With his new album, ‘Damn’, Kendrick Lamar cements his status as the world’s reigning hip-hop artist
On Good Friday, rapper Kendrick Lamar released his fourth album, Damn. On the night of Easter Sunday, he was the closing headliner at the massive, three-day Coachella music festival held in California. Taken together (the concert was streamed live on the internet), the two events cement his status as the world’s reigning hip-hop artist, which also means he’s pretty much the biggest thing going in pop music right now. Only Beyoncé – who was also meant to headline at Coachella, but had to withdraw because she’s several months pregnant – can currently match Lamar’s combination of star wattage and critical cachet. They’re the ones who set the pace for every other hitmaker. “Sit down,” Lamar orders his rivals on ‘Humble’, his latest single, which has a heavy, pugnacious piano riff to dent your brain. “Be humble.” The song was co-written and produced by Mike Will Made It, who also helped craft Beyoncé’s agenda-setting ‘Formation’ and Rae Sremmurd’s Billboard-topping ‘Black Beatles’, both released last year.
It’s Lamar’s newfound enthusiasm for the efficiencies of commercial rap that’s the real surprise of Damn. Here are window-rattling bass frequencies and crisp, programmed drum lines. Most of the songs rely on a single melodic hook. The bulk of them also come in under four minutes, with Lamar wringing every possible variation out of his one-word titles in that time. “I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA,” he spits on ‘DNA’, the second song on Damn, and the opener at his Coachella show. “I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA.” Lamar has always insisted upon his own multitudinousness, but on this album he sets it inside of a sleek musical machinery.
This makes for quite a departure from his previous studio recording, To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), which was lengthy and dense, drawing from jazz and funk as much as from hip-hop. The talk then was that Lamar might, single-handedly, bring about the revival of live instrumentation in hip-hop, a style that had long fallen from favour; he toured the album with a full band. That renaissance didn’t happen, but nor did its old-fangled atmosphere prevent To Pimp a Butterfly from becoming the most celebrated rap album of this decade, and even of this century. Its musical intricacies were matched by its lyrical complexities; among other subjects, Lamar addressed his own early life in Compton, Los Angeles; his struggles with depression; and the exhausting, often deadly forms of racial discrimination that have marred America’s history. To Pimp a Butterfly arrived at the exact right moment for it to become something like the musical testimony of the Black Lives Matter movement, with one song, ‘Alright’, passing from the charts to the streets in a rare instance of transference from popular song to popular protest. “We gon’ be alright” is the refrain that has since been heard at marches across the US, and the defiant, radical optimism of that sentiment remains as potent now as it was two years ago.
So what does a young man do when he’s not only one of the most revered rappers alive but also a musical prophet to a generation of listeners? One answer is to drape himself in papal robes, as Lamar does in the video for ‘Humble’, in order to underscore both his moral authority and his secular mastery of hip-hop form. But things are rarely what they first appear to be in Lamar’s work. One of his great skills as a rapper and a lyricist is his ability to wind out a line of argument until it doubles back upon itself, wrong-footing his assumptions and our own. “I feel like this gotta be the feelin’ what ’Pac was,” he says on ‘Feel’, from the new album, in reference to his great musical hero and Californian rap predecessor, 2Pac. “The feelin’ of an apocalypse happening.”
Lamar has struck this note before. On ‘Mortal Man’, the 12-minute finale of To Pimp a Butterfly, he sampled audio clips from an interview with 2Pac, who was murdered in 1996, so that the two of them – forefather and anointed progeny – seemed to be speaking with each other in some empyrean realm, warning of what was to come. “The poor people is gonna open up this whole world and swallow up the rich people,” predicted ’Pac. But on ‘Feel’, Lamar keeps pressing upon his doomsday thoughts – maybe they aren’t so illuminating. “The feelin’ won’t prosper / The feelin’ is toxic,” he goes on. “I feel like I’m boxing demons, monsters, / False prophets schemin’, sponsors, industry promises.” On the one hand, ‘Feel’ is a disillusioned report from the summit – turns out the view isn’t quite so amazing after all – but you’d be wrong to think it isn’t also a self-indictment. Lamar accrues the respect that he does because he’s willing to put his own doubts and vacillations on display – in fact, they form the motor of his songs.
He didn’t perform ‘Feel’ at Coachella, though the song’s refrain, “Ain’t nobody prayin’ for me”, became a leitmotif of his set, displayed on enormous projection screens and played back at key intervals. The lonely sentiment was heightened by his isolation on stage; at one point he even rapped from inside a light-strewn box, an obvious visual metaphor for fame’s gilded cage. That might all sound too self-pitying to bear, but it actually wasn’t – few if any contemporary performers share Lamar’s combination of humility and arrogance, vulnerability and aggression. He makes fun of his fans’ outsized expectations at the same moment as he confirms them. “Everything I touch is a damn gold mine,” he raps on ‘God’, over glistening synthesisers. “Everything I say is from a angel.”
Lamar’s Coachella show – he played ‘God’ – served as the live debut of Damn, and it was also notable for his decision to swerve around To Pimp a Butterfly almost entirely. Only two songs from that album, the ubiquitous ‘Alright’ and the warrior-like ‘King Kunta’, were included in his set, though he drew heavily upon fan favourites from his 2012 album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. Considering the sheer scale of his live shows now, it makes sense; having watched him play last year in Sydney, it was clear that the more musically complex material from To Pimp a Butterfly just didn’t translate to an arena-sized venue as well as the punchier, hands-in-the-air singles. It may well be that To Pimp a Butterfly is the aberration, musically speaking, in his catalogue.
Two-thirds of the way through his Coachella set Lamar brought out an unexpected guest, Atlanta rapper Future. Together they performed Future’s current hit, ‘Mask Off’, a sinuous ode to his ruling obsessions: cash, MDMA and prescription painkillers. Two years ago I would have thought of Future and Lamar as philosophical and musical opposites: Future the prince of hedonism at its most sordid and surreal extremes, Lamar the interrogative, golden-tongued street preacher. One was cold to the point of iciness; the other ran so hot that he risked self-combustion. But on ‘Mask Off’ these two stars met, for a moment, inside the hall of mirrors that fame has made for them. “Mask on / Fuck it, mask off,” Future raps on his song, a self-cancelling sentiment that Lamar can surely understand. To Pimp a Butterfly was an exercise in ruthless self-exposure, but its success also made Lamar untouchable. Now, on Damn, he reinforces both his external defences and his internal conflicts. “The shock value of my success put bolts in me,” he raps on ‘Fear’, one of the few new songs that harks back to the loping, jazzy feel of his previous record. “All this money, is God playin’ a joke on me?” That’s a question no mortal, not even Lamar, can answer.
Anwen Crawford is the Monthly’s music critic and the author of Live Through This.