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The ‘Damn.’ Exit Survey

Breaking down the highs (very high), lows (rare), and all the rest (Rihanna!) on Kendrick’s latest opus

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

After Kendrick Lamar released his fourth studio album, Damn., late Thursday (though, to be honest, it leaked a little early, and we couldn’t help ourselves), we stayed up late into the night taking it in, replaying “DNA.” seven straight times, learning all the lyrics extra-quick (LeBron-style), and so on. Here, in the light of day, Ringer staffers answer some important questions about the album, from what their favorite song is to where Damn. puts Kendrick in rap’s pantheon.

1. What is your tweet-length review of ‘Damn.’?

Justin Charity: We need one of those marble jars, but instead it’s people guessing exactly how many hours of Dead Prez Kendrick listened to while recording songs for this album.

Donnie Kwak: So … much … rapping.

Sam Schube: He did it again!

Lindsay Zoladz: Imagine being this much better at your job than everyone else.

Andrew Gruttadaro: It’s so kind of Kendrick Lamar to let music journalists get an eight-month head start on their year-end top-five lists.

Sean Fennessey: Sometimes an album is just an album. Sometimes a flex is just a flex.

Alyssa Bereznak: Poor John Mayer.

2. What is your favorite song on the album?

Zoladz: “Yah.”? “Pride.”? “Loyalty.”? “Fear.”? “Duckworth.”? Ask me tomorrow.

Danny Chau: “Pride.”

Bereznak: “DNA.”

Fennessey: “DNA.” This will change by Saturday morning.

Kwak: Hard to beat “Humble.,” but “Element.” is when my ears really perked up. Word to LBJ.

Hannah Giorgis: “DNA.” makes me feel like I could crush the entire playoffs single-handedly. I don’t even play basketball.

Schube: “Duckworth.” It’s a novel — and it’s true.

Charity: “Element.”

Gruttadaro: The hook on “Element.” is like mainlining joy and “Pride.” is basically Kendrick Lamar doing Nirvana — but it’s impossible to ignore how hard “DNA.” goes.

3. What is your least-favorite song?

Bereznak: “God.”

Gruttadaro: “God.,” also known as Kendrick Lamar’s “Waves.”

Zoladz: “Lust.,” although at least that’s not the hook he asked Bono to sing. :(

Chau: I don’t know, “God.”? Chief Keef did it better.

Kwak: I love God, but not “Love.” or “God.”

Fennessey: None? The “New Kung Fu Kenny!” exhortations before songs should be banned, though.

4. What moment on the album made you literally say “damn”?

Charity: “You should chip a nigga then throw the blower in his lap / Matter of fact, I’m about to speak at this convention; call you back.”

Fennessey:

Zoladz: WHEN THE FOX NEWS SAMPLE HITS.

Schube: There’s a pulsing, treated chord running under “Element.,” and if you cock your ear at the right angle, it sounds like the piano from Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues.” Maybe it’s intentional; maybe it isn’t. But then I hit the 59-second mark of “XXX.,” all the way on the other side of the album. The beat drops out; in its place is a scratchy, faded, warped-vinyl sample of a very familiar piano chord. I had to pull my car over when it came on. I even don’t care if it’s actually the proper sample. The idea — one American bard saluting another — is thrilling on its own.

Bereznak: Definitely the “Let me put the head in” refrain on “Lust.” Damn.

Giorgis: Rihanna!!! Is!!! Rapping!!!

Chau: The end of “Duckworth” melted my face off. I felt like a bystander in an ankle-breaking crossover Vine.

Victor Luckerson: “Goddamn you. Goddamn me. Goddamn us. Goddamn we. Goddamn us all.” Damn.

Kwak: The first 10 seconds of “DNA.”

Gruttadaro: “I GOT, I GOT, I GOT, I GOT.”

5. Is this album fun? Does that matter?

Charity: Damn. is fun, but specifically in the sense that Kendrick’s athleticism on the record is exuberant and boundless, even though his songs are often dark. You’re watching a guy tear up the court in his physical prime. It’s fun!

