Top Dawg Entertainment

Dustin Seibert and I decided to discuss Kendrick Lamar's latest proper album release, DAMN. because what else are we supposed to do when one of the biggest artists in the game today drops a project? Exactly.

Panama: At roughly 11pm EST last night, I was alerted via Facebook that Kung Fu Kenny's latest will-be-hailed-as-a-classic album DAMN. was available on Apple Music (and presumably other streaming services, I didn't check). I don't think that we can let this day go by #onhere without talking about this project. You and I have both listened to it multiple times and have some opinions. Before we get to those, I'm aware that the album leaked earlier in the day, then Sounwave (TDE producer on Kendrick's label) tweeted something implying that the leak might not be the official version. You're a criminal so I know you had the leak. What did you make of Sounwave's tweet and then his attempt to subsequently send all conspiracy theorists into DefCon 9 with his picture of Morpheus?

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Dustin: It could mean two things: Either Kendrick is gonna pull off some Life of Pablo-esque “living album” move, or Sounwave just didn’t want people bootlegging Kendrick’s shit and hoped that his tweet would stave off the masses until they could buy it legally. The former would be interesting, because TLOP’s constantly-evolving production and verses were unprecedented and somewhat interesting. But on the other hand, there’s a physical disc of DAMN. right now that kinda murders that theory. If it’s the latter, Sounwave was just trying to be an uphill ice-skating nigga, since you can’t stop the leak.

Panama: You know, part of me would love for the conspiracy theorists to be right and we get a double disc on Easter Sunday as Kendrick anoints himself the only official rap God. Outlandish as that might be, it would make for good theater. Aight, so how many times have you listened to the album so far. Myself, five times. I thought it was six, but then I remembered I actually did go to sleep last night.

Dustin: I’m at like two and a half listens. Enough to know for sure the songs I DON’T like (Bye, “LOYALTY” and “LOVE”). I know what songs I really will spin on a regular basis as well. The rest of it is a grower…and if you aren’t patient with it, you will miss a lot of beat switches and mid-song-flow-cadence switches. That happened to me with “DNA”…it’s a dope song, but I skipped it the first time and missed the beat switch, which makes the song even better.

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Also, there are literally maybe two or three double albums in hip-hop history that are worth a quarter of a damn, so I would advise Kendrick and everyone else against content overload.

Panama: I don't think I'm at a point that I know songs I don't like. I also think repetition makes all songs seem better than they actually are. I think that's why I like "Just Like Daddy" off of 2Pac's The Don Killuminati album; I listened it one too many times and told myself it wasn't that bad. I can say though, that there are a litany of songs that I do like, which includes: "DNA", "ELEMENT", "FEEL", "PRIDE", "FEAR", "GOD", and "DUCKWORTH". On any other album, liking half of an album might be enough to call it a seminal album. Shit, people call NWA's Straight Outta Compton a classic and can't name more than three, MAYBE four songs off of that album, which is where everything gets complicated with Kendrick. He's not just another rapper. His place in history is already set, now we're just trying to figure out exactly where he belongs and if he's making it onto hip-hop's Mt. Rushmore. Everything gets dissected to the nth degree, though to be fair, Cornrow Kenny is intentionally making music to be dissected.

To me, Good Kid. Maad City. (GKMC) was like D'Angelo's Brown Sugar album, and To Pimp A Butterfly (TPAB) was like Voodoo, an entirely different direction, more artful, more purposeful, and full on departure. Kendrick didn't make a leap, he left the planet compared to his prior project. This album is somewhere in the middle of GKMC and TPAB to me. It sounds like the album that would have come after GKMC on his way to making TPAB and going full artist on us.

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Dustin: Great comparison RE: D’Angelo. For many years, Brown Sugar was my favorite album, and only in my 30s did I come to determine that Voodoo, despite being a huge left turn, is superior (not to mention the SINGLE BLACKEST ALBUM OF ALL TIME). I can tell you that I strained to like TPAB, and the only reason for that strain was near-universal critical approval. But the fact remains I can play GKMC from front to back and skip only a couple tracks, while I skip most of TPAB with the exception of a few tracks. Will I feel differently about TPAB 15 years from now like I did Voodoo? Perhaps, but that’s part of the reason that I loathe people dubbing albums classics 27 seconds after they drop.

Kendrick is in that rarefied air of being a rapper whose lyrics we actually listen to, which is a good thing for the genre since I challenge anyone to point out his equivalent 10 years ago. But as you like to point out, anyone who is NOT Kendrick laying tracks over the production of these last two records might catch a side-eye. It’s the Dead Rapper Syndrome: niggas become greats only when they’re pushing daisies, except Kendrick is alive, so maybe it’s the Living Rapper Who Created a Classic Album Syndrome. Or some shit…I dunno.

Panama: I'd wager that this isn't the album that anybody expected, and since that's what I'm wagering, I'm guessing that all of Kendrick's peers ALSO didn't expect this album and were all listening last night too, sitting around with their crews, looking at one another like, "I mean, like, did he body us or nah? I'm confused. I don't even know what this album is about." Big Sean, in particular, since every body has been running with the Kenny going at Big Sean angle. He HAD to be the most interested in what this album would sound like, right? Especially after he dropped I Decided and attempted to go a little deeper conceptually, which I'm not saying he doesn't have the talent to go there, I'm just saying that "One Man Can Change The World" is Big Sean's entire skillset in a nutshell: good-ish ideas, better production, odd execution, and lines like, "hope you get the pretty girls that’s pretty at everything" which I'm not sure means anything. I'm not sure Drake even cares anymore because he's too busy sitting in a Patois 102 class working on his new accent.

