"Y'all have until April 7 to get your **** together."
A few weeks ago I watched TDE (Top Dawg Entertainment) head Anthony Tiffith swat away complaints about when the Kendrick drop was, and why it didn't miraculously arrive on the day Lamar himself had seemed to forecast in "The Heart, Part IV." Fast forward to April 14: DAMN. exploding onto streaming services as well as digital and physical storefronts. Almost instantly the power of the record took over the social media narrative: not the potentially botched release, not the weird twitter entitlement, and (sadly) not the conspiracy theories surrounding a sequel album allegedly dropping on Easter Sunday (as fun as those were to indulge). Like his masterful performance at Coachella's Polo Fields Sunday evening, all that stood in the spotlight was king Kendrick Lamar and the fourteen exceptional new tracks he blessed us with.
In the review of Drake's VIEWS, I wrote that the rapper missed the mark on making a memorable (or enjoyable) album because of the overstuffed and cocky presentation. Inexplicably, there have been lots of lines drawn between Kendrick & Drake, including a rather silly debate on which MC is "better."
The obvious answer to that dialogue is what lurks between the songs on DAMN. Highlighting that Kendrick Lamar has always been an album artist. While 2012's Good Kid, M.A.A.D City had plenty of breakout singles, it joins 2015's To Pimp a Butterfly as a body of work bearing a narrative and thematic art. Heck, Kendrick's breakout record was even subtitled "A Short Film." Like the finest musicians, Kendrick is a storyteller. Mainstream hip-hop should be just as entitled to being a compelling storytelling tool as any other genre of music, no matter how much thinly veiled racism insists that hip-hop is a lesser genre of music.
Which feels like the most reasonable place to begin talking about the pieces that hold "DAMN." together. Unlike To Pimp a Butterfly the thematic tie is less musically connected. Instrumentals don't connect the dots as fluidly; DAMN. feels more like a rap record than an opera.
With that being said, in between album opener "BLOOD." and "DNA." Lamar samples Fox News presenters discussing Kendrick's 2015 performance of "Alright" at the BET awards. Most notably, Kendrick samples:
This is why I say that hip-hop has done more to damage young African Americans than racism in recent years
This is an outrageous claim, and batted away later in the song by Kendrick's memorable hook: "I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA / I live a better life ... fuck your life."
The following verse borrows from the Watch The Throne era of Jay Z & Kanye in endless citations of Lamar's opulence; "sippin' from a Grammy," "sleepin' in a villa." Kendrick's earnest insistence that he is both his people, and the best of his people, is how he is able to write the narrative Drake never can.
"HUMBLE." within its placement in the arc of the album comes after the neo-funk, R&B track "PRIDE." that most closely ties "DAMN." to To Pimp a Butterfly with a slow-burning meditation on success and the self. He raps: "It wasn't all to share, but there / in another life, I was surely there / It wasn't all to share, but there / I care, I care." The sincerity comes across as genuine, not campy, and when the album shifts gears into Mike Will Made It's free for all banger, what you remember as "HUMBLE." stretches between bars Lamar spits is that a few minutes earlier, he mumbled: "I can't fake humble just because yo' ass is insecure." This view from the top is of a man looking down at the world, not quite sure what to think.
Musically, "GOD." dazzles out of virtue of its unexpected instrumentation, which includes Lamar's signature high notes; "XXX." wins the all time most unexpected guest vocals on a rap album award with Bono of U2 giving listeners a chance to unwind after the aggressive machine gun flow Lamar belts over an absolute banger of a beat; "LOYALTY." further distances Kendrick from Drake as Lamar masterfully shares bars and a beat with Rihanna.
And then there is "DUCKWORTH." An odd album ending odyssey that chronicles the TDE origin story in ways worth investigating for yourself. In the opening moments of the song though, Kendrick states succinctly and successfully the only way we can render the current and indisputable king of hip-hop:
"It was always me vs the world / until I found it's me vs me."
Get DAMN. today, and hope the conspiracy theories are right and that there is more Kendrick Lamar to come, because this offering is going to be the best rap music we get for a very long time.