As Kendrick Lamar finished a stunning set in the waning hours of Coachella Sunday night, diehard fans and internet detectives alike were left slightly disappointed. After releasing a new 14-track opus, DAMN., last Friday, fans desperate for even more music found themselves spurred on by a rapidly spreading internet theory that originated on Reddit; according to the sleuths, another album was imminent.
The theory began with the fact that DAMN. was released on Good Friday, which commemorates Jesus’ crucifixion. DAMN.’s first track, “BLOOD.,” ends with Lamar being shot and killed, and in “The Heart Part IV,” a single released ahead of DAMN., Lamar raps, “I said it’s like that, dropped one classic, came right back / ’Nother classic, right back / My next album, the whole industry on a ice pack / With TOC, you see the flames / In my E-Y-E’s; it’s not a game.”
Many interpreted that lyric to be a promise of an album following DAMN., specifically citing “TOC” as meaning “the other color,” a reference to Morpheus in The Matrix, the movie that all conspiracy theories seem to somehow revolve around. As ridiculous as the theory sounds, a variety of factors — DAMN.’s color scheme and a series of mysterious tweets by one of Lamar’s producers that included a picture of Morpheus — made the theory seem believable. And there’s no denying how magnificent it would be for Lamar to die in DAMN. and return resurrected on Easter Sunday with yet another full-length LP.
Alas, a second album never came — not that it was necessary. DAMN. is a masterwork in its own right. But it’s worth noting how pervasive the theory was and that of all the releases by major rappers in recent years, this was the one where a sister album really seemed possible. Lamar is the premier rapper of our time, and if there’s anyone capable of pulling off such a perfectly orchestrated thematic feat, it’s him. 2017 marks the third consecutive year that Lamar has released a masterful full-length LP, with untitled unmastered. coming as a total surprise in 2016 and To Pimp a Butterfly released the year before. No one else at the forefront of popular rap music today has released three studio albums in three years — not Drake, J. Cole, Chance the Rapper or Kanye West.
DAMN. is just more evidence of Lamar’s dominance. The album, as with everything Lamar seems to release, reveals a level of depth that many mainstream artists don’t reach, addressing themes of death, politics, spirituality, family, love and existence. Musically, it falls somewhere between Lamar’s 2012 major-label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, and his most recent albums, To Pimp a Butterfly and untitled unmastered.
Where good kid was a somewhat standard rap debut in terms of format, featuring a few skits and several radio-ready tracks with powerful beats like “Money Trees” and “Backseat Freestyle,” Butterfly and untitled veered off in an erratic, short-circuiting blend of jazz and experimental influences narrated by Lamar’s unfolding monologue. DAMN. blends these two influences beautifully, an equilibrium that incorporates bangers like “DNA.” and laid back soundscapes like “YAH.”
If DAMN. falters at all, it’s when Lamar features other artists alongside himself. “LOYALTY.,” which features Rihanna, will undoubtedly be on heavy pop-radio rotation for a while, which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if DAMN. were a pop album. “LOVE.,” which features Zacari, is even more of a pop song and feels even less natural on the album. U2’s appearance on “XXX.,” which was a terrifying prospect before the album’s release, is the least egregious but ultimately unconvincing, perhaps due to the inherent comedy in Bono singing in between bars by a rapper as great as Lamar.
Ultimately, however, these are momentary falters in the album as a whole and will likely go on to be forgotten by those of us that care about Lamar’s music, because the rest of the album is too good to be impaired by such small details. The album’s production, though perhaps not the most inspired or strangest in recent years, is stellar and brimming with musical ideas beyond Lamar’s tight lyrics. Additionally, DAMN. demonstrates yet again that there is no one better at creating an album that is just as suited to being played start to finish — which its forthcoming vinyl release will require — as being played in individual tracks. Unsurprisingly, Lamar ties it all together with the high-paced, witty rhymes that we’ve come to expect and some additional flourishes, such as samples from multiple Fox News clips that appear on “BLOOD.” and “DNA.,” leaving plenty of material to be remembered and analyzed in years to come.
DAMN. is yet another gargantuan effort from Lamar, and after the catalog he’s amassed to this point, I’m left wondering how he’ll attempt to top it. With how much he avoids having to shoulder expectations, however, he probably won’t be worried about doing so.