Kendrick Lamar's fourth studio LP sees the Compton emcee returning to the basics, embracing a much more straight-forward and noticeably much more accessible sound, while reducing the scope of his previous works. It feels redundant to point out 2015's TPAB's incredible ambition and clear artistic vision. Along with 2012's GKMC, that album will go down as one of the most popular and relevant hip-hop albums of all time - deservingly so. So the stakes were naturally high for another Kendrick Lamar release, and we saw the expectations grow higher and higher as the release date for DAMN. approached, especially since HUMBLE seemed like a return to more accessible directions for the rapper, who somehow seemed to be seeking a similar vibe to a few cuts on GKMC.
It isn't so surprising, then, to see him indulging into almost trendy sounds this time around (Mike Will-Made It was said to feature on a few the album's tracks, and had already brought us the hard-hitting HUMBLE, to begin with), but, the question here is -how- Kendrick does it, how he uses much simpler and digestible beats and instrumentals to tell his stories, his wishes and fears, just as whole-heartedly as in any of the most emotional moments on both GKMC and TPAB.
On DAMN. we have Kendrick at his most vulnerable, both sound and lyrically speaking, and, aside the divisive first reaction it might cause on whoever listened to his previous albums, the surprisingly skeletal quality of this work only leads to a maximum confrontation to Kendrick's presence, and ultimately, to his words. His personality, fears and deep reflections all up front maybe as out-there as they have ever been, or even more.
Despite what many might think, though, DAMN. is just a world-embracing of an effort as TPAB was, even if Kendrick subverts the heavy expectations of a head-on anti-Trump manifesto. It's definitely not like he is closing his eyes to his surroundings and to his homeland, to his beloved people. It's just that he is doing it in a much more subjective way, going from subject to subject, but this time bringing it all to a closer relation with his career, his personal points of view upon life, society, the current hip-hop scene, politics and religion, throwing all of these matters into a huge, heavy package that is translated in actual easy-to-follow lyrics and antics. These songs sound tangible in a way very few of the material on TPAB did, but they also sound incredibly intimate, and quite melancholic, even at its most pumping moments.
In that sense, it might be more accurate to say Kendrick's even more commited to his craft and to his position in the music world of today. Listening to DAMN., it is easy to turn around and say his music got dumber, watered down for anyone to enjoy or 'get' it - especially since he showed us he could do majestic, otherworldly things with his previous full lenght - but, give it some more thought and the delicate nuances here will slowly unveil. This is an album made by a fully-engaged mind, an artist that has reached an unspeakable level of relevance to the world, transcending hip-hop and even musical importance, and, most of all, someone that is human, but is constantly trying to embrace the whole world with his arms, someone that experiences everyday struggles and that is not rarely caught on a daydream, every time he is "out for a walk", his mind on the other side of the planet.
DAMN. is a completely humane piece of work, and as such, a flawed, occasionaly misguided record that definitely does not stand side to side to his two previous masterpieces (and above all, never pretends to approach that supernatural quality of TPAB), but it suffices. Just like us, it picks up where it fell minutes ago, rises up again and walks straight, realizing its weakness and limitations, but instead of denying them, it whole-heartedly embraces them, and makes do with everything it has, not more, no less. If all the theories about another record are true, we will be in turmoil once again, but, for now, it just feels immensely reassuring to have an album like this from Kendrick, who once again throws away every last bit of expectation, and gives us not what we wanted, not what we predicted, but just what he felt was right, for the moment. And that is enough.