What a marvelous, unprecedented all-time flex: Kendrick Lamar got Bono on a song and barely used him. He completely defused the phrase “featuring U2.” Earlier this week, when we learned the news that Kendrick had linked up with the Irish stadium kings to record a new song called “XXX,” I wrote a dumb article worrying that it might be the most self-righteous song ever made. I worried that the X’s of the title might be crosses. Well, it isn’t, and they’re not. “XXX” is a Kendrick Lamar song — a feverish and intense and pointed and brilliant one — and the “featuring U2″ tag means we get a scant few second of Bono mewling about how America means “a sound of drum and bass” to him. Kendrick spends the first half of “XXX” fuming about what might happen if anyone should ever target his family: “I’ll chip a nigga, then throw the burner in his lap / Walk myself to the court like ‘Bitch, I did that.'” And after Bono’s voice comes in and the song turns contemplative, Kendrick remains laser-focused: “You overnight the big rifles, then tell Fox to be scared of us / Gang members or terrorists, etc etc / America’s reflection of me, that’s what a mirror does.” It’s a clear sign: Right now, Kendrick could get the Pope to sing him a hook, and he wouldn’t let that stop him from talking his shit.
DAMN., Kendrick Lamar’s new album, is a rap album in a way that Kendrick’s past albums just haven’t been. Every Kendrick Lamar album is, of course, a rap album. Kendrick is a rapper. He can’t sing. (He’s getting better on that score; when he and Anna Wise harmonize on “PRIDE.,” their combined voices sound a bit like Anderson .Paak. Still, the point stands: Not a singer.) But on his last two masterpieces, Kendrick has pushed against the genre, trying to find new ideas and new directions. He wouldn’t let himself be contained. On Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, that meant an album-length concept song about what it’s like to grow up young and desperate, longing for transcendence, in Compton. Even when Kendrick did talk his shit, as on “Backseat Freestyle,” he was doing it in character, keeping it part of a larger story. And on To Pimp A Butterfly, the picture got even larger. With that album, Kendrick made a spoken-word-laced jazz-rap odyssey about nothing less than the fraught state of race in America. It’s hard to imagine an album more ambitious than that one, and Kendrick hasn’t tried to make one. Instead, he’s just made a motherfucking rap album. He’s used DAMN. to show that he is the best rapper we have right now.
But that doesn’t mean there’s anything limited about the album! Rap is a rich and varied and exciting and constantly-evolving thing, and over the 14 tracks of DAMN., Kendrick finds about 50 ways to approach it. The album doesn’t have the cohesive sweep of To Pimp A Butterfly, and that’s by design. Kendrick has too many things on his mind, too many different moods and ideas he wants to explore. And so “HUMBLE.,” the greatest example of sustained shit-talk in Kendrick Lamar’s career, comes just after “PRIDE.,” on which he struggles with the idea of recognizing his own power, ultimately concluding, “I can’t fake humble just cuz your ass is insecure.” On “FEAR.,” Kendrick spends three verses meditating on the things that scared him at three different distinct points of his life — from an abusive parent at age seven to the swiftness of his own rise at age 27. And the middle verse, in which a teenage Kendrick focuses on all the random things that, in his head, will “probably” kill him, is among the most poignant things he’s ever written.
For all its complexity, though, DAMN. is a rap album, concerned with rap tropes and narratives and myths. The great, overarching story at the heart of so many great rap albums is here: It’s the story of rising up from cold, unrelenting poverty through the strength of your skill and swagger and intelligence, marveling at the implausibility of your own rise, lashing out at anyone who might try to drag you back down. If DAMN. has a unifying concept, it’s that. Kendrick has a past full of demons and perilous escapes: “I know murder, conviction, burners, boosters, burglars, ballers, dead, redemption.” And because of the exceptional work he’s done, he’s now able to live a life of rarefied luxury, to turn cartwheels on his own estate: “Yoga on a Monday, stretching to Nirvana.” It’s a story about overcoming odds, and of all the ways he could’ve easily fallen back down along the way.
Still, this is Kendrick Lamar we’re talking about here, so the narrative is different. The Kendrick of DAMN. has plenty of words for nameless enemies. Locking into rap narratives, he’s also locking back into rap itself, to the petty little rivalries that define and drive the genre. It’s fun to debate whether Kendrick is talking about Big Sean or Drake or just the nameless mass of non-Kendrick rappers on songs like “HUMBLE.,” but what is certain is that Kendrick’s blows connect: “Last LP, I tried to lift the black artists / But it’s a difference between black artists and wack artists,” “We ain’t going back to broke, family selling dope / That’s why you maney-ass rap niggas better know.”
