There are no precedents for Kendrick Lamar. Delivering a masterpiece with To Pimp a Butterfly, by turns deeply thoughtful and musically ambitious, the question lingered: how could he follow it up? In short, he didn't. Expectations comfortably lounged and awaited another sprawling, experimental mass. Naturally, Kendrick sidestepped these entirely, and did the one thing no one anticipated: buckled down and made a damn rap album.
Whatever way you look at them, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and Butterfly certainly weren't records one can categorize as hip hop albums in the traditional sense. Lamar had taken firm control in the rap world without ever joining in and playing the game the way it was supposed to be played. On paper, neither record should have been a chart-topper, let alone something to potentially challenge contemporaries like the style-borrowing, ubiquitous Canadian. DAMN., at long last, is Kendrick playing the game.
Reduced to its most basic parts, this is a rap album: beats that sizzle and snap in the ear from a varied group of producers, single-ready boasts, even the obligatory 'this is a big hip hop LP' Rihanna feature. He couldn’t have pulled a braver about-face for his third LP, perhaps only comparable to another three-peat: Eminem's refusal to rely entirely on the comedic and get serious on The Eminem Show - albeit in the opposite direction.
Here, Lamar shakes off any view of him as a cultural savior, tearing back the curtains to reveal the seething, uncertain man glimpsed on ‘u’. ‘XXX.’ (the needlessly dreaded U2 guesting cut) finds him delving into murderous thoughts, only to speak at an anti-gun lecture. The contradictions of a black man simply trying to exist in Trump's America are omnipresent. It may not be nearly as overtly political a record as his last entry, but the state of things seeps into every crisis-in-song-form to be found here. The confidence displayed is easily misleading; more than anything, this is a breakdown in the form of an album. Early on, Lamar is quick to note, “...all my grandmas dead/ ain't nobody prayin' for me,” and while his voice may not always betray it, the words here exist in fear – he has his theories and suspicions. Even on the gliding, joyful highlight ‘LOVE.’ he is so uncertain that prefers his lover's simple trust to her love. There isn't much solace to be found here.
In contrast, a Kendrick album has never sounded more alive and bursting with energy. Mike Will Made-It proves to be an ideal foil, his explorations into sonic dissonance as pop long since perfected, he's never intimidated by the Compton prince's presence, even when Bono and crew stomp through. In fact, played without focus, the album easily fits the approaching summer, never lulling in energy, prepared for all listeners’ varying levels of intent.
Then, ‘FEAR.’ fully takes the plunge. As Lamar casually panics through all the ways in which a life can end and woefully imagines losing his creativity, the weight of his rut hits home, it's a massive, eternally memorable song. In not fussing over the grandeur of the presentation, and just letting his thoughts speak for themselves, the rapper has delivered one of his boldest statements yet: throwing pretentious expectations back in our faces, and besting anything we could have hoped for all the same.
This is one that is going to take some time; its deceptively simple appearance belies the countless things going on just beneath the surface. The damn thing can even be played back to front with an equally designed, and differently affecting experience, arguably altering the fate of its speaker. As previously stated, this is Kendrick Lamar playing the game, and making everything else look dangerously irrelevant while he's at it. Be afraid.