Kendrick Lamar’s new album, “DAMN.” places him in uncharted territory as a hip-hop superstar. While he has long been heralded as the best rapper alive, he never dominated the billboard chart. Then “HUMBLE” dropped. And the streams for “DAMN.” were released. Now Kendrick is not only the best rapper alive, but also the most popular hip-hop artist of 2017, even more so than the billboard juggernaut that is Drake.
While “DAMN.” is an impressive hip-hop feat, it still somehow disappoints. Maybe fans have been spoiled by Kendrick’s past two albums, which have undoubtedly been some of the best in rap history. And thanks to false rumors of a second surprise album that were swirling around release weekend, not everyone was content with the project at hand.
That is the trouble with Kendrick Lamar. The bar has been set so astronomically high, it may have been impossible for him to impress fans with his newest album.
Kendrick’s first standout album, “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” (GKMC) was one of the best narrative-based rap albums of all time and his follow up project “To Pimp A Butterfly” (TPAB) utilized sounds and influences like no album before it, all while giving the Black community a voice at such a divisive time in America. “DAMN.” simply doesn’t live up to this greatness.
Kendrick begins “DAMN.” hurt and on the defensive, specifically against Geraldo Rivera and Fox News. He samples a clip from a newscast where Rivera, referring to Kendrick’s controversial BET award performance, says, “… this is why I say that hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years.” While Kendrick is able to dissect and obliterate these critics with ease, this is really nothing new. Kendrick touched on these race-related topics constantly on “TPAB” and his perspective hasn’t changed significantly since then. While it is obvious that race relations haven’t settled since “TPAB”, Kendrick needs to find a new angle if he is going to touch on the same issues he speaks on so often.
While “TPAB”, was critically acclaimed and a Grammy winner, it was not as well received by mainstream fans. The jazzy and experimental sound lacked the replay value of the albums before it. On “DAMN.”, Kendrick brings back the mainstream hip-hop styles such as the boom-bap sound on “DUCKWORTH” and “FEAR” and trap influence on the hits, “HUMBLE” and “DNA”. He also ventures into the R&B realm with “LOYALTY (feat. Rihanna),” “LOVE (feat. Zacari)” and “GOD.” This is new for Kendrick as he is not by any means known for his singing ability, most often praised for his outstanding lyricism, flow and delivery. But while these tracks aren’t unlistenable, they are nothing special in a time where moody R&B is quite mainstream. In fact, Kendrick is outshined by his featured artists on both “LOYALTY” and “LOVE”. It is clear that Kendrick is not a seasoned R&B artist and while he doesn’t need to stay away from these sounds, it is not where his talents are best utilized.
Kendrick is at his best when he works in two different sounds: the hard-hitting banger where he proves his technical ability is above that of any other Emcee (see “HUMBLE” and “DNA”) and on story-based tracks where Kendrick profoundly and adeptly speaks about his past and expresses emotion like no other (see. “DUCKWORTH”). The main issue with “DAMN.” is the lack of the latter. Songs from Lamar’s discography such as “The Art of Peer Pressure”, “Good Kid”, “How Much a Dollar Cost” and “The Blacker the Berry” are the reason he is seen as such a revolutionary talent. But, Kendrick strayed away from this style for the most part on “DAMN.”. While it could be seen as admirable and innovative to try a new style and not make the same song over and over, these storytelling tracks are hailed as classics for a reason and Kendrick should not have strayed away from what brought him such success
“DAMN.” is undoubtedly the best rap album of 2017 and one of the best of the decade, but somehow it is still only the bronze medal in Kendrick’s discography, even though it is his best-selling project to date. This is the curse of being the greatest rapper alive. While it may have been impossible for Kendrick to fully meet expectations on this project and while there is no bad song on the album, it somehow is still a disappointment because it feels that he has not upped the ante. On “DAMN.”, Kendrick flexes his muscles once again and shows that he is the best out by a longshot. However, he is no longer being compared to his contemporaries, but instead the all-time legends, such as Nas, Jay-Z, Biggie, Tupac. And to compete with this company, Kendrick must do more. Great just isn’t good enough.