Gruttadaro: It’s extremely fun, from Kendrick’s astounding prolificacy to the dark humor of the lyrics to the “fuck you” beats that blend into chillwave. It’s impossible to like music and not feel giddy listening to Damn. And yes, that matters.

Schube: It is fun to watch someone masterful practice their craft, and “Love.” is easily the most romantic song he’s ever written, and it hurts my heart a little bit.

Zoladz: The thing I was doing when this album dropped was reading an article about nuclear-war preparedness, so honestly, fuck your fun.

Bereznak: Damn. isn’t fun. The album literally opens with Kendrick being shot by a blind woman. But it doesn’t need to be fun! Kendrick is way too busy wrestling with the challenges of his global fame and the life-sapping Trump administration to make music for us to down shots to. Let the man be dark and profound.

Fennessey: Extremely. And no. But Kendrick’s self-seriousness needs to be meted out. There’s enough gleeful stunting and dialogic hurdle-jumping to keep this as much a party record as a statement of purpose.

Giorgis: At times, yes. It’s definitely still tortured in the way much of Kendrick’s oeuvre is, but a couple of songs really do flow in a way that wouldn’t bring me down if I let ’em play through on a Friday afternoon. It’s definitely more fun than To Pimp a Butterfly.

Kwak: Good rap is fun, but you can’t really half-listen to Damn., which makes it slightly less fun to consume than, say, this one Canadian dude’s records.

6. Finish this sentence: “Rihanna’s feature on Kendrick’s album is …”

Giorgis: … transcendent.

Fennessey: … additive.

Bereznak: … a total jam, but naturally a little overhyped.

Luckerson: … better than “Too Good.”

Gruttadaro: … proof that Rihanna would have run the early ’90s SoCal hip-hop game.

Kwak: …kinda like this to me — in reverse, I guess. Whatever, it’s good.

Chau: … HELLA BARS.

Zoladz: … a gift. This is one of the only songs on which a male artist has invited Rihanna to duet for a reason other than fake-flirting with him and thus self-consciously asserting his masculinity. (Yes Aubrey, talking to you.) Her presence on “Loyalty” feels very post-Anti Rihanna, in that she’s there not as an accessory, to recede into the background after she sings the hook, but an artist on the track on her own terms.

7. Your thoughts on U2?

Gruttadaro: When people were ragging on Kendrick when Damn.’s track list dropped, I tweeted this:

So, like, Kendrick didn’t make U2 cool on “XXX.,” but he did seem to understand that the best way to execute a U2 feature in 2017 is to reduce U2’s impact as much as possible. And also be Kendrick Lamar.

Kwak: U2 are legends, nobody can tell me otherwise. Great get, great song.

Charity: Lorde told The New York Times Magazine about this one time that Bono pulled pop rank and bounced her from a studio in Manhattan. Assuming Bono’s urgency in that case had something to do with his contribution to Damn., Lorde, thank you for your cooperation.

Giorgis: It goes against my personal constitution to say this, but I didn’t hate the U2 track. If you hadn’t told me they were on it, I might even have been willing to say it really rides. Thank God Bono didn’t say anything about Africa.

Schube: Bono should put out a trip-hop album.

Fennessey: One of the greatest bands in modern popular music history. Huge fan of The Joshua Tree. Bono seems nice.

Bereznak: I was afraid that I’d click on the U2 song and something bad might happen. You know, like all of the sudden I’d be listening to U2, and maybe U2 might covertly load its latest album into my iTunes library. But it’s actually good! It helps that Bono’s chorus is kind of jazzy, and barely recognizable as Bono at the beginning. The band’s meditative blips are a nice palate cleanser for the real meat of the track: Kendrick’s rage-filled reaction at hearing his friend’s son was killed.

Zoladz: I wish the feature were just Bono singing instructions for how to get his damn album off my phone.

8. Which rapper’s grave did Kendrick Lamar dig on this album?

Fennessey: I routinely think about how bad Big Sean must feel about himself whenever a new Kendrick Lamar project arrives. Does he listen alone and gently weep? Does he head straight to the studio to record? Does he languish inside the beanbag chair of his mind? Does he care?

Zoladz: John Mayer.

