“Y’all got ’til April the 7th to get y’all shit together,” Kendrick rapped in the closing lines of ‘The Heart Part 4′, his album-preceding “viral left stroke” that threw down a gauntlet to Drake’s chart-rap dominance and, you can bet, had the whole hip-hop scene shook.
Lamar may have missed his own self-imposed deadline by a week (hey, it happens to the best of us), but was it worth the wait? On first listen, ‘DAMN.’ appears to be Kendrick’s most direct offering in some time, dialling back the jazz a bit, drawing more focus on his bars and even throwing guest slots to Rihanna, U2 and, more surprisingly, Rat Boy. Hot damn indeed.
Here’s our track-by-track first-listen review.
The album opens with a very Kendrick parable set to film soundtrack strings, as he tells the story of helping an old blind woman only to be shot in return. He labels it the struggle between wickedness and weakness, essentially the age-old battle between good and evil. Lamar seems to raise the question of what it means to be good in a modern world that’s inherently bad. Is it actually foolish to show kindness to the wicked?
A gunshot sounds and the opening track cuts to a warped sample of Fox News presenters referencing his lyrics, which features one host offering the oh-so-astute commentary of “Oh please, ugh, I don’t like it.” Lamar had previously dismissed the criticism, saying “How can you take a song that’s about hope and turn it into hatred?” Here, he uses the soundbite to again demonstrate this idea of well-meaning actions being misconstrued as evil.
In ‘DNA.’, Lamar champions black heritage and the culture that’s made him who he is (“I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA”) while sardonically dispelling rap stereotypes (“Sex, money, murder – our DNA”). He takes another shot at Fox News, airing a soundbite spouting that “hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years”.
The instrumentation takes a backseat here to Lamar’s stinging flow. In a climate where ‘Hotline Bling’ can take home Best Rap Song at the Grammys (in the words of Drake, it’s not even a “rap song”), Kendrick aims to bring the focus back to rhymes and he’s on the same fine form as we last heard in his verse on Kanye’s ‘No More Parties In LA’.
A more languid and laid-back, breezy number ‘YAH.’ sees Kendrick pondering race, religion and family as his thoughts meander and overlap. Oh and there’s another Fox News (“Fox News wanna use my name for percentage”) jab for good measure.
‘ELEMENT.’ is Kendrick’s latest call-to-arms to his rap rivals. On ‘Control’, he took shots at his peers and also-rans, leap-frogging them all and propelling himself to the higher echelons of the game in the process. Then on ‘The Heart Part 4’, he boasted about being not only in the top five greatest rappers alive but occupying all five spots. Here, Lamar complains of his lack of competition (“Last LP I tried to lift the black artists / But it’s a difference between black artists and wack artists”) and aims for a reaction (“If I gotta slap a pussy-ass n***a, I’ma make it look sexy”).
First premiered on Instagram by LeBron James, the song’s backdrop is provided by one credited ‘J Blake’ (who we can safely assume is the James Blake), who has offered up some piano tinkering, having remixed Kendrick in the past.
‘FEEL.’ sees Kendrick gazing into the void and isolation caused by his fame and success, describing his detachment from family and friends and disillusionment with “industry promises” and “false prophets schemin'”. “I feel like the whole world want me to pray for ’em / But who the fuck prayin’ for me?” he asks in the stream-of-conscious track. Production-wise, it sounds like Lamar’s ponderings are being haunted by a distant, distorted echo of his own voice.
‘LOYALTY.’ (ft Rihanna)
It sees “Kung Fu Kenny” and “Bad gyal RiRi” team up for the first time, delivering the first track of bonafide radio single material as the pair bounce back and forth on the importance of trust and, as the title suggests, loyalty.
Strong P-funk vibes with a hazy overlay, ‘PRIDE.’ pairs Lamar with Steve Lacy (of The Internet fame) and sees him deliver his best Andre 3000 impression at places. A pleasant but pretty forgettable interlude.
If you’re listening to this album – and reading this review – then you’ve probably heard this one already. It’s the perfect attention-grabbing first single and Kendrick need not be humble about that fact.
This track samples Rat Boy. Yes, really, the NME Award winner Rat Boy. Let me repeat that for you, just so it sinks in: Kendrick Lamar not only knows of Essex’s own Jordan Cardy, but has heard his song ‘Knock Knock Knock’ and liked it so much that he borrowed from it for this cut. “Door and his Nike Air Rattles / Rush the fire exit, no time for battles / Well I, I never expected,” Cardy is heard rapping in a pitched-up sample, utilising not once, but twice. Drake, Kendrick sees your Skepta and Giggs and raises you a Rat Boy.
Lyrically, ‘LUST.’ sees Kendrick living more of the wicked life than that of the weak, giving in to the temptation of sex, money and fame.
Kenny would hate to hear it, but ‘LOVE.’ is perhaps his most Drake-esque track. There’s longing for love, the trappings of money, Lamar even makes reference to his romantic interest not calling him anymore – can these things be any more Drizzy? But, surprisingly, it works. Guest vocalist Zacari (who, until recently, worked as a fishing guide) compliments Kendrick in a way that Drake often is by, say, PartyNextDoor.
‘XXX.’ (ft U2)
‘XXX.’ does the pretty much unimaginable in producing a Kendrick/U2 collaboration that isn’t completely terrible. Dare we say it: it’s actually pretty good. There’s no guitar solos courtesy of The Edge, instead Bono sings about America and drum and bass (sounding like swing-era Robbie) as the song descends into smooth lounge-jazz ruminating about the loss of the American dream.
There are many interesting aspects to ‘FEAR.’: the gospel opening, Kendrick speaking in reverse, Lamar raising his most direct religious questions of anywhere on the record. He even samples himself, using the same beat as heard on ‘The Heart Part 4’. Yet, somehow, the track hops and skips, switches and changes, but never really settles.
“This what God feel like, yeah / Laughing to the bank like aha, yeah”. ‘GOD.’ literally sounds like a victory lap from Kendrick – and it doesn’t sound very Kendrick at all. There’s autotune, crooning and a trap beat. It’s a direct message to any one who thought they could put Lamar in a box as he beats Soundcloud rappers at their own game.
Apt for a song that takes its title from Lamar’s own surname, ‘DUCKWORTH.’ is King Kenny at his best. One for the hip-hop purists and Kendrick-heads, it provides a back-story for the rapper’s early career and how his label boss nearly killed his dad when they were younger. “Whoever thought the greatest rapper / Would be from coincidence,” Kendrick raps before returning to the parable from album opener ‘BLOOD.’, neatly bringing things full-circle.