More Life vs. DAMN.: An Analysis and Review




These two don't appear comparable. Drake's More Life is a pop album masquerading as hip-hop, but no amount of hard-edged Grime can disguise his grab at chart success. The simple fact it's 22 tracks is proof enough he knows how to drop a project that will maximise his streaming figures. DAMN. is not designed to go number 1 on the Billboard 200, although it will, and that's the appeal of Kendrick. He's the first rapper since 2Pac who can consistently put out dense and emotional music that is bought voraciously by mainstream audiences.


These two albums might differ in concept and goal, but they're likely going to be the two biggest hip-hop releases of 2017. So, let's unpack each album based on Production, Lyricism, Quotables, Concept, Flow, and Overall Listenability. 


Production

More Life
While Drake doesn't seem to care that the world seems to care about the well-carved niche he's settled into over all four of his studio albums and his 2015 commercial mixtape, More Life hints that he's ready to entertain the idea that maybe VIEWS was one project too many without a sonic overhaul. This playlist plays exactly like a good playlist should: The transitions are as good as a Terius Nash solo album, and mood is managed to perfection. "Passionfruit" hits like a summery cocktail, and "Gyalchester" through "Sacrifices" is the hardest 4 song run since What A Time To Be Alive. He enlists 40, of course, but there's such a wealth of talent and innovation in the producer list. Nineteen85 is beginning to come of age, picking up a brilliant credit on Khaled's Holy Key last year and snatching dancehall and drum & bass influence for the standout "Get It Together". Boi-1da and Murda Beatz are gimmes, but plucking T-Minus out of the wilderness was a brilliant call. Taking a chance on the inexperienced FrancisGotHeat produced the entrancing "4422", a beautiful piece of music. Overall, this is comfortably Drake's best-produced project, and will likely stand up as one of the best of the year. The beats are crisp, clean, inventive, they hit hard, and they never tire or sound repetitive. 

DAMN.

Some billed this as Kendrick's attempt to straddle the line between full-on mainstream artist and incredible underground storyteller and lyricist. They pointed to first single "HUMBLE" as proof, a repetitive Mike WiLL Made It beat that favoured the simplicity of DJ Mustard and allowed Kendrick to spit venom and fire. What we got was almost the anti-TPAB. That album had a clear vision, and the production team worked tirelessly to perfect every single element. The result was staggering, an album so full of brilliant textures and soundscapes it almost defied belief. DAMN. is none of that. The production sounds confused, halfway between the experimental TPAB and the straight hip-hop fire and devastating bangers of GKMC. There are some standouts, including the thumper "DNA,", the incredible "XXX" (probably the only track that would fit on TPAB), and the Andre 3000-like "LUST". Yet there are so many beats that feel half-finished, that are too laid-back for Kendrick to match his flow and delivery to his message. "PRIDE" is the sleepiest beat of the year, doing an injustice to Kendrick's back and forth with his own conscience over the correct way to handle fame and fortune. "FEEL" is the mismatch of the decade. Kendrick's frank observations about where his fame has gotten him, especially in regards to those close to him, needs something dramatic and explosive. Sounwave needed to produce another "m.A.A.d. City", instead the beat is a dull Isaiah Rashad piece and Kendrick sounds exasperated and unable to coax the emotion he needs from the song. 

Winner: More Life

DAMN. is unfocused, it meanders, and there is too much simplicity and a lack of cohesion between message and sound. More Life is perfect, as you'd expect a top-tier pop album to be. Drake and his producers transition beautifully from song to song and treat the project like a live show, managing emotion and mood masterfully. 

Lyricism

More Life
Drake hasn't really been bothered with lyricism his entire career. There's a bunch of quotables, but nothing worth troubling the greats over. On opener "Free Smoke", his hardest song since 2015, he shows he blatantly just does not care, with what must be his 15th, and worst, Kid 'n Play reference: "House party up the road, yeah / I'm not Kid 'n Play / This kid doesn't play about the flow, yeah / Y'all keep playin' with your nose, yeah". Moving on.

DAMN.