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Dustin: I’ll say Big Sean doesn’t have the talent to go there. Look…he’s from my home town and we share the same high school alma mater, but Sean is like a Tombstone Pizza…his shit’ll do if you’re in a pinch and you have no other hip-hop options for your weekly spin class, but no one reflects on a Tombstone Pizza, like, DAMN. that meal was amazing!” More like I Decided to hit the skip button.

But I digress. It doesn’t matter if K-Dot was really talking about Sean in the second movement of “The Heart Pt. 4” – it matters that people THINK he was. In hip-hop, that’s the equivalent of a gauntlet thrown down, and if Sean was really about his craft, then he’d fall back off of all this “Kumbaya”-ass, Michael Jackson-Paul McCartney-“The Girl is Mine”-we-ain’t-REALLY-beefing-in-real-life-ass shit and drop a “Shether” on Kendrick. At any rate, the visual of Drake sitting in his home studio intently and shoo-ing away his Werther’s Original-complected chick of the day while taking in DAMN. is quite amusing.

Panama: Alright, since this isn't intended to be a proper review since I think it's WAY too early to do that, let's talk, prematurely, about how this album fits in with his legacy. Does it strengthen it, weaken it, keep it in the same spot? For reference, I don't think any of Drake's albums have really moved the needle on his legacy. Drake's consistency and ability to drop banger singles (and great to ZOMG! guest appearances) have solidified his legacy. Kendrick doesn't really do that so his album output is really the evidence to measure against. And since we're talking current day legacy rappers which really includes Kendrick and Drake and a little further down the line, Cole, Sean (I have no idea why), and the Walé's of the world…

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…you know what? Why doesn't Rick Ross ever enter into these lyricist arguments? Because their content is different? Rick Ross is actually a better rapper than all of them but Kendrick and Drake. Back to the lecture at hand. What does this album, in your estimation, do for the race for #1 between Kendrick and Drake?

Dustin: You can’t just throw a whammy up in there and not expect me to at least acknowledge it. Rawse a better rapper than Cole? That’s debatable, though I wouldn’t spend an inordinate amount of time debating that. Let’s just all agree that Ross makes better overall music than Lunesta Cole and keep it moving, yes?

This album won’t do for Kendrick what TPAB did. It won’t yield all the think-pieces and hyperbole of that album because the aggressive, pointed “blackness” is not at the forefront. TPAB came out at a time when black America had it up to the gills with police brutality and was engaged in a national unrest of sorts. DAMN doesn’t seem as topical out the gate, even though he does invest several bars on Trump.

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I think it was important to him to return to the boom-bap aesthetic of GKMC and Section.80 to hang on to the fans who – like me – weren’t impressed with TPAB as a total listening experience. Everyone is stuck on “DNA,” which is only track 2, because the drums go hardbody and he’s spitting like lyrics are going outta style. With the exception of “The Blacker the Berry,” that experience didn’t exist on TPAB.

But the one thing Kendrick has shown that Drake hasn’t in years is progression. Drake is stuck in this progressively irritating malaise of rapping about pining after women he’s lost, all the work he puts in to make other people happy and “singing” that sounds like someone zipped a bunch of kittens in a diaper bag and dumped them into a pit lava like Arnold at the end of “Terminator 2.” One can pine for the “old Kendrick,” but no one anywhere will tell you that he’s releasing the same music over and over on every album, a la Aubrey.

Panama: Yeah, the Rick Ross tangent was a set-up. My bad. In regards to DAMN. I agree, I don't think it will spawn as many substantive think-pieces as TPAB for the exact reason you stated, though I also believe people will try. Kendrick is a think-piece rapper though I'm not entirely sure he should be. Part of me thinks we're really just looking for a rapper that makes us think so there's a lot more navel-gazing with Kendrick. He's earned the conversation he's garnered though, I'll grant him that.

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Alright, let's wrap this up, and make it look sexy. What are your last thoughts, at least on this first full day of the release of DAMN.? Personally, I'm still trying to dissect it and determine just how I feel about it as a project. But that will require me to do a lot more listening. I'm glad Kendrick continues to create music that's not simple and requires us to think. I appreciate that. I am very curious how this album will be received and digested by the masses. Plus, he's a man after my own heart since in everything I do, I make it look sexy. He's good in my book for life because of that.

Dustin: I listened to “DAMN” the majority of this morning as I wrote, walked my mama’s dog and drove to Olga’s Kitchen for lunch. I probably have music playing at least 72 percent of any given day, and the most compelling music of any genre works its way from lingering in the background to capturing my attention to the detriment of other shit I should be doing. A good amount of this album kinda lingered in the background, even as I completed mundane tasks. That’s not a good sign for long-term playability. There are several joints on “DAMN” that I will certainly be playing for a while, but the only new track that dropped last night that made me go Ric Flair “WHOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!” was Talib Kweli and Styles P’s “Nine Point Five” joint featuring The Lox. When I hit the gym in a couple hours, I’ll be more excited about playing that than anything from DAMN.

However, my guy Vernal, who has a similar initial reaction to the album that I do, just texted me a great point: “I'll say this much, it's nice to have a rapper around who excels at rhyming, can express political and social awareness without being smarmy (Common), and strives to raise his work to the level of art without being a megalomaniac (Kanye).” Like you, I will always get hype for new Kendrick. He’s earned our attention.

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Panama: Word that up.