Album Review: The 3 Tiers of Kendrick Lamar's DAMN
By Noah Grossman
Kendrick Lamar released DAMN. to much anticipation. It has shattered those expectations and then some. An incomparable album, Lamar barely misses any steps from the beginning to the end, and essentially shamed every other rapper with his ability. I have listened to the album all the way through, in order, about five times now, and listened to individual songs such as “PRIDE.” and “LOVE.” by themselves multiple times over. Listening to the album, I have identified three tiers of Kendrick. Tier 1 is entitled The G.O.A.T. and encompasses songs that are either something I have never heard before, or are in a certain style but are the perfect iteration of that style. Tier 2 is entitled King Kendrick and is full of songs that right now, Kendrick is the only person in the world able to pull off. These songs miss the historic originality or perfection of Tier 1 songs, however still are the work of the best rapper in the world. Tier 3 is entitled Simply Human and encompasses songs that are good, but not that original and not that jaw dropping. Other top rappers could probably pull off songs in Tier 3, but that bar is still remarkably high.
Tier 1: The G.O.A.T
PRIDE.: My personal favorite on the album, when I first heard it I thought I had accidentally changed the music to Pink Floyd or to a psychedelic-era Beatles song. “PRIDE.” completely encapsulates the listener as Lamar raps slowly over a melodic beat. This is Kendrick at his experimental best, combining classic and impeccable rapping technique with a completely original sound that melds rap, R&B, and elements of rock. The lyrics here are also fantastic, speaking on the concept of a “perfect” world, and how this is impossible.
LOVE.: Here, Lamar essentially channels his inner Drake, and does it better than Drake ever does. “LOVE.” is a classic, somewhat sappy, hip-hop anthem dedicated to- for lack of a better word, love. It almost feels like Kendrick is showing everyone that he could make songs like everyone else does however he chooses not to. Despite “LOVE.” following the same structure as almost any Top 40 hip-hop song you could find, Lamar’s rapping ability sets the song apart from anything anyone else could do.
BLOOD./DNA.: “BLOOD.” is the short intro to the album, however I added it to “DNA.” because the ending of “BLOOD.” is supposed to flow seamlessly into “DNA..” Essentially, a giant fuck you to Fox News crossed with a black pride anthem, “DNA.” deals with Lamar’s pride in his culture and anger at Fox News’ rating chasing method of discussing hip-hop. In tandem with the deep and pertinent message, Kendrick’s rapping ability is really on show here. He destroys two separate beats, and when I say destroy, I mean destroy. Seriously, try to find a part where he takes a break to breathe after the beat changes (around the 2:00 minute mark), it's nigh impossible.
DUCKWORTH.: “DUCKWORTH.” is incredible, because Kendrick does in four minutes what many rappers fail to do in an entire album. Kendrick tells what equates to an entire novel within the confines of this song. Even if you do not listen for the story (which you totally should), you can be enamored by the old school beat and Kendrick’s incredible ability to rap over an ever changing beat and always sound good. Also, the end of this song when it rewinds to the beginning of the album is totally mind-melting.
HUMBLE.: Released before the rest of the album, everyone is aware of this song by now. “HUMBLE.” to DAMN. is what i was to To Pimp a Butterfly. “HUMBLE.” is essentially a bombastic show of just how good Kendrick’s lyricism and flow can be. Rapping over a more mainstream or traditional beat, Kendrick tells everyone to sit down and to be humble, and we should be as we are in the presence of King Kendrick.
Tier 2: King Kendrick
YAH.: “YAH.” has the unfortunate placing of coming right after “BLOOD.” and “DNA.” on the tracklist and is thus sort of drowned out by their greatness. This is not to say “YAH.” isn’t great, it is a song that only Kendrick could pull off in the current day. The overall mellow vibe, is calm, while the lyrics are still meaningful. Kendrick raps about religion, his family, and politics while somehow creating a peaceful song. This song is remarkable, but not quite on the level of the above songs.
ELEMENT.: “ELEMENT.” shows off Kendrick’s rapping ability, dealing with a difficult beat and staying in rhythm the whole time. “ELEMENT.” sounds great, including the chorus which splits apart the song nicely. The only flaw is that it lacks the substance of some of the other songs. It is mostly an ode to himself, and while great, it does not measure up to some of the other songs.
FEEL.: “FEEL.” is experimental in the same way “PRIDE.” is. The first 30 seconds of this song could be the first 30 seconds of any number of songs across genres. “FEEL.” also shares the same trippy vibe in “PRIDE..” “FEEL.” only finds itself in this tier rather than the top tier because it feels a little like a worse version of “PRIDE..” However despite that, Kendrick’s rapping is still incredible, and it is hard to imagine anyone in the current era being able to pull this song off.
LOYALTY.: “LOYALTY.” is the song in which Rihanna raps! It is surprising, and also pretty damn good. “LOYALTY.” speaks on, well, loyalty and is a fantastic song. Rihanna and Kendrick collaborate together better than expected, and maybe better than she has with any other rapper (*ahem* Drake). My only problem with the song is that it begins to drag towards the end and become a tad repetitive, which is not common on this album.
LUST.: “LUST.” is the first song of the second half of the album and certainly holds its own within the album. I see it as the sister song to “LOVE.,” as they are both songs that deal with often contrasted parts of a relationship. “LUST.” is great but I cannot get past the “let me put the head in” chorus which to me takes away from the seriousness of the song.
XXX.: Featuring U2 of all possible collabs, this song is a lot of fun and drifts between a couple different general vibes. It starts with the trippy, Beatles-ish vibe, progresses to an old school, spoken word, record-scratch sound, and then to harder sounding modern vibe. It then moves back to the Beatles-ish vibe but with more of a funky feel. Throughout all these vibes, Lamar discusses politics and life where he’s from. The line “if somebody kill my son, that means somebody getting killed” is delivered with such venom that it almost makes you flinch. This song could easily be a tier up, but the somewhat disjointed nature of it holds it back a little.
Tier 3: Simply Human
FEAR.: Many albums have this song, the long, melodic, song with a drawn out sample of someone speaking. This song is held back by its length and its plodding nature, at some point you want to just fast forward it to get to the rest of the songs. “FEAR.” certainly suffers from the fact that the rest of the album is so DAMN good (I had to make the pun once).
GOD.: “GOD.” is the kind of song you listen to after acing a test, or getting someone's number. It’s a super happy song and upbeat song. The lyrics are less happy, at least for parts, but generally it’s a celebration song. From an artistic and originality perspective though, this song definitely lacks. Kanye could perform this and I could easily believe it was his song.