Tag Archives: Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar ‘Damn’ – Review

24 Apr

Kendrick’s Lamar’s new mantra is ‘What happens on Earth stays on Earth.’ We hear it again and again on his impressive new album ‘Damn’ and it signals the clear intent behind the record. This is a knotted, spiritual album that acts like a clearing out of the junk of the soul prior to entry to a higher realm. The God frequently referenced on the album is the Old Testament God and Kendrick’s beliefs are not fashionable, evangelical or simplistic. He references curses, punishments and exile, and makes his sins (and their consequences) abundantly clear. Even more so than on ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, he’s talking from the depths of despair to a stained society. But ‘Damn’ was released on Good Friday for a reason, and thus Kendrick also gives glimpses of redemption.

In contrast to the opulent ‘TPAB’, on ‘Damn’ Kendrick goes direct – as if extravagant jazz arrangements and expansive funk samples are an indulgence we can’t afford in the Trump era. The truths delivered are sharper, clearer and pointed – the backdrops hit just as hard. Lamar is talking to a mainstream audience in language they will understand. The beats are thicker, harder and heavier. The samples draw more from soul and r&b. There are DJ scratches and drops that hark back to the late 80s, courtesy of the legendary Kid Capri. Nothing is unprecedented but that feels inclusive rather than disappointing; it may lack the musical flair of ‘Untitled Unmastered’ and ‘TPAB’, or the dark, distinctive atmosphere of ‘Good Kid, Maad City’, but it turns out Kendrick does old skool hip hop just as well as anybody.

To Pimp a Butterfly’ was structured around a poem that was revealed line by line in between the tracks. There is no such framing device here, although repetition is once again used to tie thoughts together. Samples of a Fox News debate about the social influence of Hip Hop are deployed throughout the record. One inflammatory extract comes courtesy of political commentator Geraldo Rivera who says ‘hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years’. Kendrick Lamar imagined this album as the most appropriate response. It froths with an anger and vulgarity that already has Rivera doubling down on his position. But equally there is unparalleled intelligence, imagination and integrity that you’d like to think would surprise the Fox News talking heads. The songs are sequenced to create a dialogue; they sing to each other. So ‘Humble’ follows ‘Pride’, ‘Love’ follows ‘Lust’ and ‘Duckworth’ follows ‘God’. All roads lead to ‘Fear’, the longest, most ambitious song on the record and the culmination of all the questioning and internal wrestling.

When Kendrick Lamar is at his best (and he’s at his absolute, fiery best on at least half these cuts) there is nobody in Hip Hop, Pop, Poetry or culture at large who can currently match him. Everyone else in the game should be exhausted just trying to keep up. Unfortunately, at times, Kendrick is slowing down and mimicking their moves – perhaps trying to let the crowds get a better look. On the (thankfully not included) stand alone single ‘The Heart IV’, Kendrick sounded out a siren call to the opposition. He’s clearly keeping tabs. And If he doesn’t call them out directly on ‘DAMN’ they he certainly tips them his hat. ‘Love’ is the worst offender; a diminished ode to such a grand topic that almost seems to say ‘anything Drake can do I can do better’. ‘Loyalty’ is another frustratingly slight and insubstantial song that features a guest appearance from Rihanna, who can’t muster a hook worth savouring. On ‘God’ (another title deserving of more than it receives) his casual drawl falls at the exact halfway point between Future’s and Young Thug’s. And I’m not the only person who hasn’t been sold on ‘Humble’ (alhough it is currently number one in the States). The song’s demanding, patronising tone has upset some feminists while his repeated use of the word ‘bitch’ in the refrain feels below someone of his intelligence.

If these concessions to mainstream tastes and lesser rappers are disappointing then they shouldn’t distract from what is largely a singular release from a true individual. Part of Kendrick’s talent is his vocal versatility – he’s always enjoyed trying on masks and subtly shifting tones, moods and his cadence. But he’s always best when he plays himself. On a physical level, nobody else could come close to matching the ferocity of Kendrick’s delivery on ‘DNA’, his sheer verbal dexterity on ‘XXX’ or the way constant rhymes and half rhymes trip of his tongue with such apparent ease (often flaunting natural onomatopoeia, assonance and alliteration in the process).

