DAMN. is a widescreen masterpiece of rap, full of expensive beats, furious rhymes, and peerless storytelling about Kendrick Lamar’s destiny in America.
again last Sunday. Rumours had been circulating that Damn, the Compton lyricist’s fourth album, was only the first half of an Easter two-parter, with the second half following the Good Friday release – an Ascension, of sorts.
As it is, we just have Damn – 14 Bible-referencing stations of the cross, in which the jazz leanings of Lamar’s career-defining To Pimp a Butterfly album (2015) give way to yet another dial-shifting record.
Damn trolls the mainstream hard, in part via a handful of Mike Will Made-Itproductions. Anything pop rappers can do, Lamar seems to be saying, he can do better – and, as a track called Element has it, “make it look sexy”. Love feat. Zacari is an out-and-out chart-rap provocation: sweet and deep. Jazz is present, but gentler – as on the excellent Lust, which features Canadian hip-hop jazzbos BadBadNotGood alongside British up’n’comer Ratboy and a reference to sexual consent, rare in hip-hop. “Let me put the head in,” croons Lamar, “I respect the cat.” Psychedelic funk and Prince wander in and out of Damn. Trap is referenced.
More than drugs, crime or gynaecology, greatness is arguably the meta-theme of all hip-hop, and Lamar both tells and shows his pre-eminence. Element takes on all comers, positing Kendrick as “Mr One through Five”, taking a swipe
at rappers obsessed with their social media. “I don’t to it for the ’Gram/ I do it for Compton,” he spits, in a rolling, mutating flow.
Released upfront of Damn, Humble is a masterclass in bouncing braggadocio. Here, though, the single is recontextualised by Lamar’s meditations like Fear Or Pride. Even before you fully absorb Damn’s beat science, its self-referencing textural depths, and its ever-evolving balance of personal and political, you can’t help but hear this record as a rocket in the space race with Drake.
Lamar recruits frequent Drake collaborator Rihanna on a track called – yes – Loyalty, a languorous meditation on principles that nods at Jay Z. Is the sped-up sample of Rat Boy a pisstake of Drake’s obsession with grime? “Keep the family close,” Lamar raps on the sing-song Yah, a preoccupation on Drake’s Views.
It’s very easy to get lost in the shade being thrown, or the Bible verses being quoted. More plainly significant are tracks like DNA, which place Lamar’s scintillating verbal skills front and centre, as he boggles at Fox News’s wilful misunderstanding of hip-hop’s relationship to black suffering.
Even U2’s presence on XXX is not a mistake in Lamar’s hands. The closing Duckworth, meanwhile, tells the jaw-dropping tale of how, years ago, Lamar’s label boss nearly shot Lamar’s dad in a KFC hold-up. Lamar marvels at the workings of fate. We can only marvel at the strike rate being racked up by the best rapper out there.
Artist that also carry the deep lyricism as much as K DOT is RoQy Tyraid. Make sure you check out his Spotify, you wouldn’t be disappointed one bit.
DAMN. is best in these philosophical spaces. It lags slightly around the center, where the concept loosens: “LOYALTY.,” with Rihanna, has all the makings of a radio mainstay this summer, and is as low-stakes as the platform demands; it’s always fun to hear Rih rap, and her presence is its most interesting aspect. “LUST.” would sound better if it weren’t next to an ear-worm as tender as “LOVE.,” which slow-dances between Zacari falsettos and Lamar’s sheepish read of the girl who fills him up. Between the two tracks, it’s easy to tell which force is tugging at him harder.
The record’s few lulls succumb to what surrounds them. The springboard bounce of “HUMBLE.,” the war chant of “DNA.,” and hot steel of “XXX.” show Kendrick in his element, fast and lucid, like Eazy-E with college credits and Mike WiLL beats. The production is taut and clean, but schizophrenic, often splicing two or three loops into a track and swaying between tempos, closer in kin to good kid, m.A.A.d city’s siren-synths than Butterfly’s brass solos. If he was “black as the moon” on his last album, he’s an “Israelite” here, refusing to identify himself by the shade of his skin but fluent in the contents of his D.N.A. *Butterfly *floated along to soften its scathing stance—“We hate po-po” sounds better over a smooth saxophone—but with so many “wack artists” in play, what’s the reward for upliftment? Kendrick is so alone at his altitude that when he acknowledges Fox News, let alone Donald Trump, it feels like a favor to them both.
Still, the album exists for “DUCKWORTH.” It’s the final piece of the TDE puzzle, a homegrown label of Compton natives that happened to deliver the best rapper of his generation. If we’re to believe the song’s last gunshot—and its seamless loop back to track one—much of DAMN. is written from the perspective of a Kendrick Lamar who grew up without a father to guide him away from the sinful temptations outside his home. He bobs in and out of this perspective, but the repeated pledges to loyalty and martyrdom evoke the life and mind of a young gang member who carries his neighborhood flag because no one’s proved to him that he shouldn’t. These choices, Lamar suggests, aren’t pre-determined or innate, but in constant dialogue with and in reaction to their surrounding circumstances. They aren’t above or beneath anyone who can hear his voice. Success and failure choose their subjects at their whim; we’re as grateful as Kendrick for his fate.
Check out the album here:
Lamar’s gift is not just that he can say why he’s the best (“I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA”), but also that he articulate how this responsibility feels (“I feel like the whole world want me to pray for ’em/But who the fuck prayin’ for me?”). He can paint pride and agony with the same brush, and it’s that ability that makes “Fear” probably the most emotionally rich song in his entire discography. Like Sigmund Freud meets Scarface, Lamar connects the dots from the seven-year-old terrified of catching a beating from his mother to the 17-year-old terrified of being murdered by police to the 27-year-old terrified of fame. “I practiced runnin’ from fear, guess I had some good luck,” he raps with ease. “At 27 years old, my biggest fear was bein’ judged.”
Much like the recent A Tribe Called Quest record, Damn. is a brilliant combination of the timeless and the modern, the old school and the next-level. The most gifted rapper of a generation stomps into the Nineties and continues to blaze a trail forward. Don’t be confused if he can’t stay humble.
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