Kendrick Lamar has already taken hip-hop to the outer galaxies of style, sound and resonance. Protesters in Chicago, Cleveland, Oakland and New York took to the streets singing his 2015 single "Alright" like it was the new "We Shall Overcome." His last album, To Pimp a Butterfly, will likely go down as the defining reflection of the America that spawned #BlackLivesMatter, in the same way Pablo Picasso's Guernica stands as the defining reflection of the Spanish Civil War.
But two years later, the perils of fame and the exhaustion of fighting for social justice seem to weigh on Lamar. "Last LP I tried to lift the black artists," he laments on "Element," one of the many bruising, battle-scarred battle-raps on his fourth LP, Damn. "But it's a difference between black artists and wack artists."
Seemingly exhausted with the burden of constantly pushing hip-hop forward into concept operas, electric Miles explosions and Flying Lotus electronic burbles, Damn. seemingly takes a classicist route to rap music. If To Pimp a Butterfly was the best rap album in 2015, Damn. is the platonic ideal of the best rap album of 1995, a dazzling display of showy rhyme skills, consciousness-raising political screeds, self-examination and bass-crazy-kicking. Kendrick has many talents – pop star, avant-garde poet, lyrical gymnast, storyteller. But here he explores what we traditionally know as a "rapper" more than on any of his albums to date. The rhymes on songs like "DNA," "Element," "Feel," "Humble" and "XXX" come fast, furious and almost purist in nature. In an era where "bars" seems almost old-fashioned in the age of Drake's polyglot tunesmithery, Young Thug's Silly-Putty syllable stretching and Future's expressionist robo-croak, Lamar builds a bridge to the past.
On Butterfly, he untangled the mess in his mind with multiple personalities and distended voices, an Inside Out-esque spray where different emotions would almost require different timbres. Now he stares down almost everything with the same voice and a singular focus, whether his problems are external (Fox News, the prison-industrial complex, guns), internal (self-doubt, pride) or something in between (see the masterful "Lust," which treats news of Donald Trump's election as but a rumble in a monotonous Groundhog Day timeline of existence). His flow remains exquisite without having fall back on the dramatic filigrees he brought to Butterfly. Producers like Mike Will Made It and Sounwave make Damn. feel state of the art – an album full of beat changes, tempo switches, backmasking, needle bounces and broken melodies – but Lamar's rapping is timeless enough to step into Ice Cube's Death Certificate Timberlands.
Of course, this is Kendrick Lamar, so if he's going to delve into a more classic style of rap, he's going to take a complex, multifaceted, strange, unexpected path to get there. His twists on vintage hip-hop are downright post-modern. Kid Capri, the DJ whose blends and airhorn voice were omnipresent on early Nineties mixtapes, shows up with his iconic voice. But instead of brassy hype, he drops existential koans like, "Y'all know, what happens on Earth stays on Earth." "XXX" is a vintage screed about clapping back at killer cops, perfectly in line with Rodney King-era revenge fantasies by Geto Boys, Paris and Lamar's personal hero 2Pac. But Lamar goes deeper into his own mind, painting blood-soaked hypotheticals and then juxtaposing them against his desires for gun control. (U2 are featured on the track, but their input sounds like maybe eight measures of a melody used like a sample.)
That's the electric part about Damn.: 2Pac rapped through his contradictions; Lamar raps about his contradictions. The theme here is humility, and Kendrick clearly has mixed feelings. On "Loyalty," he treats his boasts like a weakness, with Rihanna crooning "It's so hard to be humble." On "Pride," he treats his boasts as an annoying obligation, drolly saying "I can’t fake humble just 'cause your ass is insecure." Then, on "Humble," he finally screams "Bitch, be humble" like he worked up the confidence. And even then, you can't help but wonder if he's talking to himself. On "Element," he'll say "I don't give a fuck" but then immediately follow it with "I'm willin' to die for this shit."
In the album’s introduction, Lamar helps a blind lady searching for something on the ground, and she turns out to be a murderer. The meaning of this metaphor is open for debate, but one thing is indisputable: Kendrick Lamar sees himself as someone here to help people find the things they have lost –quite often, it seems, a sense of humanity itself. And that's a huge job for one man, especially since his peers can hold court on a relatively smaller part of the collective subconscious. Chance the Rapper raps like America's hope and optimism; Kanye West its untethered id and basest impulses. Hundreds of street-level mixtape rappers represent anger and nihilism; and mega-stars like Drake, J. Cole, Big Sean, Nicki Minaj and Eminem are all explorations of various ideas of self. Lamar, patient and meticulous, self-doubting yet bold, is left as pretty much the unofficial navigator of everything else, a wide, complex, occasionally paradoxical gulf of noise.
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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