Kendrick Lamar cements status as greatest rapper alive

In Album Reviews by Phil Jones

Kung Fu Kenny demonstrates exactly why he’s the self-proclaimed greatest rapper alive

When Kendrick Lamar [Duckworth] released his promotional single ‘The Heart Part 4’ in March, not only did he stake his claim as king of the hip hop hill once again, but he also urged everyone else in the rap game to “get their shit together” in anticipation of April 7th. Music fans immediately jumped on the hype-train and accepted K-Dot as their trusty driver, who I can only imagine was looking back from the cab with that cheeky gap-toothed smile. The Compton-born rapper forced the train’s mechanism into overdrive when he dropped the well-received single, ‘HUMBLE.’. Accompanied by a visually impressive music video, ‘HUMBLE.’ features a sinister piano melody, erratic synths, and a booming 808 kick courtesy of experienced hip hop producer Mike Will Made It, who lends a hand to two more tracks on DAMN.. It was unclear as to what direction Kendrick was taking for his upcoming album, especially after the critically acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly, which strayed away sonically from the mainstream in favour of instrumentals drawing inspiration from jazz, funk, and soul, as well as tackling political issues regarding racial inequality and institutional discrimination.

DAMN. continues to address the struggles black people face in 2017 America but it is also Kendrick’s most personal album to date. His internal struggle is clear to see not only through his as-ever impressive lyricism but also in the dichotomy of the track-list (eg. ‘PRIDE.’/’HUMBLE.’ and ‘LUST.’/’LOVE.’). In addition to the sin motifs, the album is rife with religious imagery; Kendrick compares himself to Jesus on the jaw-dropping ‘DNA.’, and asks God why humans must suffer on the self-reflective ‘FEAR.’, one of the standout tracks. On the first three verses, he raps about his fears during various stages in his life (seven, seventeen and twenty-seven years old) over a sombre beat – provided by veteran producer The Alchemist – before coming to a moment of apparent existential clarity (“Fear, what happens on Earth stays on Earth/And I can’t take these feelings with me/So hopefully they disperse”).

Whilst DAMN. is not as obviously cohesive as Kendrick’s previous two efforts, a concept of sort is still present. Unlike To Pimp a Butterfly, which, as incredible as that project was, tended to bash the listener over the head with its themes via the repetition of a poem (“I remember I was conflicted…” is burnt into my brain), this album is more subtle in its approach. In the melancholic opening track, ‘BLOOD.’, Kendrick sets up a scenario in which he stops to help a blind woman – who could be interpreted as Lady Justice – but is shot and killed. My interpretation of the rest of the album is that he is looking at his life as it flashes before his eyes, whether it be instances of braggadocio (‘ELEMENT.’), or hypocrisy (‘XXX.’). This culminates on the final track, ‘DUCKWORTH.’, where Kendrick, in another moment of existential introspection, deliberates over how different his life could have been if a certain event in his father’s past had had an alternative outcome. DAMN. breath-takingly concludes with an awesome-sounding reversal of the entire album, leading us to Kendrick’s very first line (“So I was takin’ a walk the other day…”), making the album essentially cyclical.

DAMN. is not only one of Kendrick’s most ambitious albums thematically, but also in terms of production. On ‘DNA.’, he criticises the FOX News reporters who misinterpreted his lyrics from ‘Alright’ after his performance at the 2015 BET Awards, over a stankface-inducing drop with a sample chop that channels Kanye West’s ‘Runaway’. Other instrumental highlights include: the glitchy beat on ‘LOYALTY.’, which features a distorted-beyond-belief sample flip from Bruno Mars’ ’24K Magic’; the ethereal ‘GOD.’, laden with gorgeous synths; and the Mac DeMarco-esque ‘PRIDE.’, recorded by The Internet’s eighteen-year-old guitarist Steve Lacy using a plug-in on his iPhone. The U2 feature on ‘XXX.’ understandably raised eyebrows when the track listing was revealed but Bono’s vocals exceed all expectations. The listener is led into a false sense of security with the opening sample before being bombarded by hard-hitting drums and haunting piano stabs, leading up to an insane explosion of police sirens and rumbling bass.

Kendrick Lamar has proven once again that he can adopt new sounds with ease, in addition to subject matter. Before DAMN. was released, I often claimed that he could only be included in the discussion for top five rappers of all time if we were blessed with another outstanding project, which I believe he has accomplished.

Words: Matt Sellars