Why is everyone so quick to put Kendrick in their top 5? Because he blends the emotion and story-telling of 2Pac with the insane lyricism of Notorious B.I.G. As a top 5 Kendrick scholar on Genius, I can attest to just how incredibly deep this man's mind can go. And while DAMN. is not Kendrick in top form, he's light years ahead of any other rapper, mainstream or otherwise, that's currently active. And I mean Jay Z, Nas, Lupe Fiasco, MF DOOM. I mean everyone. From the very start on "DNA" he weaves metaphors around a coherent and relatable story line. "Cocaine quarter piece, got war and peace inside my DNA", "Backbone don't exist, born outside a jellyfish, I gauge". But while Kendrick raps rings around the competition regularly on DAMN., it's not on the same level as his last 3 releases (UU, TPAB, GKMC). There were no wasted bars on those records, no treading water, no odd analogies or weird similes or played-out references. DAMN. has multiple second-tier bars that wouldn't be out of place on a Big Sean record. "Yoga on a Monday, stretchin' to Nirvana / Watchin' all the snakes, curvin' all the fakes", "Tell me who you loyal to / Is it money? Is it fame? Is it weed? Is it drink?", "Parmesan where my accountant lives". Then there are entire sections of verses that read very pedestrian, like the end of the first verse on "LUST", or the first verse on "ELEMENT". Not since Section.80 has Kendrick rapped so much filler, unless you count his bank-balance-boosting pop collabos. Maybe he is just tired? Maybe he wanted to reach us with more relatable and less complex language? 

Winner: DAMN.

Not even remotely a contest. Drake had zero bars of lyricism. Kendrick had 15+ per song. There's a reason why one of these rappers is in the top 5, and the other is a pop artist spoken of in the same breath as Nelly.

Storytelling

More Life
Within the bubble he has worked hard to create, Drake is a decent story-teller. He saves in-depth tales for his studio albums, so More Life contains snippets of what it's like to exist as the hottest pop rapper on the planet, without ever really sticking to a narrative for more than a few bars. This works very very well, exemplified by "Get It Together", a simple chorus and a simple thought that prompts some mental gymnastics: What does Drake need to get together? Could he ever be in a proper, committed relationship? Is it because he's always working so hard? There are also snatches of personality and opulence. On "Free Smoke" he raps "Just know man like Chubbs / He's a fixer if I ever gotta fix tings / Just know man like Fif, He's a sickaz", and on "Sacrifices" he's outlandish, bragging "I got Dubai plates in the California State". He can descend into tried and tested methods often, though they rarely lag or feel as dull as VIEWS. Alas, it's songs like "Teenage Fever" that expose Drake's inability to emote further than the length of his penis, both as a sexual device and a representation of his ego. He trots out tired teenage power-plays as if he's creating The Art of War, and that's one of the reasons why VIEWS failed. Thankfully, More Life is a little (I said a little) more self-aware. 

DAMN.
On final track "DUCKWORTH." Kendrick weaves one of his traditionally brilliant tales. Like a Hollywood drama that twists, turns, and spits, this track is about a chance meeting between his label head Top Dawg, and Kendrick's father Ducky, and how they almost came to violence around a local KFC. The final bars hit harder than anything else this year: "Because if Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg could be servin' life / While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight." In an instant, Kendrick uses his fame and power to show how pointless and damaging gun violence can be. How many other beautiful souls have we been deprived of because of needless gun violence?  
Alas, it's a standout moment that isn't matched on the rest of the record. While TPAB and GKMC were incredibly dense and layered storylines, DAMN. is more muddled and confusing, and it's difficult to draw a coherent narrative out. Essentially, Kendrick seems to be dealing with his own mortality, and how his actions on earth as a famous rapper, with all attendant temptations, might impact his ability to connect with God and the afterlife. As we saw on 2015's "u", Kendrick is battling a lot of self-worth issues, and he's desperate not to fall into the trap of addiction and excess that those before him with this level of fame succumbed to. He uses short narratives to convey powerful messages, as on "XXX." when he tells us his friend's child was killed because of the debts of the father, or on "YAH." when the mention of his niece's euphoria at seeing Kendrick on TV grounds his existential worries in reality, giving the anxiety a more relatable victim. Ultimately though, Kendrick is dragging us inside his mind and not letting us out. I haven't crunched the numbers, but I'd wager he uses the words "I" and "my" more on this album than any of his previous records. We're used to Kendrick weaving his own narrative around that of either his city, the music industry, or American culture. On DAMN. it's insular and difficult to grasp unless you've experienced similar emotions. 


