Kendrick Lamar has become the most important MC in America over the past few years, and the reasons are apparent on even a glancing listen to his impressive catalog—his verbal dexterity, his capacity for reflection, his ability to fuse black music’s past with its next generation. On Friday he released DAMN., his staggering fourth album, which brings together tightly wound beats, allusion-rich lyrics, political and personal reckonings—and, hey, even Bono!—to create a richly omnivorous album. It feels as vital when its protagonist is musing on unconditional love as it does when he’s railing on now-President Donald Trump.
Lamar’s steadily increasing success over the past few years has culminated in some of the spoils only enjoyed by those at the very top of the pops—Grammy Awards and nominations in the cross-genre “big five” categories, collaborations with superstars like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, big-money headline stints at festivals like the annual desert bacchanalia Coachella, where he’ll headline the Sunday-night installment of this and next weekend’s festival. But DAMN. shows that if nothing else, fame has driven him even further inside his own head, making him almost obsessively reflective about his place in the world—as a pop star, as a black man, as an American in 2017.
DAMN. opens with the shimmering, ominous “BLOOD.,” a free-verse parable about a meeting with a blind woman that ends with a bang—a gunshot that cuts the narrator’s life short. That fades into a prismatic sample of Fox News commentators complaining about the lyrics to his breakout single “Alright,” which he performed while perched atop a graffiti-covered police cruiser during the 2015 BET Awards. “Oh please, ugh. I don’t like it,” Fox commentator Kimberly Guilfoyle says. That leads into the harsh beats and boastful verses of the invigorating “DNA.,” which flips clichés about black culture on its head while also slamming hip-hop’s most prominent critics—like Geraldo Rivera, who said, “This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to African Americans than racism in recent years.” Lamar and Atlanta hip-hop mastermind Mike WiLL Made-It use the sample to great effect, dropping Rivera’s voice into part of a verbal melee with Lamar and an ominous-sounding countdown.
The album’s sounds are more in line with current hip-hop trends than 2015’s skronk-steeped To Pimp A Butterfly, which placed Lamar firmly in the pantheon of top-tier MCs. “YAH.” uses woozy beats to take on Rivera and muse on Bibilical prophecies, while Rihanna struts around the boastful yet suspicious “LOYALTY.,” which pivots on reversed-tape samples and name-drops Lamar’s new nickname of choice, “Kung Fu Kenny.” The one-two punch of “LUST.” and “LOVE.” explore the conflict between the physical and the cerebral, with “LOVE.” gleaming in a way that brings to mind the midpoint between Enya’s plush synths and trap’s stuttering drumbeats.
The two songs that follow, the clamorous “XXX.” and “FEAR.,” combine the personal with the political in stunning fashion. Lamar turns America’s woes into a moment for prayer and self-reflection on the former, with Bono’s soothing burr acting as a release valve for Lamar’s questioning of the heavens: “Is America honest, or do we bask in sin? Pass the gin,” he intones slowly over a velvety bassline. On the latter, Lamar examines the titular emotion while using crystalline lyrics to fully depict different characters, each of whom is fearing for his life in his own way. It’s a striking song that shows how Lamar’s empathy has made his music ever more resonant.
DAMN. ends with the one-two punch of “GOD.” and “DUCKWORTH.” Lamar opens the first track by boasting over gorgeous blooms of synth, recalling his dreams of being “slick as El DeBarge” while raining down do-you-know-me boasts on anyone who dares come his way. “My heart is rich/ my heart is famous,” he mutters at the end of the bridge, sounding conflicted amidst the song’s exclamatory glitter. That conflict persists through “DUCKWORTH.,” which opens with the processed angels who opened the album singing, “It was always me versus the world/ until I found it’s me versus me.” The story that follows, told over ever-shifting flips of soul sides, is a densely recalled fable about coincidence and chance, focusing on how the kind gestures of a KFC worker caused a local miscreant to hold off on holding the place up.
“Pay attention: That decision changed both of they lives,” Lamar notes, before revealing that the story’s two protagonists would reunite in a recording studio decades later—the miscreant was Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, who founded Lamar’s label Top Dawg in 2004, and the KFC worker was Kenny Duckworth, Lamar’s father. “If Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg could be servin’ life/ While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight,” he says, and almost immediately the gunshot that cracked open the end of “BLOOD.” is heard again, and then the album rewinds back to the beginning and to Lamar’s opening line: “So I was taking a walk the other day…”
The tightly constructed rhymes, sly allusions to religion and karma, and intricate character sketches on DAMN. solidify Lamar’s status as one of the greatest MCs of the moment, if not of hip-hop as a genre. (They also make the cherry-picking and sloganeering of Rivera and his colleagues sound ridiculous—although Lamar’s poking of that network’s hornet’s nest may garner him some free publicity there.) And the album’s beats, which were helmed by Lamar and a slew of producers that include longtime collaborator Sounwave, Canadian funk collective BADBADNOTGOOD, and pop titan Greg Kurstin, tip their cap to hip-hop and soul’s present and past while leaning out toward its future.
Lamar’s appeal as a performer comes in part from his driven optimism. The “we gonna be alright” of the song that so angered those commentators two years ago is put into practice not as simple Pollyannaism but deep analysis of where the world has gone, and determination that it break its worst cycles. DAMN. represents this ideal both lyrically and musically—and it does it to stunning effect.