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Rattle & Humble: Will Kendrick Lamar & U2’s “XXX” Be The Most Self-Righteous Song Of All Time?

Imagine the hubris. We can argue all day about the relative merits of U2’s last 20 or so years of recorded music, but U2 remain probably the biggest rock band on the entire planet. Nobody else crams stadiums full of people willing to pay like $300 for a ticket quite like U2 do. And Kendrick Lamar got them. DAMN., the album that Kendrick will release on Friday, has absolutely no guest-rappers on it. The only guests on the album are Rihanna, arguably the most influential and iconic singer in pop music today, and U2, who suddenly make Rihanna’s participation look like an afterthought. As a flex, a demonstration of Kendrick Lamar’s pull, it’s simply spectacular. But will the song be any fucking good? Like, any good at all? Because it certainly has the potential to be very bad.

U2 haven’t spent a ton of their time playing around with rap, but they do have a history with the genre. In the early ’90s, they recruited Public Enemy and Michael Franti’s art-rap group Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy to open some of the dates on their massive Zoo TV tour, and this was during the era when plenty of bigger venues were scared to book PE, thinking they’d spark a riot or something. That was good. Since then, things have been less good. On U2’s 1993 single “Numb,” the Edge did something that could charitably be described as rapping. In 2010, the band teamed up with Jay Z and Rihanna to raise money for an earthquake-devastated Haiti with the benefit song “Stranded.” Good cause, bad song. Not long after, Bono and Swizz Beatz recorded a still-unreleased song called “Skyscrapers,” and the tiny clip of it that Swizz once posted online wasn’t great either, though the sight of Swizz hyping it up was fun. None of these songs have convinced me that U2 would make any sense in the context of a rap song. (Well, OK, fine, “Numb” was pretty dope. But still.)

And this won’t just be a rap song. This will be a Kendrick Lamar song. In recent years, Kendrick has pulled a few cheeseball moves, appearing on middling singles from people like Taylor Swift, Imagine Dragons, and Maroon 5. But Kendrick was showing up on their songs, not inviting them onto his. To date, every Kendrick Lamar album has been a sweeping, unified vision, completely free of halfassed crossover radio-grabs. (The closest thing he’s done to that has probably been “Poetic Justice,” the Drake collab from Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, but that one fit seamlessly into that album’s arc, and Kendrick never released it as a single.) More to the point, Kendrick Lamar tracks tend to be dense, wordy jumbles, and it’s hard to picture how U2’s cheap-seats theatrics will fit into that aesthetic.

There’s another factor here. Outside the worship music world — or, these days, outside of Chance The Rapper — I can’t think of two big-name artists as proudly, openly Christian as these two, or as willing to let their shared faith creep into their music. If Kendrick and U2 actually recorded the song in the studio together, it’s entirely possible that some kind of Bible-study session ensued. (This tweet gave me immediate hives.) The song is called “XXX”; what if the three X’s in the song are supposed to be crosses? What if this song is out to suffocate all of us with the strength of its pure virtue? I don’t think I could take it.

But a couple of things here are enough to reassure me. One of them is Mary J. Blige’s version of “One.” In 2005, Blige and U2 sang the Achtung Baby power ballad together at a Hurricane Katrina benefit concert, the same big TV event where Kanye West said that George Bush doesn’t care about black people. Later that year, a re-recorded version of the song showed up on Blige’s album The Breakthrough. It fucking rules. Blige isn’t a rapper, of course, but she comes from that world. And that “One” duet remains, to my ears, the single best example of U2 engaging with black music. This was two absolutely sincere artists finding common ground on a beautiful song. Kendrick can’t sing, but maybe he can do something similar.

The other thing that’s keeping me from panicking is Mike Will Made-It. The Atlanta producer claimed on Instagram that he produced “XXX” as well as the as-yet-unheard album track “DNA.” At the moment, Mike Will is riding an absolutely absurd hot streak, one that exists outside of anyone’s conceptions of genre. Mike Will made Beyoncé’s “Formation.” Mike Will made a Rae Sremmurd album that’s lousy with broody Depeche Mode synth lines, and he made “Black Beatles,” the song that got Rae Sremmurd and Gucci Mane to #1 on Billboard. He made Kendrick’s “Humble,” easily the single best song of 2017 thus far. If anyone can make a Kendrick Lamar/U2 collab work, it’s Mike Will Made-It. If he pulls that off, he’s indisputably the greatest producer working today. And if that happens, and if U2 are smart, they’ll stop dicking around with Danger Mouse and see if Mike Will can make a whole U2 album sound interesting.

Also: This is Kendrick Lamar. He’s appeared on some other people’s shitty songs, but as far as his own music goes, he hasn’t taken a wrong step yet. He has my faith. He has all of our faith. And if he uses it to rap about faith, he’ll probably still be rapping like a motherfucker.