Back to that central masterpiece, ‘Fear’; what exactly is Kendrick scared of? Well, what have you got. He lists his fears in all caps on the track listing – ‘LOVE’, ‘PRIDE’, ‘LUST’, ‘DNA’, ‘DUCKWORTH’ (himself), and ‘GOD’. Mainly God. ‘Damn’, used as a verb, is something that God does. Damned, is how Kendrick feels. But closer to home, we live in a world where we damn each other as well. Constantly. Maybe one explains the other and vice versa. Kendrick is trapped in one such cycle. It’s a complex idea that Kendrick spends an hour unpacking. He contemplates salvation whilst staring down the gun of temptation; speaks of his sins in crude terms over explosive beats; preaches forgiveness whilst chastising enemies; Acknowledges his flaws even while flaunting them. He states it most clearly on ‘DNA’; ‘I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA.’ As I say, this album is Kendrick’s decluttering of the soul and an acknowledgement of his inherent (human) contradictions. It’s his attempt to come to terms with the ballers, Fox News, critics, gangs, God – but perhaps most importantly, himself.

8.5/10

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Kendrick Lamar ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ – Review

12 Apr

On 2012’s breakthrough album ‘Good Kid, Maad City’, Kendrick Lamar introduced himself as a Hip Hop artist with a director’s eye for image and detail. His songs formed an autobiographical ‘slums to stardom’ narrative about the young rapper’s early life, that was cinematic in scope and style. ‘To Pimp a Butterfly doubles up on the breadth and ambition of ‘Good Kid’ by starting a thought-provoking discussion about fame, desire, faith, race and doubt. ‘Good Kid, Maad City’ was presented as a ‘short film’ and ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ is undoubtedly a blockbuster in its own right.

This album is about the education of Kendrick Lamar. It’s a tangled web of complexities, anxieties and contradictions that is unknotted with honesty and conviction. This is a man who entered the Rap business to escape the Ghetto, but is ultimately still trapped there – ‘institutionalised, for both better and worse. Rap gave him an escape but also condemned him to a life of sin and temptation. Rap is also the very thing that saves him, and brings him home. He spends all of ‘Momma’ telling us that he knows ‘everything’, a typical Hip Hop boast that is taken to the poetic extreme through hyperbole and repetition, but ends with Kendrick accepting that that he actually knows ‘nothing’. Lamar asks to be saved, asks to be redeemed, looks to God and believes that everything will be alright in the end. ‘My rights, my wrongs – I write ’til I’m right with God’.

It’s difficult to remember an album as carefully developed as this one. Interspersed between the songs are extracts from a poem, that is revealed to the listener, line by line, with each extract carefully relating to the song that follows it. And so while the album lacks an excplicit concept, there is this central artistic device that smartly allows Kendrick to dive in to different subjects and themes.

On ‘u’ he speaks to himself in third person, filled with self-hatred, trying to better himself but struggling. ‘Loving you is complicated.’ near the album’s finale he realises that love comes from within, and so ‘u’ gets flipped to ‘i’, a declaration of self-belief. That’s one way in which the album can be read, as a story of slow realisation and redemption. Along the way Lamar dissects questions of Race and faith in such astonishing detail that I can’t even begin an analysis here. Characters arise and disappear, each with their own baggage, adding to the story; the Spanish-speaking maid who witnesses Lamar’s mental breakdown in a hotel room, the South African beggar who turns out to be God, the small child who resembles a young Kendrick Lamar and reminds him of his roots, Snoop Dog, 2Pac, Nelson Mandela, various family members with their differing beliefs and wants. Lamar mixes the profound and the profane, the big ideas with small details and he interacts with both the rich and the poor, the superstars and the homeless.

Musically this is the most adventurous and open-minded record I’ve heard in a long time. It weaves together free Jazz, Prince Pop, 90’s girl-group r&b, Sly Stone funk, psychedelia and even a Sufjan Stevens sample. It comes over like a more twisted take on Andre 3000’s ‘The Love Below’ without any of the killer pop moments. Which isn’t to say that ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ is difficult or hook free, it’s just that the hooks are more subtle, the grooves more subversive and the melodies less repetitive. If lead single ‘i’ suggested a turn to a more radio friendly, retro soul-sample sound then it was a brilliant red herring. Likewise the trap influenced ‘Blacker the Berry’ is equally unrepresentative of  a record that makes no other concessions to the hip hop styles and sounds of 2015. But it’s all the better for it. The album submerges the listener in a sound that is warm, rich and, crucially, alive. A backing band of super talented musicians support Kendrick on most of the songs, which means that ‘To pimp a butterfly’ would be a rewarding album even without Kendrick’s rapping.

