Kendrick Lamar serves up heartstopping moments with U2 and Rihanna on ‘Damn.’
On Lamar’s new album, the big-name collaborators never outshine the smartest artist working in music today
Kendrick Lamar was a star of seismic levels when he performed in front of a full house in Dublin’s 3Arena. File photograph: Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP/Getty Images
With Damn., Kendrick Lamar has placed himself at the heart of the narrative, pulled in some high-rolling collaborators, and allowed the anger to simmer under a production that’s still got plenty of white-hot heat to burn. Here’s our thoughts after a morning’s listening.
Album-opener Blood is a beautiful, cinematic opener. Lush strings allow the bass and drums to casually walk you up to the moment when Lamar takes your head clean off. It’s not the only time here that the rapper, the best storyteller in the business, sets his audience up for a narrative coup de grace.
At this stage in his career, there are always going to be references to the pressures of being famous – but these are no odes to how lonely it is on top of the hill of money. DNA’s lyrics are a brilliant take on the struggle of being sold one version of yourself by society and fighting against it to carve out identity, self-acceptance and awareness.
On the seven-minute-plus epic Fear, we have a deftly effective track that initially calls to mind the soulful laments of Curtis Mayfield and Bobby Womack, while illustrating how life is just as hard now as when the latter was running across 110th Street.
“I beat yo ass if you walk in this house with tears in your eyes,” spits Lamar, a refrain that ups its payload as the track unwinds. From there it shifts to a vulnerable admission of how Lamar has handled his recent success. “At 27, my biggest fear was losin’ it all / Scared to spend money, had me sleepin from hall to hall / Scared to go back to section 8 with my mama stressin’ / 30 shows a month and I still won’t buy me no Lexus,” he raps, while relating: “I read a case about Rihanna’s accountant / And wondered how did the bad girl feel when she looked at them numbers.”
Did they discuss this in the studio? In an album awash with high-level collaborations, none glints more brightly than Loyalty. Languid beats elegantly underpin both performers’ spitting dense, fluent lyrics that flow like water and never upset the surface. It’s smooth as silk and one of the most tightly controlled tracks here.
As Lamar wonders: “Tell me who you loyal to / Is it love for the streets when the lights get dark? / Is it unconditional when the ‘Rari don’t start? / Tell me when your loyalty is comin’ from the heart.” And later both combine with “Tell me who you loyal to / Do it start with your women or your man? / Do it end with your family and friends? / Or you’re loyal to yourself in advance?”
There’s an artistry on Damn. that both Frank Ocean and Rihanna aimed for respectively on Blonde and Anti without hitting their targets flush. There’s no shame though in running second to the greatest musical artist of this generation.
Rumble like thunder
Lamar knows how to handle his PR machine, and rather than do anything by the usual route, he simply announces an album is being dropped and allows worldwide word of mouth to rumble like thunder. He’s also decent enough to give us that all important local Irish angle, thanks to his collaboration with U2 on XXX.
It opens in typical Kendrick territory of edgy, high-octane rapping above engine revs and siren wails, before a huge musical swerve, so we can “talk about gun control”, allows Bono to start crooning Harlem-lounge style over a jazz bluesy number. No hubcaps spin off around that tight musical corner. No tyre screech runs too harshly. Lamar allows the U2 frontman to sustain his decades-long US obsession by singing about a country in which “You close your eyes to look around” – and little tells us more about the state of that nation now than the music on this record.
For every spitting, swaggering lyric there’s a balancing moment of levity and consideration. Element, which upfront seems a backhanded slapdown to other pretenders, is more an honest testament to tenacity and the value of working hard at your art. “Most of y’all been advised / Last LP I tried to lift the black artists / But it’s a difference between black artists and wack artists.”
There is the beautiful sadness of Pride, its edges smoothed by the basslines of long-time collaborator Thundercat. This is a track built on epic foundations, and it’s easy to imagine it scaled up with choirs and orchestras. As it is, there is a raw, lonely beauty to the song with vocals that haunt the choruses.
There is the woozy pops, stops and upbeats of Lust. There is Love, which runs a little too sweetly for my tooth. There is no doubt, though, that in LA rapper Zacari, Lamar has uncovered an unconventional vocalist who can probably start naming his collaborators from here on in. And then there is the streetfighting swagger of single hammered piano notes on Humble.
Feel is a stunning, defiant track with some of the best production on the album thanks to Sounwave. It’s a track fired on frustration, where Thundercat’s bass line sounds like it’s trying to calm Lamar down from burning all the bridges he’s been building. The rhythms and shifts in the vocal lines are also quite the thing to get your head around.
There is a nagging feeling that the album loses a little momentum towards the end, but maybe that’ll erode with repeated listens. The final track, Duckworth (Lamar’s last name), is a heart stopper when Lamar unspools his family history with lyrics that have to be heard to be believed, and the sort of final reveal that gives the likes of the STown podcast a run for its narrative money.
Will more rise on Sunday?
Either way, if you fancy disappearing down the rabbit hole, check out this article on Fact Magazine. And don’t be surprised if in a few days’ time, we’re right back here with another dozen or so tracks of supreme, sublime musical ability to process.