Winner: DAMN.
While Drake's More Life is easy to slip in and out of, DAMN. rewards a patient and informed listen. The narratives aren't clear, they aren't linear, and they aren't always easy to understand, but that seems to be the point. The complexity and raw emotion in his scattered musings is truly artistic, and sadly beautiful. 


Quotables


More Life
This is Drake's strong suit, and one of the reasons why VIEWS felt so disappointing. Ever since the release of More Life, my group chats have been lit up with random Drake quotes, and Twitter and Instagram suffered a similar fate. Like it or not, this is the hashtag generation, and a quick bar is more easily digested than an entire verse of dense lyricism. "My side chick got a 5S with the screen cracked, still hit me back right away", "40 got house on the lake, I ain't know we had a lake", "You need me to get that shit together so we can get together", "I'm blem for real, I might just say how I feel". There are 5-10 quotables every single track, it's incredible. 


DAMN.
Kendrick employs some good old-fashioned repetition on this album, notably on his hit single "HUMBLE". While the chorus is likely directed at himself, many have taken it as an outward expression of aggression, with "lil' bitch, be humble" a constant on social media platforms since it's release. Alas, this album contains few other rallying cries. "My left stroke just went viral" doesn't lend itself to many everyday situations, and even the Rihanna feature on "LOYALTY." is devoid of her traditionally solid quotable reputation. 


Winner: More Life


Concept

More Life
More Life is a playlist, and playlists are carefully cultivated and can take on individual and unique meaning depending on who is listening. More Life is like the sequencing of a live show, or a DJ set without the ability to gauge the mood of the audience and adjust accordingly, which makes it a more tricky prospect to create. Drake and his two executive producers, Oliver El-Khatib and 40, have done an incredible job. Rather than wait for the circumstances to fit the playlist, More Life can turn any situation into the right circumstances. And if not, you can pick and choose songs to go with your own specialised playlists. The harder rap songs like "Free Smoke" and "Portland" are brilliant on your workout rotation, while "Passionfruit", "4422" and "Get It Together" are almost compulsory listening when preparing for a night out. Drake has never really stuck to a concept for an entire project, and if he has, such as on IYRTITL, it's been loose and easily modified. More Life is his most immersive listen.

DAMN.

Kendrick's last two full-length LP's were two of the best concept records of all time, regardless of genre. So DAMN. feels odd; it's inconsistent, songs don't fit together, and tracks like "LOYALTY." stick out as anomalies. Without Kendrick confirming anything to do with the concept, or explaining it like he did at the end of TPAB with "Mortal Man", the internet is scrambling to attach any and all deep theoretical concepts to the record, but they're really just theories until we get official word. Some say you can play the tracklist backwards and it transforms the meaning, others say Kendrick dies in "BLOOD." and the record is his retrospective attempt to avoid eternal damnation. But these are all thoughts and theories. Are we trying to assign meaning that doesn't exist? Are we disappointed that the album feels loose and unfocused, and are trying to make excuses? 

Winner: More Life
Kendrick's concept on DAMN. seems to simply be his struggle to keep a clean conscience while reaching dizzying mainstream heights. That was a side-story on TPAB, and even there it was better fleshed out and more cohesive. As yet, there's no confirmation that DAMN. is any deeper than this. More Life is simple in concept but flawless in execution. What's more important than taking people out of their own heads and into a world of fun and care-free enjoyment for 80 minutes?


