From the moment that Good Friday began in the East, to the waning seconds of Sunday evening and his climatic headlining set at Coachella out West, Kendrick Lamar (Duckworth), or “Kung Fu Kenny” now, delivered crane-kicks to the culture’s dome throughout the entire 2017 Easter weekend.
DAMN. is both this album’s title and a succinct summation of its artistry.
In between DAMN.’s release and Sunday night’s cinematic, instant-classic performance in Indio, was a tantalizing side-bar of “fake news,” speculating on a forthcoming surprise second album of the weekend, which had us waiting on Kendrick like the 1st & 15th of the month, or even The Resurrection.
What that speculation-taken-as-fact, plus the accompanying backlash and disappointment when a second album didn’t materialize, says about our societal ADHD and insatiability for information, are topics for a think-piece near you.
I’m here to talk about the album we got on Good Friday, which I’m already willing to declare his best work, and by extension, the first bona fide classic album of 2017.
Its fourteen tracks make for a considerably leaner, tauter, funk-driven affair than 2015’s sprawling, free-jazz-and-spoken-word-informed, critically lauded To Pimp a Butterfly. In terms of running time, it splits the difference between last year’s 34-minute placeholder EP, untitled unmastered., and Butterfly’s near-80-minute opus. DAMN. benefits from this conciseness, as well as its repeated call backs to central thematic tropes throughout the album, with the sublime surprise of legendary DJ Kid Capri co-hosting the proceedings like a classic mixtape from his salad days during the 1990s.
Kendrick is an old soul, who routinely mines earlier eras, while paying tribute to his predecessors. Doing so shrewdly places him in their lineage, while rightfully laying claim to his own ever-growing legacy. Being one of The GOATs is clearly a goal. His recorded resume under Kendrick Lamar, starting in 2009, comprised of three independent mixtape-albums and four major-label releases since, is mounting evidence placing him in that conversation. That’s already more top-shelf material than legends like Rakim or Big Daddy Kane, to name a few, recorded in their careers.
DAMN. eschews hip-hop convention by limiting the number of features. There’s only three on the entire album. The production, outside of three Mike.Will.Made.It tracks and one each by Alchemist and 9th Wonder, is largely handled in-house, led by Sounwave, a consistent presence on every Kendrick release, doing more of the heavy-lifting than he has since 2010’s Section.80.
The only person rapping on this record besides Kendrick is Rihanna. The only known entity singing on this record is Bono of U2 on “XXX.” Yes, you read those last two sentences right. Both seemed like dicey propositions when first scrolling through the track listing. But each sound grateful for the opportunity to visit the universe that Kendrick inhabits here, so they’re effective without feeling forced or distracting. Rihanna especially, a.k.a. Bad Gal RiRi, displays a side you’ve never heard before, during her sparring with Kung Fu Kenny on “LOYALTY.”
The only other guest, a decidedly less household name than the aforementioned superstars, is relative newcomer Zacari. The 23-year-old Bakersfield, CA singer-songwriter, with his beguiling Sade-with-a-falsetto croon on “LOVE.,” may soon be a star in his own right with this future wedding song as his launching point. At the very least, expect it to be a profile-boost comparable to Bon Iver, after appearing on “Lost in the World” off Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. “LOVE.” is a hard song not to love. Considering Kendrick made it the encore of his triumphant Coachella set, it’s safe to assume he loves it too.
Other highlights abound. The lead single “HUMBLE.” is hard-charging minor-chord piano-driven funk, with a Mike.Will.Made.It beat that sounds like it could be the sonic offspring of the Dr. Dre orchestrated “G’s & Hustlaz” from Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle. “FEAR.” is a harrowing documentation of tough love under tougher economic circumstances, made doubly effective being delivered from the perspectives of both parent and child. Kendrick channels his cadence from E-40’s “Catch A Fade” in the opening verse of “XXX.,” then down-shifts into frenzied “m.A.A.d city” mode after the beat switch. “DUCKWORTH.” mines family history, of both his father and his father figure, Top Dawg Entertainment CEO Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, to satisfying conclusion.
If forced to pick one supreme standout, I’ll go with “GOD.” It begins with a Sounwave wave that washes over you celestially, then comes crashing in as the drums drop while Kendrick belts “This what GOD feel like! Laughing to the bank like ‘aaaah-haaaa.’” It’s an inspired bit of absurdist imagery that’s tough not to love. Call it a “Man Makes Plans, God Laughs” anthem. And since old-soul Kung Fu Kenny’s willing to reference the 1993 film The Five Heartbeats with the “Work It, JT” tagline, plus El DeBarge’s finger-waves, can we assume he’s also quoting Richie Valens’ alcoholic brother Bob in 1987’s La Bamba when he proclaims “I won, man?” This reviewer votes yes.
Either way, the listeners of DAMN. have been blessed.
On a personal level, I’d like to take this opportunity to say I feel blessed and filled with “PRIDE.” in witnessing Kendrick’s progression closely as an LA resident.
I was able to look him in the eye, at The Troubadour in West Hollywood around the turn of the decade, during the Overly Dedicated/Section.80 era, and tell him as an old head who’d seen N.W.A and PE at the Spectrum at age 12, around the time he was born, that he had the ability to be one of the best to ever do this.
And he is.
Greatest artist to debut in this millennium, in any genre, excluding nobody.
The way he makes the details of the personal into something wholly universal, is what great art is supposed to do.
Two years later at Club Nokia downtown, the night good kid, m.A.A.d city was being released, it was beautiful to witness Dr. Dre come out for a torch-passing encore while looking across the stage at Kendrick a bit like a proud parent.
Even better was the homecoming show of the Kunta’s Groove Sessions at The Wiltern in Mid-City following To Pimp a Butterfly, watching it while standing next to another enthusiastic old head, who ended up being Kendrick's sixth grade Poetry teacher at his Compton middle school.
I thanked him for his efforts.
His teacher took no credit.
He told me that Kendrick had this in him from the jump, yet still couldn't hide a wide smile while watching his shy, once 12-year-old pupil who grew up on public-assistance, putting his stamp on his home city and the world at large.
Two years after that night, he’s still rising to greater heights, while onstage in front of more than a hundred thousand riveted spectators, as a headliner on the same stage that five years earlier was being rocked by Dre, Snoop and Hologram Pac.
You've come a long way, Kendrick Lamar.
We thank you for taking us where you have so far.
Notable Tracks: “FEAR.” | “GOD.” | “HUMBLE.” | “LOVE.”