Kendrick Lamar raises the bar and lays down the gauntlet, writes Ben Lomax
Released 14th April via Top Dawg Entertainment
‘Kung Fu Kenny’ came out kicking last Sunday as he closed the final night of California’s Coachella festival. With a handful of guest appearances, cinematic interludes and a multitude of hits from the Compton rapper’s back catalogue it was dramatic way to end a festival already packed with world class performances. DAMN. had only been released two days previously but the risk to play a lot of it certainly paid off, with tracks from the album easily providing some of the set’s highlights.
Sunday also marked a disappointing end to the rumours that after dying on the opening track to DAMN., he may rise again on an accompanying album release. Despite the excitement around a second album that never materialised, going back to reflect on what we did get comes with little in the way of disappointment. DAMN. is a landmark hip hop album for 2017. Paying homage to rap’s history, with references to ‘Pac and Jay-Z, Kendrick decisively aligns himself with the genre’s greats.
One of the cornerstones of DAMN., and the reason many were left speculating about the possibility of an accompanying album, was its focus on duality. Even on the track listing, ‘PRIDE.’ comes before ‘HUMBLE.’, ‘LUST.’ comes before ‘LOVE.’. Putting ‘GOD.’ next to ‘DUCKWORTH.’ (the latter referring to his father), he once again aligns himself with greatness.
Ultimately this pervasive sense of duality translates into a conflicted narrative of the kind we aren’t used to hearing from Kendrick. Along with all the posturing and assertions of his talent we’re presented with contradictions and vulnerability. Much as he appears on the cover artwork, DAMN. paints a sometimes-unflattering picture of a man, in many ways torn: torn between his faith and his fame, uncharacteristically unsure of himself at times, but articulate as always.
Lyrically he remains as cryptic and diverse as ever, while the instrumentation often takes a more stripped back, punchier approach. That’s not to say the backing tracks on here don’t deliver. From the Life of Pablo-esque overlapping vocal samples on ‘DNA.’, to ‘HUMBLE.’’s bouncing, bassy piano riff, and sudden changes of pace — along with a surprisingly good U2 feature —on ‘XXX.’, there are plenty of rewarding moments in the instrumentals here.
Changing up his style once again, Lamar has produced yet another confident effort that’s likely to be remembered as a step above the work of his contemporaries. With the old legends dying out, there’s room for a new vanguard of musical greats and Kendrick clearly intends to not just sit among them, but at the head of the table. Not only though his repeated declarations as “the one and only king…” or his epithet of “Mr. 1 through 5” does he project his, but also with the sheer standard of his work.
Proclamation of greatness is one of the oldest trends in hip-hop, but few have had the material to back it up as much as Kendrick Lamar. Whether teaser track ‘The Heart Pt. 4’ was calling out Drake or Big Sean or whoever, DAMN. sets a standard and makes the message clear to all those listening: sit down and be humble, or step up and match this.