Socially conscious and lyrically dexterous, Kendrick Lamar’s discography is the antithesis of the vacuous stereotype that surrounds contemporary hip-hop. The atmospheric, autobiographic Good Kid, M.A.A.D City is an American college English text. To Pimp a Butterfly, arguably the most important record of the 21st century so far, has been placed in the Harvard Library, canonising its cultural significance. Even Kendrick’s offcuts, the experimental Untitled Unmastered, garnered universal critical and commercial acclaim. Kendrick’s latest record is no different, a mature, sonically diverse insight into the psyche of contemporary raps master artist.
DAMN sees Kendrick move in a completely new direction. Kendrick possesses a unique ability to craft a radically different sound on each new record. On the surface DAMN is a more traditionally exceptional rap album. 808 beats and auto tune replace the maximalist jazz-rap aesthetic of previous projects. This stripped back minimalism pins the records focus on Kendrick’s tight lyricism.
At DAMN’s core is a sense of vulnerability previously absent from Kendrick’s music. A record fraught with contradictions, Kendrick paints himself as detached from the usual swaggering certainty of past records. On the exterior Kendrick is modern hip-hop’s saviour, an antidote to the materialistic and artistically redundant popularity of ‘mumble rap’. But DAMN’s magnificence lies in permeating beneath this veneer, emphasising the interior fragility of hip-hop’s top dog.
At DAMN’s core is a sense of vulnerability previously absent from Kendrick’s music
DAMN is a record bound together by duality. Each track is matched by a direct counterpoint. Kendrick’s woozy hook and Zacari’s smooth, evocative singing on “LOVE” directly juxtaposes the coarseness of “LUST”. Harsh and disorientating, Kendrick plucks a pitched up sample of Chelmsford-born indie-rock newcomer RAT BOY’s 2015 mixtape in “LUST” for a brutal examination of the vices of sexual exploitation and rampant consumption. Kendrick’s anaphora on the tracks bridge delves into this fragile, internal duality, “Lately it’s all contradiction / Lately I’m not here / Lately I lust over self / Lust turns into fear”. This ‘contradiction’ is at the crux of “ELEMENT” as Kendrick’s assertive chorus clashes with the haunting, hollow piano and shuddering snares of the songs beat.
When it dropped, the record’s lead single, the bombastic banger “HUMBLE”, concerned the purists. “HUMBLE” is Kendrick’s most commercially successful single so far; debuting at number two on the US Billboard and becoming the highest charting rap song in seven years.
Kendrick has a penchant for releasing his more mainstream material as precursors to more intellectually engaging albums. The upbeat, first single from To Pimp a Butterfly “i” was radically changed on the album as Kendrick strapped on a sizeable spoken interlude transforming the “i” into an Africanist anthem. While the album version of “HUMBLE” remains untouched its infectious swagger takes on a new meaning nestled between the counterpoints of “PRIDE” and “LUST”.
Kendrick’s wordplay is viciously sharp, opening with “I remember syrup sandwiches and crime allowances” and Kung-Fu Kenny still finds space to examine the shallowness of the modern world in between hip-hop tropes, Nas references and tight polysyllabic rhymes. Always the lucid social commentator, Kendrick takes shots at Adobe airbrushing, angrily asserting that he’s “so fucking tired of the Photoshop” embracing the raw, natural body, “Afro on Richard Prior” and “ass with the stretch marks.”
Kendrick’s wordplay is viciously sharp
Kendrick’s politics are present from the onset, sampling Fox News’ derision of his infectious race rights anthem ‘Alright’ on album opener ‘BLOOD’. On “DNA” Fox anchor Geraldo Riveria’s ignorance is the catalyst that flips the beat and sends Kendrick’s flow into overdrive. Riviera’s claim that “hip hop as done more damage to young African Americans than racism” precedes the records finest moment as the instrumental’s savagely pulsating bass fuses with Kendrick’s pacey, barked delivery and visceral anger.
Continuing to hold a mirror up to the violence that to haunt African American communities on “DUCKWORTH” Kendrick recounts the epic narrative of Ducky, Kendrick’s father, who managed to cheat death by dishing out free fried chicken to Kendrick’s future executive producer and KFC robber extraordinaire Anthony ‘Top Dawg’ Tiffith.
The albums featured artists raised eyebrows when the records track list was first announced. Not even U2 frontman Bono’s crooning can ruin the shape shifting “XXX”. The track’s instrumental manages to arrive at the Irishman’s vocals through soft funk, rattling trap snares and modern hip hops most ferocious beat switch in the form of blaring police sirens and the savage mechanical roaring engines.
Superstar Rihanna brings effervescently charming vocals to the catchy “LOYALTY”. She effortlessly switches between singing and spitting bars, giving a performance that overflows with surface sheen. The tracks diced up disorientating sample of Bruno Mars’ “24k Magic” perfectly suits Kendrick’s musings on the desire for unconditional love and loyalty.
Intimate and introspective, Kendrick Lamar has crafted another masterpiece. King Kendrick remains resolutely unafraid to showcase his own vulnerability by packing DAMN with raw emotion and brutal self-reflection.