Kwak: Not the graves of rappers, but those of music journalists should this all be a prelude to another album drop this weekend.

Schube: All of them? An album like this renders concepts like beef and top fives all of a sudden rather less urgent.

Gruttadaro: There are other rappers?

9. Which song will LeBron James listen to most during the NBA playoffs?

Giorgis: “DNA.,” without a shadow of a doubt.

Zoladz: I think he’s already got the second album.

Gruttadaro: “Element.” for the first few rounds, then “DNA.” when, you know, he starts feeling like this:

Chau: “DNA.” It’s extremely on the nose, but so is LeBron.

Fennessey: “I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA.” Take a guess.

10. Can this album and ‘More Life’ coexist?

Schube: They’re playing different sports.

Kwak: We lived with Nas and Hov going back to back for over a decade. Yes.

Giorgis: If More Life is 1 a.m. in the hookah lounge, Damn. is 10 a.m. the (Sunday) morning after.

Fennessey: These are useful oppositional forces underlining that our world is built on binaries. Hard needs soft to feel hard.

Gruttadaro: Yeah, they totally can. I just don’t know how much I’ll be listening to More Life after this.

Bereznak: Yes. Kendrick and Drake have dutifully stayed in their lanes for the benefit of their fans. Even if Kendrick didn’t include a breakout single like “King Kunta” or “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” on Damn., he kept his brutal wisdom — the most precious thing. Kendrick has delivered us something contemplative and meaningful that’s meant to spark real talk, or at least some thoughtful chatter over a joint. More Life will no doubt occupy the summer’s sweaty dance floors, but this album will be on people’s minds as we grapple with the realities of our current political atmosphere. They both serve their purpose.

Zoladz: Like the bumper sticker on the back of your Subaru, my friend.

11. Describe the production on ‘Damn.’ in one word.

Giorgis: Luscious.

Kwak: Better.

Fennessey: Unforgiving.

12. Do you feel like Kendrick is trying to make a grand statement with Damn.? If so, what is it?

Schube: I wrote this question on Thursday afternoon, before the album leaked, and it feels stupid already. Kendrick’s albums are full-length societal X-rays; when I was learning why “neoliberal” is an insult, he was busy rapping about being a Reagan baby. To ask whether he’s trying to make a point is to miss what his whole project is about. He is the point.

Zoladz: Fuck Roger Ailes.

Chau: That a Kendrick Lamar capital-a Album can be thoughtful, heady, cohesive, and poignant without the ziggurats of overt narrative through lines propping up how thoughtful, heady, cohesive, and poignant his music is.

Fennessey: Same as always: Life is a collision of piety and fuckery. Your compass leads you in one direction or the other.

Gruttadaro: That, he, Kendrick Lamar, is the greatest rapper alive, and that the circumstances that led to that and continue to affirm that are extremely complex.

Charity: “I am the Lizard King. I can do anything.”

13. Where does ‘Damn.’ rank among Kendrick’s albums?

Zoladz: Above Songs of Innocence but right below Achtung Baby.

Schube: I like it at no. 2: after Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, and ahead of To Pimp a Butterfly.

Bereznak:
1. TPAB
2. GKMC
3. Damn.
4. Section.80
5. Untitled Unmastered
6. Overly Dedicated

Gruttadaro: It’s right below Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City for me right now. Ask me again in a couple of months though — it scares me how much I’m already wrapped up in Damn.

Fennessey: Third, behind To Pimp a Butterfly and Good Kid, M.A.D.D. City. Easily the most fun to listen to, though.

14. Is Kendrick Lamar overrated, underrated, or properly rated?

Zoladz: Properly rated.

Luckerson: Vince Staples had it right.

Charity: Properly rated but inevitably misunderstood.

Bereznak: Properly rated.

Schube: Underrated. I don’t mean to overstate, but look at the tape, man: He’s the best rapper alive, by no small margin, with levels of technical craft and artistic ambition that are basically unmatched.

Fennessey: He is our greatest rapper and also our most overrated rapper. A conundrum for essayists. Damn.

Kwak: To quote the great Sean Fennessey: The best rapper alive, yet overrated.