With his fourth studio album “DAMN.,” hip-hop luminary Kendrick Lamar tempers vice with virtue, fame with street cred and lofty expectations with unabashed authenticity.
After the groundbreaking “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Lamar, like it or not, became a voice for contemporary protest.
As the unofficial anthem for many Black Lives Matter activists, Lamar’s single “Alright” sparked controversy with “militant moderate” journalist Geraldo Rivera, who reacted to Lamar’s 2015 BET performance of the song by declaring that “hip-hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years” on a Fox News segment.
Lamar lambasts Rivera in the dizzying “YAH.,” lethargically rapping, “Fox News wanna use my name for percentage … Somebody tell Geraldo this nigga got some ambition.”
This track follows the climactic “BLOOD.” and the belligerent “DNA.,” both of which skillfully sampled the notorious Fox News segment.
Fox News grievances aside, Lamar spends much of “DAMN.” scrutinizing himself as if under a microscope.
On “FEEL.,” Lamar is breathless, feverish and brazenly vulnerable.
Jazz instrumentalist Thundercat’s leaden bass supports producer Sounwave’s full-bodied sample of “Don’t Let Me Down,” a song by Memphis electronic artist Fleurie.
Many uphold Lamar as the lyrical prophet of his generation and as a sort of Christ figure.
Although people praise or “pray” to the rap artist, Lamar candidly intones that “ain’t nobody prayin’ for [him].”
Lamar questions this widespread admiration on “PRIDE.,” one of the most meditative cuts from the album.
Neo-soul guitarist Steve Lacy’s reverberant, atmospheric vocals warn of the dangers of pride at the track’s beginning.
Lamar meekly confesses his vices with some of his weightiest lyrics to date: “See, in a perfect world, I’ll choose faith over riches … I’ll make schools out of prison/I’ll take all the religions and put ‘em all in one service.”
Lacy’s jangly guitar is contrite as Lamar repentantly confronts his inadequacies: “See, in the perfect world, I would be perfect, world.”
“HUMBLE.,” ironically the album’s most hubris-filled track, follows the solemn reflection of “PRIDE.”
Although Irish rock band U2 is the most unexpected feature on “DAMN.,” their appearance marks a zenith for the album.
“XXX” is a sonata of numerous movements. Dark beats and jarring piano chords initially interrupt the track’s subdued synths.
Samples of an engine revving and Lamar’s aggressive exclamations give way to a sublime chorus from Bono.
Throughout this dynamic soundscape, Lamar criticizes the current state of the U.S., calling out the broken public education system, gang violence and Donald Trump.
With the album, Lamar bravely exposes his fears of pride, disloyalty, lust, judgement and God, but he’s left “wonderin’ if [he’s] livin’ through fear or livin’ through rap” on “FEAR.”
This raw fervor permeates “DAMN.,” from its abrasive album art to its stark trap beats to Lamar’s unrestrained vulnerability.
“DAMN.” is available for purchase on Google Play and iTunes and is now streaming on Apple Music and Spotify.