But consider the rapping for just a second – and not what he’s saying, but how he’s saying it. On a technical level, Kendrick Lamar has to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. His rhyming on ‘For Free’ is unprecedented in its ingenuity, ferocity and breathless delivery. His pauses are perfectly timed, his flow is diverse and adaptable, his tone is rich and emotive and he has excellent control of pace. Even when the subject matter is trite or crude (trite, rarely, crude, often) you have to admire his sheer skill and versatility as a rapper. If there were a Hip Hop olympics, Kendrick would be winning gold for both the 100 meters and the marathon.

‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ ends with ‘Mortal man’, a typically strange and surreal track in which it is eventually revealed that the poem that has been read throughout the album is actually being addressed to Tupac Shakur’. After reciting the poem again, Lamar asks Tupac a series of questions, including one about how he managed to keep his sanity. There is no real answer because, of course, Tupac is dead. The silence at the end of the conversation feels ominous, with Lamar asking ‘Pac, Pac, Pac?’ If penultimate track ‘i’ seemed to offer a solution and uplift, then ‘Mortal Man’ piles on more doubt and more questioning. There is no happy ending, just a lot to meditate on.

9.5/10

Review Roundup December

6 Dec

Grizzly Bear – ‘Shields’

I’ve always felt that a great band is struggling to get out of Grizzly Bear, they’ve just never quite managed to find a way through the darkness. We’ve glimpsed greatness of course, much of ‘Veckatimest’ was classic, but I’ve never  been wholly convinced by one of their albums. ‘Shields’ may well be their finest full length statement to date, but it still doesn’t wholly convert me. On the plus side it’s more tuneful and hits the mark more often than previous albums. I particularly like the atmospheric ‘Sleeping Ute’ and the arena rock stylings of ‘Yet Again.

Like the other Grizzly Bears albums, this is a stodgy record that feels frustratingly restrained and well behaved. Also, like the other Grizzly Bear albums, it’s  more impressive on a superficial level than an emotional one. The singing is pretty but not really moving. The lyrics sound interesting but they’re empty statements. The instrumentation is fragile and ornate but there’s nothing that hooks you. I’ve always wondered what one of their gigs would be like because it’s not music that elicits any type of visceral reaction in me. I can’t imagine being moved to dance or jump or sing along, nor could I imagine being sucked in and absorbed by what i was watching. Maybe it would be a nice experience, like this album is. Nothing more, nothing less.

6/10

Rihanna – ‘Unapologetic’

Rihanna is only ever as good as her singles. Last year she had a couple of classics as well as a couple of dire (and I mean dire) ones. This time around she released ‘Diamonds’ as the lead single from her 7th record, ‘Unapologetic’, and it’s neither. It’s just the most inoffensive, bland slice of pop you’ll hear all year. And I think that’s more disappointing than if it were simply dire. The rest of the album is much the same; none of these songs would make a greatest hits and they would clog up a set list. The world has been saturated by Rihanna recently and by the sound of ‘Unapologetic’ she needs a year off as much as we need her to have one off.

3/10

Kendrick Lamar – ‘Good Kid, MAAd City’

Kendirck Lamar has been hyped to the heavens in the USA. Think of him as their Arctic Monkeys – the saviour of hip hop to our saviours of indie. And just as it’s a little hard for some Americans to understand what makes the Monkeys so great, it’s a little hard for me to understand what makes Kendrick stand out from the crowd. Don’t get me wrong, ‘Good Kid, Maaad City’ is a better than average hip hop album; the rapping is more than serviceable, the rags to riches story is cliched but engaging and the beats are exciting – but it’s hardly groundbreaking stuff. It strikes me that Lamar is popular for much the same reason Arctic Monkeys are popular – he reminds people of their favourite artists whilst still sounding fresh, young and interesting.

This is a good record, elevated to near greatness by a couple of outstanding songs. ‘Backseat Freestyle’ is just out of this world; it caries more mean hooks than any other record released this year. Just… wow. Then, once you get past the sheer ludicrousness of ‘Swimming Pools’  and allow yourself to indulge in the lush beats and swirling synths, you’ll enjoy the most thrilling few minutes of music you’ve probably heard in a while. ‘Good Kid Maaad City’ is a fun album – It’s almost impossible for me to relate to it in any way but I guess that’s why it’s been given the subtitle ‘A Short Film’. This is pure escapism and it’s written from the perspective of somebody with a fairly ‘out there’ perspective. The hype may be a little hard to swallow but Kendrick has just released the best out and out hip hop album of the year.

8/10