Flow

More Life

Drake mimicks flows. He does it on More Life, snatching a cadence from no-hit wonder XXXTENTACION on "KMT", and the more passionate Drake haters even claimed he bit Lil Uzi Vert during the album. It's 2017 and no-one cares anymore. A flow is not something you can copyright, to my knowledge. Drake may have never come up with an original way of saying rhymes in his entire career, but he wouldn't be the first to build a career borrowing sounds from other artists. He's still not the most calming presence on a beat, and sometimes he sounds stilted and a bit off-kilter (such as on "Portland" and "Jorja Interlude"), but it's hard to deny his presence. This is his most vocally diverse project, and he sounds nothing less than professional, even at his worst moments. At his best, he flows like honey.

DAMN.

There have been points in the last 12 months where his flow has fallen into 2 distinct patterns: His aggressive flow (such as on "The Blacker The Berry") and his weird falsetto voice (as seen on "Holy Key"). Previously, he's been almost untouchable. He made Eminem lift to an entirely new level on "Love Game", he made mincemeat of everyone on "Fuckin' Problems", and the insane breath control on "For Free?" was absolutely flawless. Watching him perform at Coachella this past weekend was a privilege and an honour, he proved his top 5 credentials by performing largely without a backing track, and he never missed a beat. So where is that on DAMN.? The end of "DNA." and the entirety of "XXX." aside, he rarely dazzles. That's not to say it's bad, but does it impress you? "HUMBLE." is pretty stock standard, a slightly sped up trap flow that matches Mike WiLL's sparse beat. "LUST." recalls his most recent pop collabos, a sleepy and uninspired drawl. "FEAR." exemplifies the rut, a switch between the loud abrasive flow and the calm falsetto. He even gets outrapped by Rihanna. Maybe it was an artistic tool, for them to slightly switch roles on "LOYALTY.", but she sounds hard-edged and venomous while Kendrick sounds meek and tired. Again, that could be intentional, but, as with the overall concept, that's not immediately obvious. 

Winner: Tie

Kendrick used to be entirely untouchable. On DAMN. he doesn't dazzle or excite, outside of a couple of verses. That's at odds with his incredible career as a rap technician thus far. Drake doesn't ever dazzle, and he is no technician, but he's always interesting and he always engages the listener. And he does float on "Madiba Riddim". 

Overall Listenability

More Life
It's likely this will become the most listenable project of 2017. Drake accumulated 89.9 million streams in 24 hours on one platform alone (Apple Music). And while VIEWS was dull, insular, and didn't lend itself to repeat listens, More Life is designed to be heard multiple times, in multiple life circumstances, or on multiple road trips. This is a playlist, and it's curated almost to perfection, so it's basically unmatched thus far for listenability.

DAMN.

Some claimed this was to be Kendrick's commercial, mainstream album. That's doing a disservice to GKMC, which was stacked full of bangers. Not to mention the stunning "Alright" and "These Walls" off TPAB, an album oozing in jazz pomp that sounded incredible on a decent set of speakers. DAMN. is his least sonically accessible full-length LP, but it isn't a one-listen wonder. You'd be doing yourself a disservice if you only listened once. If you like Kendrick, and you're trying to get your head around his concept and message, many listens will be required. Immediately, "LOYALTY." and "XXX." jump out as big playlist fodder, but the urgent "FEEL." and the workout playlist addition "DNA." also deserve your attention. Apart from that, there's filler that drags on the 3rd listen, notably "FEAR." and "PRIDE.". That hasn't happened since Section.80.

Winner: More Life

Pretty unsurprising. Drake's album is pop disguised as hip-hop. Kendrick has proven with "HUMBLE." he's wholly capable of smashing the Billboard charts, but a big part of DAMN. is the restraint he uses when crafting his next record. Mainstream chart success is not everything.


Result:


More Life
 appears to have Kendrick beat at 4 to 2, but these are separate albums for separate listens and separate car rides and separate life circumstances. It's not Kendrick's best project, it's a 7.5/10. This is probably Drake's best project, and it's a 7.5/10. That should tell you all you need to know. Kendrick's mediocre is equal to the best that the biggest pop rapper has to offer. One album will be seen as a slight disappointment in a career that's already produced 2 classic albums, the other will be seen as the highlight of a rapper who burned brightly for longer than most, but ultimately fell out of contention along with so many contemporaries (Nelly and Ja Rule to name but two).

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