In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Kendrick Lamar stated that: ‘My focus is ultimately going back to my community and the other communities around the world where they’re doing the groundwork. To Pimp a Butterfly was addressing the problem. I’m in a space now where I’m not addressing the problem anymore.’
To Pimp a Butterfly was huge in scope. It was political and insightful, filled with jazz and funk influences provided by a plethora of musicians and the forefront of contemporary experimental music. Damn is certainly a step away from this approach to music making, both in message and music.
The first thing that jumps out at you upon listening to Damn is its aggression. Tonally it’s more similar to Good Kid Mad City than his previous two works. Trap influenced instrumentals take the place of the experimental jazz-fusion which pervaded TPAB. Most of the production credits go to names like 9th Wonder, Alchemist and Sounwave. All masters of their trade, but routed firmly in the hip-hop tradition. It would be possible to see this as a regression by Lamar, as I admittedly did upon first listen. However, when you take into consideration what Lamar says in his interview with Rolling Stone, this aggression and relative simplicity seems consistent with what it is Lamar is trying to achieve.
–Kung Fu Kenny
TPAB was maximalist both in instrumentation and lyrical scope. Damn is a movement away from that. It’s minimalist and personal. Lamar seems unconcerned with the story at large, and more interested in the individual characters. Just as Bob Dylan shirked the persona of ‘voice of the people’ when he wrote Highway 61 Revisited in 1965, Lamar seems to have stepped away from the almost prophetic role which the general public have ascribed to him. ‘My latest muse is my niece, she worth livin’ / Seen me on the TV and screamed: “That’s Uncle Kendrick!”’ Lines like this from ‘YAH’. show that in making Damn, Lamar is at his most human, not at his most political.
For this album at least, Kendrick is relinquishing the role of political visionary and returning to his routes – the personal stories out of Compton which comprised most of Section 80 and Good Kid Mad City. This distancing from politics takes an aggressive turn at several points throughout the album, as in ‘FEEL.’: ‘Feel like I don’t wanna be bothered / I feel like you may be the problem / I feel like it ain’t no tomorrow, fuck the world. / The world is endin’, I’m done pretendin’ / And fuck you if you get offended.’
It’s a move which will surely disappoint some, but it makes total sense as a creative direction. To Pimp a Butterfly was released two years ago. The themes it deals with are just as, if not more relevant today, and a simple reprisal of its political approach to music making would have been unnecessary. His albums have always been conceptual and always held up well in their own right, separate from his wider discography. Damn is yet another example of Lamar’s adeptness at creating a cohesive piece of art which creates its own worth and defies the expectations established by his previous albums.