VIRANI: Kendrick Lamar’s ‘DAMN.’ is unlike any other sound
Opinions Column: From Breaks to Bars
Last week, Kendrick Lamar released his new album, DAMN. Like his previous work, it was incredibly complex and insightful. But what I noticed more than anything was the album’s dissonance. There was this constant shift between tempos, between melodies and ideas. There’s this push and pull between the good and the bad, an intense and continuous tug of war that plays out between the tracks. And that got me thinking about his last two albums, and how this one is somehow so distinctly different from the others that I couldn’t stop myself from digger deeper into the core of all the albums, and coming to a conclusion on why this one was so different.
Each of his past three albums has a sound. A distinctive vibe that intertwines itself in most of the songs while giving itself a break in strong, high-tempo tracks. In Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, that sound is represented in songs like “Sherane aka Master Splinter’s Daughter,” “The Art of Peer Pressure,” “good kid,” “Real” and more. Every few tracks, however, Kendrick gives the listener a break from this sound. As he does in every album, these breaks prevent the album from becoming too overwhelmingly heavy — it keeps the listener engaged for the entire journey of the album. It’s the rest-stops everyone needs for longer journeys. Songs that “break” from the album include “Backstreet Freestyle,” “Poetic Justice” and “Swimming Pools.” Overall, the album relies on traditional hip-hop sound, but it’s more nuanced, more subtle, almost like a storyteller speaking quietly to keep his listeners captivated. But To Pimp A Butterfly completely flips the script by flooding the sound with distinct, jazz-intensive sounds and supporting them with old-school nuances. Which makes sense, considering the fact that so many of the album’s overarching themes deal with history and musical identity. The music melts between the tracks, like when the saxophone melody literally cuts itself off at the end of “Wesley’s Theory” and then continues in the next track “For Free?” Other songs from the album that fit this musical theme include “Institutionalized,” “For Sale?,” “How Much A Dollar Cost” and “Mortal Man” and the theme breaks at songs like “King Kunta,” “Alright” and “Hood Politics.”
But while To Pimp A Butterfly evolves from Good Kid, M.A.A.D City in terms of sound, DAMN. evolves from the two by changing the idea of the breaks themselves. Similar to the last two albums, DAMN. contains a sonic theme in songs like “BLOOD.,” “YAH.,” “PRIDE.,” “LUST.” and “FEAR.” But the breaks, like “DNA.,” “LOYALTY.” and “HUMBLE.” are so much more frequent. And more than that, they represent a flip side to the ideas presented in the “main” album. The songs that fit the album theme display a form of awareness of the vices that Lamar knows he must avoid as he continues to solidify his name as one of the best rappers. And the breaks tell the story of Kendrick indulging in all the things he knows he has to avoid. For example, “PRIDE.,” which comes right after the break song “LOYALTY.,” slips the album back into its main sound and discusses the struggle of accepting the acclaim Lamar receives as a rapper while staying aware of the dangers of pride. But immediately after, he switches the tempo with another break song, “HUMBLE.,” which ironically, is a song that boasts how other rappers should be humbled by Lamar’s excellence. And then the album goes back into its conventional cadence with “LUST.” Another example of this contrast is the one between the break song “GOD.,” which compares Lamar to a god, and “DUCKWORTH.,” which admits that Lamar’s success could be traced back to a coincidence that predated anything in his control. The constant weaving in and out of the album’s main sound resembles a mind racing through conflict. It completely transforms his prior tendency to deviate from his album’s main sound and repurposes it to tell a story outside the boundaries of his main idea. It’s like the upside down version of a world he himself creates. He pronounces this relationship between the album and its breaks, culminating to the creation of a conflict that carries itself as a prominent component of the whole album.
Jhanvi Virani is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year majoring in Computer Science and History. Her column, “From Breaks to Bars,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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