Unlike some of his Compton rap forefathers, Kendrick Lamar has rarely had to struggle for respect. He’s reached a level of acceptance and prestige almost unimaginable for any rapper a generation ago. Music publications and fans alike herald him as one of the most significant artists of his generation. The Grammys have already honored him with more than 20 nominations, including a Best Rap Album trophy for 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly—an album even then-President Barack Obama hailed as the year’s best. The world generally respects what he has to say.
Yet on Damn., Lamar’s magnificently streamlined latest, he can’t stop obsessing about some of the only people who don’t. After his 2016 Grammys performance, a Fox News panel mocked Butterfly’s civil rights anthem “Alright,” rolling eyes at a line about police violence: “And we hate po-po / Wanna kill us dead in the street for sure.” It’s hardly the worst a rapper has ever been treated by the media—dismissing other points of view is just what Fox News does—yet the segment stuck in Lamar’s craw, so much so that he pins the soundbite to the front of the album, the way Ice Cube used to air his own bad press on his records. He cycles back to the exchange throughout the record, fixating particularly on Geraldo Rivera’s verdict: “This is why I say hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years.”
You can see why the criticism rankled him. To boil a song about uplift down to one provocative line, as if that were its primary message; to insinuate that an artist like Lamar would speak on a topic as loaded as police violence without considering his words; to have a terrifying truth about the black experience tsk-tsked away by the clown from Al Capone’s vault—it’s an insult not just to Lamar’s intelligence but his entire value system, and he pushes back hard. “Somebody tell Geraldo this nigga got some ambition,” he snaps on “Yah,” mispronouncing Geraldo’s name for extra shade.
If he’s punching down by using one of the year’s biggest albums to rebut some cable news panelists, so be it: This is a newer, more impulsive Kendrick than the sage observer of Butterfly. On Damn., Lamar stops presenting himself as a wizened philosopher and carries on like an ordinary human being, without the overthinking and over-explaining that defined his previous albums. In the past, he couldn’t even toss off a throwaway boast about his dick without self-examining what it might say about his ego, but here he’s finally given himself the luxury to talk shit just for the sake of it. “Last LP, I tried to lift the black artists,” he huffs on “Element,” one of three tracks voluptuously produced by Mike Will Made It, “But it’s a difference between black artists and wack artists.” In other words, he’s through sermonizing. Now he just wants to rap.
The music pivots accordingly. Breaking hard from the thesis-paper jazz of To Pimp A Butterfly, Damn. plays as economically as a Run The Jewels record, with an opening stretch that rivals Yeezus for beat flips per minute. While never quite as harsh as Kanye’s rage opus, it’s got the same sense of movement and interruption, a similar rhythm of clipped beats and staccato thoughts. It’s Kendrick’s first album designed primarily for car speakers. Even the track co-produced by James Blake absolutely knocks.
Who knew Lamar had a record this unabashedly fun in him? Though Damn. doesn’t clear any room for guest rappers, the track list does include a pair of marquee features. Despite the prominent billing, U2’s contribution to “XXX” is barely noticeable (which, really, is just about the best thing that could be hoped for). Singing what amounts to an outro, Bono acquaints himself to a secondary role so well, it’s almost a shame he’s too big a star for more of this kind of session work. Better still is Rihanna’s sly turn on “Loyalty,” marking an alliance of A-listers who are more likeminded than they might seem (Rihanna’s last album Anti was also a masterpiece of confidence and concision, exceptional in many of the same ways as Damn. is). Her ambrosial voice slithers through the track’s slow-jammed synths, coiling around Lamar’s own easy vocals. The two seem locked in competition to see who can make their inventive, deceptively tricky deliveries feel more nonchalant.
As on its predecessors, Damn. is packed tight with thoughts, anxieties, and anecdotes, but this time Lamar doesn’t even try to shape them into a big picture. For the closer, “Duckworth,” he relays in Nas-caliber detail a story about his father, his label CEO, and a coincidence worthy of a movie script. It’s the type of storytelling nobody else is doing quite like Lamar—and if the tale doesn’t square neatly with the record’s dominant themes of pride, desire, dreams, and disillusionment, so be it. Lamar trusts every idea to stand on its own. When you’re making art this substantial, vital, and virtuosic, there’s no need to wrap a tidy bow around it.
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