Album Review: Kendrick Lamar - DAMN. (COLLECTORS EDITION)

On paper, the idea of the “collector’s edition” to Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN is a perplexing one—shortly after the album was originally released in April, Lamar confessed in an interview that DAMN was conceived to work both forward and backwards, meaning you can play from start to finish, or, from the end to the beginning.

For starters, how next level is that? There was little doubt that DAMN is one of 2017’s smartest records, but this fact cements it, and this whole concept is as impressive, if not more impressive, than Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool being sequenced with all the song titles in alphabetical order.

So yes, DAMN can be played in two different ways—that means if you were interested in exploring this idea, you could simply make a playlist that inverts the track list, or program the tracks on your CD player to run from 14 back to 1. But now, Lamar’s myriad labels (Top Dawg, Interscope, and Aftermath) have taken all the work out of this process by releasing the ‘COLLECTORS EDITION’ to DAMN—complete with alternate cover art, this re-release simply re-sequences the tracks.

That’s it.

There is nothing else to it. It doesn’t remix the songs in any way, or shuffle the segues between tracks so they fit in elsewhere.

The idea of Lamar’s labels monetizing this is a polarizing and slightly concerning one—it is available to download via iTunes and Amazon, and limited edition compact discs were issued as well; it’s a bit of a gamble that his fans and listeners will take the bait. Will people pay money to re-download an album they just bought in April, just because the cover art is different and the songs (the same songs) are in reverse order? Will people purchase a second copy of this on CD for the same reasons?

Or will people just make a new playlist in iTunes named ‘N M A D’?

To an extent, an experience like this is akin to trying to sync Dark Side of The Moon with The Wizard of Oz—it’s a weird audio experiment that, by taking part in it, will open you up to looking at a piece of art in a different way going forward.

So whether you shelled out more money to purchase this, or just made a new playlist, the fascinating thing all of this is that it works.

The first thing that I noticed about listening to DAMN in reverse is how it drastically changes the pacing of the record. It’s a long album anyway (nearly an hour), but I felt that it went by pretty quickly in its original sequence. Beginning with the album’s last track first, “Duckworth,” it makes you realize how frontloaded the thing is with its most energetic tracks, saving the slower burning, moodier songs for the second half; but now, those songs come first.

Opening with “Duckworth” makes sense, given its content—serving as Kendrick Lamar’s unbelievable origin story. “We gon’ put it in reverse,” Kid Capri yells before the song properly begins—a line that means way more now than anyone originally thought, alluding to playing the record from end to beginning, the tape rewinding noises that arrive at the end of the song, and Lamar working through an amazing chance encounter in the past within “Duckworth”’s lyrical content. Though, I will say that the ending of “Duckworth,” which takes you to the same place found in the original opening track, “Blood,” is less impactful in this reversed order.

“Duckworth” winds up becoming a bit of an introduction to the album in this iteration of DAMN, with the dreamy synths and skittering percussion of “God” becoming more of a proper ‘first’ song—mostly due to its big, bold opening; and from there, the “collector’s edition” of DAMN is designed to slowly build until it explodes near the halfway point with the frenetic and fun “Humble.”

The thing about reversing the order is that yes, it is impressive how well it all falls together, give or take, but you also have to realize that DAMN was so forward thinking in the first place, so insular, so self-aware and self-referential, so wrapped up in it the mythology and narrative it created for itself, that there was no way that this wouldn’t work. It’s still Lamar’s most urgent and immediate album, and it’s still a high concept story about the inner struggles that Lamar faces, yes, but also that face a nation of young black individuals.

DAMN is still about the balance between spirituality and sin—the biblical allusions are too numerous to count1, and in this “collector’s edition,” Lamar swaps in the extended version of “Fear” that ends with a lengthy voicemail message from his cousin Carl. It’s still an album about being young and grappling with sudden fame, and anxiety over your own life expectancy and meditating on mortality. It’s still an album about fate—what is fated? What has been predetermined? Can you alter your course, and to what extent?

Reversing the order of DAMN almost works completely, and it only buckles under its own ambitions as it concludes—finishing up with “DNA” and “Blood” remove the story from its original, impressive cyclical structure. One of the fascinating things about the original album was how it, quite literally, began and ended in the exact same place. In this iteration, choosing to end with “Blood” is one thing, but opting to not remove the segue that samples Geraldo Rivera and placing that at the beginning of “DNA” where it would make sense, is another—and concluding the album with some Fox News talking head saying “I don’t like it” is a little underwhelming—a stark contrast to just how overwhelming the ideas on DAMN can be.

Even with all of its religious imagery and allusions, self-aware and self-referencing lyrics, and politics—DAMN is by far Lamar’s most accessible album. It’s much more visceral than his auspicious major label debut, Good Kid, mAAd City, and it’s less intimidating than To Pimp A Butterfly. Lamar raps breathlessly at times, like these words cannot leave him fast enough, and he is still haunted by the ghost of Tupac Shakur, as I am sure he will be for a bulk of his career. DAMN is a thinking person’s album that still has one foot in the streets, no matter what way you listen to it. Lamar completists (I’m sure they are out there somewhere) have already probably paid for this album again—whether digitally or trying to track down the compact disc version. Buy DAMN again or don’t—it doesn’t change the astounding nature of the content within.

If you are interested, the 'COLLECTORS EDITION' of DAMN is out now via Top Dawg, Aftermath, and Interscope.

1- It seems worth noting that the album was originally issued on Good Friday, and this re-release took place on the Feast of The Immaculate Conception.