last night, there was an onslaught of tweeters jumping to call it another classic (and just a few haters) before it was even officially available anywhere. That's not too surprising; DAMN. is one of the most immediate things Kendrick has ever done. Every song slaps you in the face on first listen. Kendrick's delivery remains unparalleled by anyone in the game right now. The production is hot, the rhymes are hotter, and early listens already reveal a few lyrical mic drops. Still, as we've all probably learned by now, Kendrick albums take a long time to unpack. When I first heard To Pimp A Butterfly, the best album of 2015 and maybe the best album of this decade thus far, I was admittedly a little underwhelmed. Kendrick was progressing faster than I, as a listener, could keep up. So with that said, consider this less a review and more a collection of first impressions.
One thing is clear off the bat -- this is nothing like To Pimp A Butterfly. That was a dense, heavily layered, jazz-inspired work that I once called the Dark Side of the Moon of modern rap. It was the kind of album that aimed to be bigger than rap itself. DAMN., on the other hand, is the most traditional rap album he's done yet, even more so than Section.80 and O(verly) D(edicated). I don't mean that in a bad way, and I don’t mean to suggest that there’s anything retro about the album. Just that this album isn't about the choruses, it isn't about the instrumentation -- it's about the rhymes.
The only time guest vocalists (Bono, Rihanna, LA artist Zacari, and a few backup singers) show up is on hooks, and even the hooks here are rather subdued. The only person ever rapping on the album is Kendrick, and DAMN. proves over and over that Kendrick is in a lane of his own as a rapper. The album isn't devoid of jazz -- Brainfeeder labelmates Thundercat and Kamasi Washington do both play on this thing -- but these are mostly hard, bare-bones beats with the sole purpose of setting a backdrop for Kendrick. The very best example of this may be lead single "HUMBLE," with its piano-heavy beat from Mike WiLL Made-It. It's exciting to hear Kendrick spit over something so raw, and exciting to hear Mike WiLL switch up his own style to make something like that too. Releasing that as the only pre-release single set the perfect mood for the rest of DAMN.
Another early highlight is "DNA," the first proper song on the album after the intro track "BLOOD" (which samples that infuriating Fox News segment where Geraldo Rivera and company criticized the lyrics to "Alright"). "DNA" has Kendrick's energy turned up to 11 even more than it is on past bangers like "King Kunta" and "Backseat Freestyle." There's also the nearly-eight-minute "FEAR," where Kendrick takes a break from the fiery tone of this album for another of his "Mortal Man"/"Sing About Me"-style songs that he does so well.
A few other observations: The U2 writing credit isn't a sample but an original hook sung by Bono, and it totally works. James Blake is in fact on the album (he co-produced "ELEMENT"), but his contribution is pretty minor (especially compared to, say, his contribution to Beyonce's Lemonade). The album starts and ends with the same lyric. Kendrick does a ton of awesome bragging and shit-talking all over this record, while making plenty of religious references in the process. He mourns the election of Trump, he fires back at Fox News (not just with the sample but in his lyrics), and he ends the album with a powerful, moving story that you just have to hear come out of Kendrick's mouth (no spoilers).
Check out the FULL ALBUM CREDITS HERE. Listen to the whole thing and watch the video for "HUMBLE" below: