The world’s greatest rapper ™ exceeds all expectations on his star-studded fourth (right).
Kendrick Lamar’s unstoppable fourth album begins with the classic judo move of sampling enemy voices. Here are Fox News blowhards such as Geraldo Rivera, claiming absurdly that “hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years”. DAMN. is, among other things, a stone-cold defence of the art form and a strong argument that nobody does it better than this 29- year-old Compton MC. “I feel like debating on who the greatest can stop it,” he snaps on Feel. Like Kendrick says elsewhere, it’s hard being humble when you’re this good. To Pimp A Butterfly was bigger than hip-hop. A mid- 2010s cultural milestone to rank alongside Moonlight, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World And Me and the Black Lives Matter movement. Pure zeitgeist, which invited the kind of labels that drove Bob Dylan crazy 50 years earlier: poet, philosopher, voice of a generation, all that jazz. Kendrick couldn’t outdo Butterfly on those terms but nor has he sold himself short, like his recent cheque-cashing guest verses for the likes of Maroon 5. DAMN. is an almost flawless hip-hop masterclass that crunches Kendrick’s consuming concerns – life and death, pride and guilt, fate and freewill – into the tightest, most explosive package yet. The album title is both an exclamation and a verb with religious implications. Kendrick’s obsession with decisions and consequences – his own and his country’s – has acquired apocalyptic urgency (“The world is ending, I’m done pretending”) so directness is paramount. You don’t have to acclimatise to DAMN. like you did to Butterfly. It comes straight at you, via Kendrick’s virtuosic command of rap styles and a preacher’s arsenal of rhetorical techniques, while producers including Mike WiLL MadeIt and James Blake craft tracks that are taut yet complex, full of thrilling twists and details. Though not an overt concept album such as Butterfly or his 2012 bildungsroman good kid, m.A.A.d city, it tells a story. Guest vocalists, even ones as famous as Bono and Rihanna, become characters in an escalating moral narrative about how to be a good person in a hard world, and all the different ways in which someone can fall short. Kendrick comes at his theme from several angles, from knockout battle
ITS TRACKS ARE TAUT YET COMPLEX, FULL OF THRILLING TWISTS AND DETAILS.
raps such as DNA and Humble to the breathtaking memoir Fear, which snapshots Kendrick’s anxieties at three different ages and wraps them in punishing verses from Deuteronomy, the whole thing unfurling like Funkadelic via OutKast. Tracks pivot on a dime. On XXX, Kendrick’s bloody fantasy of avenging the death of a friend’s son snaps into a mournful panorama of American violence featuring an understated Bono as the voice of pained wisdom. Lives pivot, too. On the extraordinary finale Duckworth, Kendrick relates a nail-biting encounter between a gangbanger and a KFC clerk 20 years ago. The clerk, we finally learn, was Kendrick’s father; the man who almost killed him became Kendrick’s mentor, Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith. “Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence?” In its final seconds, Duckworth loops back to the start of a record which now sounds like the story of a life that almost didn’t happen – a winding rumination on the precariousness of fate that’s every bit as bold and profound as To Pimp A Butterfly. In all its “power, poison, pain and joy”, DAMN. shows that there’s more than one way to make a masterpiece. DORIAN LYNSKEY Listen To: DNA | Pride | Humble
Kendrick Lamar: “his obsession with decisions and consequences has acquired apocalyptic urgency…”