Label: TDE, Aftermath, Interscope
Producers: 9th Wonder, The Alchemist, Bēkon, BadBadNotGood, Cardo, DJ Dahi, Greg Kurstin, James Blake, Kuk Harrell, Mike Will Made-It, Mike Hector, Ricci Riera, Sounwave, Steve Lacy, Terrace Martin, Tae Beast, Teddy Walton, Yung Exclusive
Features: Rihanna, Zacari, U2
While peers such as Eminem and Nicki Minaj maintain a cadre of alter egos, Kendrick has always preferred to dabble with the messier and more infinite range of voice itself. He often flirts with the absence of his vocal signature, obscuring then finding again that distinct pinching pitch audiences associate with K-Dot. Though not unnoticed (“rapducer” Crank Lucas’ made a popular video poking fun at this), it’s a feature of his work often muffled in discussions about Kendrick’s place in the rapper matrix and the “conscious” rapper label (that he, admittedly, invites). Perhaps it is harder to have faith in a spiritual leader known to inhabit multiple perspectives at once. Seems only right then that Damn, his most vocally multitudinous project yet, also completely destabilizes any former notions of Kendrick the Prophet. Amen.
With an artist like Kendrick, the gulf between best and “worst” looks razor thin. Though perhaps not a dramatic departure in style, tone, or method, Damn distinguishes itself as the apex of a career-long experiment with vocal elasticity. If an MC’s voice—singular—is his bread and butter, Damn undermines the expectation that rappers be coherent, whole, and recognizable at all times. Damn undermines the expectation that we ourselves be coherent, whole, and recognizable. In a moment where people must be brands, Damn places relentless pressure on the idea that anyone can really get a handle on all the personas that reside within a single person. The album’s questions—formal and implicit—plumb the vocal intertexts that guide our lives: Who am I today? How many me’s do I try on to find the right one? Which version of myself will you love? Which one can I live with? Why do I sound like my mama? Why'm I still telling that tired old story? Who the fuck prayin’ for me?
Songs like "DNA," "Feel," "Pride," and "Fear" bring such self-interrogation to life in lyric. Meanwhile, across the album, contradictory evocations of themes like humility (“I can’t fake humble just cause your ass is insecure” vs. “pride’s gonna be the death of you and me”) and religion (earthly delights vs. heavenly delights) similarly create a sense of uncertainty. Narrative plays a big role in Damn, but all the stories are interrupted. Habit dictates we treat Kendrick as the reliable narrator we want him to be—Damn’s slip and slide through otherwise voices (his cousin, his mom, Deuteronomy, Fox news, Rihanna, Kid Capri) and sporadic access to his own suggests we rethink that assumption. The song titles, uppercase and punctuated, tease a kind of closure that the songs themselves withhold. Even with chart favorites like “Humble” and “Loyalty” voices are layered (and competitive), diverse, and mediated.
To Pimp a Butterfly may be Kendrick’s unequivocal love letter to black folks stateside, but Damn best sounds the dizzying array of multi-level micro-adjustments that mar and animate black life, period. In a post-fact world of sorts, Kendrick enacts black life as the ultimate counterfactual, an irreconcilable knot of histories, doctrines, spirits, and sounds. “I can feel it, the scream the haunts our logic,” he grates on “Feel.” It’s a helluva heritage, but as Damn proves, these mixed grooves make music for the ages. —Lauren M. Jackson