Album review: “Damn” by Kendrick Lamar is brilliant, but uneven

Album review: “Damn” by Kendrick Lamar is brilliant, but uneven
"Damn" is Compton, California rapper Kendrick Lamar's latest release.

By Andy Dunbar

“My left stroke just went viral,” raps Kendrick Lamar in “HUMBLE,” the first hit from his new album DAMN, which is the fourth studio album by the hip-hop artist. The line refers to the success of his previous album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” but it could have been referencing either the single or new album, both of which top the Billboard Hot 100 list.

A seven-time Grammy Award winner, Lamar receives a boost on his new work with guest appearances from artists U2, Rihanna and Zacari. The soon-to-be 30-year-old performer got his start as a teenager using the stage name K-Dot. After releasing a mixtape, he was signed to a record deal with an indie label. Last year, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

The Compton, California-based rapper’s previous two and most prominent records are “good kid, m.A.A.d city” and “To Pimp a Butterfly.” The former explores his faith, youth and upbringing in one of the roughest neighborhoods in the country and the latter discusses race in America. Heavy themes are nothing new to Lamar, who has made biblical references and allusions throughout all of his works, dating back to his debut album, “Section.80,” which featured a Bible on the cover.

Those allusions start early in his new album, beginning with the title DAMN – which can have multiple meanings, including being damned or condemned by God – and extending to its Good Friday release date. Later, as the first track turns the parable of the blind beggar on its head, listeners experience a lesson in spirituality.

In DAMN, Lamar finds a balance between his previous two works, still addressing the big questions, but making it profoundly personal as well. At first glance, the record might resemble a return to form after an experiment in jazz-oriented beats on “To Pimp a Butterfly,” but that quickly changes as the album’s 55 minutes go on.

It might not be Lamar’s intention to make the album even in tone, but it is a bit jarring for a casual listener to hear the menacing “DNA” and then to listen to “LOVE,” which contains R&B, sing-songy vibes. As stand-alone songs they are brilliant and incredibly fun to listen to, but hearing both a few minutes after each other, with no dialogue in between, disrupts the overall flow of the album.

A poetic reasoning for this would be that it shows how up and down the rapper’s life has been and how it blends his past two albums together, but it’s not as seamless as it could be. However, the lyrics are as masterfully written and delivered as ever, and the beats work well and are fun to listen to.

If you are looking for an incredibly poetic and spiritual experience – and don’t mind the jarring changes in tone – check out Lamar’s new album, DAMN. (Warning: contains profanity and graphic imagery.)