The return of Kendrick Lamar
With his new album 'DAMN.', Kendrick Lamar has confirmed his status as the best rapper of his generation
In 2016, Beyoncé released her sixth studio album, Lemonade. Deeply personal, yet openly political, it featured a couple of interesting guests, including the rapper Kendrick Lamar. He comes in on the third verse of the track Freedom and spits this out: “Ten Hail Marys, I meditate for practice/Channel 9 news tell me I’m movin’ backwards/Eight blocks left, death is around the corner/Seven misleadin’ statements ’bout my persona/Six headlights wavin’ in my direction/Five-O askin’ me what’s in my possession."
There are a number of things being addressed in those six, pithy lines. Lamar praises God, addresses critics who accuse him of stirring up the African-American community, and documents police brutality with the consummate skill of a poet. The album was released against the backdrop of violence that had claimed the lives of a number of black teenagers that year. Without Lamar, Freedom is a passionate song about the liberation of black women. With him, it becomes a call to action.
There are a number of reasons why Time named Lamar one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2016, for creating “a new genre of movement music that asserts no answers but raises hard questions and brings us together to take them on". It’s an astonishing accolade for a man who turns 30 in June and has, in just 13 years, changed the way musicians, fans, theorists and critics look at rap.
His story follows a rather prosaic trajectory. Raised on welfare and rental housing in the working-class city of Compton (that once saw the highest crime rates in California), he was a good student who kept his distance from gangs and drug dealers and put out a mixtape at the age of 16. More such tapes followed over the next seven years, until his debut studio album, Section.80. In what can now be looked at as a sign of things to come, this wasn’t a traditional release about guns, gangsters or women. It was conceptual, focusing on two girls dealing with life in the hood.
Lamar exploded a year later when his second album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, got a major label release. Produced by icons like Dr. Dre and Pharrell Williams, it focused on aspects of life in Compton that no other rapper had deemed fit to look at before. On m.A.A.d city, its eighth track, he gives us a glimpse of what he had to contend with: “Cocaine laced in marijuana/And they wonder why I rarely smoke now/Imagine if your first blunt had you foaming at the mouth/I was straight tweaking the next weekend, we broke even/I made allegiance that made a promise to see you bleeding/You know the reasons but still won’t ever know my life/Kendrick a.k.a. Compton’s human sacrifice."
It’s a fairly complex piece of writing which, to begin with, employs multiple rhyme schemes. Lamar also uses literary devices like internal rhymes (still, will), assonance (tweakin’, weekend) and dissonance, all for a concise chronicle of growing up in an urban war zone.
There are a hundred such moments of brilliance on 2015’s jazz- and-funk-influenced album To Pimp A Butterfly, a compelling portrait of life as an African-American in Barack Obama’s America. Full of interesting cameos, it even features God in the guise of “a homeless man with a semi-tan complexion" on How Much A Dollar Cost. The song—picked by former president Obama as his favourite that year—asks rhetorical questions about wealth and the price of fame, and stands apart from the other, more racially charged songs.
Lamar followed it with a compilation album of unreleased demos called untitled unmastered a year later, then shocked the world on 14 April by dropping his fourth album, DAMN., without much fanfare. Like all powerful works, it’s hard to evaluate how it will age, or how far-reaching its impact and influence will be. He continues to grapple with weighty issues—Donald Trump’s America and the Black Lives Matter movement, for instance—but now combines his gift for storytelling with melody (with help from Rihanna and U2 no less), making for a potent cocktail. His writing is powerful; the delivery, taut as ever. “Donald Trump’s in office/We lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again," he raps on XXX. “But is America honest, or do we bask in sin?/Pass the gin, I mix it with American blood..."
There are quasi-religious overtones to Humble, a sparse track that places the lyrics front and centre, allowing Lamar to browbeat his perceived competitors into submission. On DNA, it’s as if he distils everything he has learnt as a writer over the past decade into a song about his ancestry as a black man: “I got/Loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA/Cocaine quarter piece, got war and peace inside my DNA..." And then there’s Duckworth, the album closer that reads like a film script. It’s about Anthony Tiffith, the current head of Lamar’s record label Top Dawg, who allegedly robbed fast-food joints in the late 1980s and almost robbed Lamar’s father, Ducky. The jury is out on whether the tale is true, but, like all great stories, the truth pales in comparison with the art of the storyteller.
It’s hard to predict where Lamar will go from here. It’s a given that his questions will only become more incisive, his lines more mesmeric. I like to think of him as a force for good though, because of a clue left to us by his mother. Towards the end of Real, the penultimate track of good kid, m.A.A.d city, Lamar leaves us with a voicemail message from her. “If I don’t hear from you by tomorrow, I hope you come back and learn from your mistakes," she says. “Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton. Let ’em know you was just like them, but you still rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person. But when you do make it, give back with your words of encouragement, and that’s the best way to give back."
K-Dot for every mood
Whatever the playlist, there’s a fitting Lamar rap
untitled 06 | 06.30.2014
Jazz lounge production, Q-Tip-like flow.
Jazz horns, spare beat, unstoppable rapping.
Best intricately silly rhyme this year: ‘D’USSÉ with my boo bae tastes like Kool-Aid for the analysts.’
Lamar’s guest verse shifts the tone of this Beyoncé song from the personal to the political.
Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst
Twelve-minute magnum opus that’s weary, cynical and empathic.
Perfect to bob heads to and yell out in a car.