Kendrick Lamar keeps it elemental on the altogether impressive DAMN. (Top Dawg Entertainment *** 1/2) , the Compton rapper's fourth album and first proper release since 2015's acclaimed To Pimp A Butterfly.
All song titles on the album are stylized as as one word in ALL-CAPS. And though Lamar's rapid fire, rhythmically intricate rhyming attack is very much in effect, the songs focus on essential straight-to-the-point issues. "HUMBLE.," the album's first single in which the 29 year old rapper at once emphasizes his excellence and warns against the perils of hubris, is preceded by the cautionary "PRIDE." Elsewhere, "LUST." is followed by "LOVE.," and "FEAR.," is preceded by "GOD."
There's not a song called "FATE.," but the closing "DUCKWORTH.," produced by 9th Wonder, explores that concept with a story about how Top Dawg exec Anthony Tiffith once held up a fast food franchise where Lamar's father worked. He talked the gunman down with an offer of free meals, thus making it possible for his son - whose full last name is Kendrick Lamar Duckworth - to later rhyme "chicken incident" with "whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence?"
DAMN. is very much a personal statement: It’s marked by the seriousness of purpose and self-analytical streak that's present in everything Lamar does, and informed the whole of TPAB and Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City. But it’s also finds Lamar more comfortable working in the commercial rap realm than he’s been previously. It moves around stylistically rather than leaning heavily on the organic jazz-funk-hip-hop sound that defined TPAB, and brings in big name producers like Miley Cyrus-enabler Mike WILL Made-It, moody Brit producer James Blake and Adele associate Greg Kurstin, along with rising stars like 18 year old Steve Lacey, who made the "PRIDE." beat on his iPhone.
And of course there are two notable superstars on DAMN., and I'm not talking about Fox news host Geraldo Rivera, who's sampled in reference to the conservative news channels reaction to Lamar's Black Lives Matter anthem "Alright."
On "LOYALTY," which features contributions from TPAB collaborator Terrace Martin, Rihanna teams up with Lamar for (surprisingly) the first time. Rather than provide a powerhouse vocal hook, however, she sing-raps along with Lamar - who headlined the Coachella festival in California on Sunday and will do so again this Sunday - on the verses on the effectively woozy track, before taking the song out with a declaration suitable for both of them: “It’s so hard to be humble.”
The other extremely well-known act on DAMN. is one who might seem out of place on an album that in which too much hubris is considered a bad thing: U2. The hip-hop world was nervous when word got out that the Irish rock band would be featured on “XXX.” One LOL headline on the music site Stereogum wondered if the track “would be the most self-righteous song of all time?”
It isn’t. Instead, it’s subtle, and employs a sweeping Bono vocal in a way that never threatens to overwhelm the song. “XXX” does mean to say something serious about the State of the Nation and education and gun violence. “Johnny don’t want to go to school no' mo' / Johnny said books ain’t cool no' mo',” Lamar raps. “Johnny caught a body yesterday out hustlin‘ / God bless America, you know we all love him.”
The Bono interlude comes in the second half of the song, and adds to its ghostly, atmospheric feel. But rather than allowing the Irish rock star to dominate the track, Lamar uses him as but one color in many-hued musical palette on an album in which he can’t help but demonstrate his supremacy no matter how hard he tries to be humble.