Kendrick Lamar: Damn review – another dial-shifting release

(Top Dawg/Interscope)
More than drugs, crime or gynaecology, greatness is arguably the meta-theme of all hip-hop, and Lamar both tells and shows his pre-eminence

For all Kendrick Lamar’s supernatural prowess as a rapper, he did not rise again last Sunday. Rumours had been circulating that Damn, the Compton lyricist’s fourth album, was only the first half of an Easter two-parter, with the second half following the Good Friday release – an Ascension, of sorts.

As it is, we just have Damn – 14 Bible-referencing stations of the cross, in which the jazz leanings of Lamar’s career-defining To Pimp a Butterfly album (2015) give way to yet another dial-shifting record.

Damn trolls the mainstream hard, in part via a handful of Mike Will Made-It productions. Anything pop rappers can do, Lamar seems to be saying, he can do better – and, as a track called Element has it, “make it look sexy”. Love feat. Zacari is an out-and-out chart-rap provocation: sweet and deep. Jazz is present, but gentler – as on the excellent Lust, which features Canadian hip-hop jazzbos BadBadNotGood alongside British up’n’comer Ratboy and a reference to sexual consent, rare in hip-hop. “Let me put the head in,” croons Lamar, “I respect the cat.” Psychedelic funk and Prince wander in and out of Damn. Trap is referenced.

More than drugs, crime or gynaecology, greatness is arguably the meta-theme of all hip-hop, and Lamar both tells and shows his pre-eminence. Element takes on all comers, positing Kendrick as “Mr One through Five”, taking a swipe at rappers obsessed with their social media. “I don’t to it for the ’Gram/ I do it for Compton,” he spits, in a rolling, mutating flow.

Released upfront of Damn, Humble is a masterclass in bouncing braggadocio. Here, though, the single is recontextualised by Lamar’s meditations like Fear Or Pride. Even before you fully absorb Damn’s beat science, its self-referencing textural depths, and its ever-evolving balance of personal and political, you can’t help but hear this record as a rocket in the space race with Drake.

Watch the video for Kendrick Lamar’s DNA.

Lamar recruits frequent Drake collaborator Rihanna on a track called – yes – Loyalty, a languorous meditation on principles that nods at Jay Z. Is the sped-up sample of Rat Boy a pisstake of Drake’s obsession with grime? “Keep the family close,” Lamar raps on the sing-song Yah, a preoccupation on Drake’s Views.

It’s very easy to get lost in the shade being thrown, or the Bible verses being quoted. More plainly significant are tracks like DNA, which place Lamar’s scintillating verbal skills front and centre, as he boggles at Fox News’s wilful misunderstanding of hip-hop’s relationship to black suffering.

Even U2’s presence on XXX is not a mistake in Lamar’s hands. The closing Duckworth, meanwhile, tells the jaw-dropping tale of how, years ago, Lamar’s label boss nearly shot Lamar’s dad in a KFC hold-up. Lamar marvels at the workings of fate. We can only marvel at the strike rate being racked up by the best rapper out there.

Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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