But because Kendrick’s position is so elevated now, his real enemies aren’t other rappers. The real villains of DAMN. are the media voices that would seek to simplify and marginalize the things that Kendrick was saying on To Pimp A Butterfly. On the introductory track “BLOOD.,” Kendrick includes a sample of Geraldo Rivera, on Fox News, quoting Kendrick’s own lyrics from “Alright” in a haughty, disbelieving voice, as if that one line about cops was the entirety of Kendrick’s viewpoint, as if that line wasn’t entirely justified in the first place. Throughout the album, he throws darts at Fox: “Somebody tell Geraldo this nigga got some ambition.” But the line that hits the hardest is this: “Shit that I’ve been through probably offend you.” The people tut-tutting Kendrick’s lyrics, then, are the ones who have no idea what he’s been through, whose imaginations are so small that they don’t even consider the things that could lead a young man toward hating police.
Kendrick doesn’t make that same mistake. One of his great gifts is his overwhelming sense of empathy. “LUST.,” at first, sounds like an indictment of rap-culture materialism, but it’s really the opposite. Kendrick talks about men sitting around and playing videos games and shooting guns out the window, about women running credit card scams and bouncing their asses in the club. And he resolutely refused to pass judgment on any of it: “Whatever you doing, just make it count.” And then he raps about himself, waking up hungover and losing expensive jewelry in hotel rooms, scrambling to make it to the next show. He is, as he reminds us over and over, a flawed and regular-ass human. “LOVE.,” the song that follows “LUST.,” is a portrait of laid-back intimacy that makes it clear Kendrick is his best self when he’s with his girl. It’s disarming for how ordinary it is: “You’re a homie for life, let’s get it / Hit that shoulder lean, I know what coming over mean.”
There’s a level of comfort in those lines, and in the way Kendrick approaches the general act of rapping all through DAMN. Musically, the album walks an interesting line: Keeping the everything-all-at-once sound-splatter aesthetic of To Pimp A Butterfly — and retaining the services of many of the musicians who helped make it — while still playing around with the sound of rap right now. Kendrick’s three collabs with Mike Will Made-It are especially revelatory there: The grand spaghetti-western sweep of “DNA.,” the hard-slapping thunder of “HUMBLE.,” the explosive late-’80s 808 boom of the first half of “XXX.” Still, the album’s hardest song is probably the one that James Blake co-produced. (Seriously, after “ELEMENT.,” I am ready for Blake to leave drifting sad-boy electro-pop stardom behind completely and just make rap beats.) And while there’s still plenty of soulful drift on the album’s more introspective tracks, they stop well short of To Pimp A Butterfly’s eruptive spaciness. There are abrupt transitions all through these songs — not just from song to song, but within the songs themselves, since Kendrick loves the mid-song beat-flip. And all throughout, the legendary New York DJ Kid Capri shows up at seemingly random intervals to yell shit, further playing around with our collective memory and keeping our heads spinning.
DAMN. is still less than 24 hours old, and I can’t get my brain to settle down when it’s playing. (If the writing is more scattered than usual in this review, blame Kendrick, not me.) Still, it’s hard to imagine ever hearing the album without feeling constantly unmoored. Kendrick uses these aesthetic juxtapositions the same way a math-rock band uses a time-signature change-up. He delights in throwing us off, just so that we can marvel at the sheer virtuosity of his technique. Even as Kendrick makes his most conventional rap album since at least Section.80, he still feels free to let his mind fire off in all these different directions at once. He trusts us to keep up.
The album’s wonderstruck up-from-nothing narrative and its scattered-but-intense musicality both find their ultimate expression in “DUCKWORTH.,” the song that ends the album. 9th Wonder, the man who helped catalyze an internet explosion of introspective underground rap at the beginning of this century, co-produced the song, and it continually shifts, becoming something new whenever Kendrick’s story changes. And it changes a lot. Kendrick starts out by telling the life story of Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, his label boss. It’s a mythic origin-story tale — a kid growing up in the projects, enduring hard times, willing to do whatever, just evading a murder charge.
But the story doesn’t end with Top Dawg starting his smart-rap empire. Instead, it ends when he heads out to rob the same KFC where Ducky, Kendrick’s own father, worked the drive-thru widow. Things turned out fine. Ducky knew that Anthony was a dangerous person, so he gave him extra biscuits everytime he saw him. Top Dawg liked Ducky, so he “let him slide.” And because they stayed on each other’s good sides, they were able to meet up once again, years later, in recording studios, both of them on the top of the world. But Kendrick doesn’t end the album on that note of triumph. Instead, he focuses on what could’ve happened: “If Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg could be serving life / While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight.” The last thing we hear on the song is a gunshot. It’s an ending that’ll rattle around in your head, a stinging reminder of all the potential Kendricks out there who never had a chance to do great things the way this guy did. And that’s DAMN.: A stark and powerful piece of art that never lets you forget what a miracle it is that you get to hear it at all. That’s what a rap album can do.