Kendrick Lamar is an artist uneasy with America. Just shy of 30, the Compton, Calif., MC experienced the majority of his adulthood under the eight-year Barack Obama presidency, his work directly tied to the political climate fostered by that administration (it's no coincidence Lamar is often cited as one of Obama's favourite rappers). While Lamar has always been critical of a United States that had become complacent with a black president, the country under Donald Trump is as unfamiliar and unsettling for the rapper as it is for just about everyone else. This anxiety permeates the panoramic musical layers of his spectacular fourth album, DAMN.
Most of Lamar's fans have either watched him grow up or matured alongside him. Rarely has the industry seen a young artist document their coming of age so meticulously in their work and have their art so clearly reflect their changing world view. Lamar evolved from the fidgety classmate forcing his peers to embrace the intricacies of their history, as he did on 2011's Section.80, to sharing his ongoing revelations as a backseat driver on the 2012 concept album, good kid, m.A.A.d city. His third full-length, 2015's To Pimp a Butterfly, announced tremendous aspirations that were accented with gold-toned brass and informed by the spiritual ethos of free jazz. Older and more ambitious, Lamar addressed the complexities of shadeism and the tumult of black-on-black crime in a way that felt like a rallying cry designed to rouse an apathetic generation.
DAMN rings of a new brand of urgency. Lamar's world has been drained of its idealism on the new album, and he now takes a measured look at his environment but fails to see the progress he expected. For the first time, he is exasperated rather than hopeful. In the midst of uncharted waters, Lamar holds his inner circle close. While the album still uses samples from soul mainstays such as the Fatback Band and James Brown, which soften the blow of some of his harshest commentary, Lamar has a new air of suspicion that is impossible to miss.
On the track DNA, he employs a rapid-fire delivery to unpack his own resiliency while challenging a sound bite of Fox News pundit Geraldo Rivera, who claims that "hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years." Lamar has retained the dynamic subjects that have always spoken in both parables and cautionary tales. His storytelling has sharpened around the edges and he tends to pass judgment overtly rather than leaving narrative morals to be uncovered by the listener; a bereaved father and close friend makes an appearance and Lamar uses this interaction to reflect on the mortality of his own father on the album's closing centrepiece, Duckworth. In a world where the rules have shifted, he calls for vengeance before deciding on forgiveness.
The XXX track, featuring U2, is easily the biggest surprise on the album, as Bono's unmistakable vocals emerge midway through the song. But thrusting U2's influence onto a song dually inspired by the metallic intensity of Chicago drill rappers and delicate maximalism of southern trap sets the stage for a reconciliation between pop's old guard and its ever-shifting new one. It's an intentional choice, because while To Pimp a Butterfly was a feat of musical mastery, and easily palatable to fans outside of rap, DAMN forces listeners to engage in hip hop's rich and ongoing historical legacy.
For fair-weather listeners dazzled by the performative high-art spectacle that peppered his earlier work and garnered him comparisons to Basquiat, Lamar interrogates the notion that music by black artists can be placed on a hierarchy. He posits that aggression and intensity in rap should not be shied away from.
Last year, the Atlanta rap trio Migos released Bad and Boujee, a liturgy of black wealth and the American dream delivered over a melody that needed a club to pop off. On DAMN, Lamar similarly underscores the importance of authenticating the music that his generation of fans champion while affirming the fact that even if he's played at the White House, he's still from the hood.