Asserting his place as one of the kings of the rap world Kendrick Lamar holds nothing back on his latest release. Sharp as ever he not only continues to take shots at the violence, racism and cultural issues of America but even looks to himself as well. With some of his most startling production to date, the record is fascinating from top to bottom with only a handful repetition in the extensive length. Not losing any steam, he finds himself making a record as artistically ambitious as it is cutting commentary-wise.
Opening with symphonic power on “BLOOD.” the album takes its powerful first breaths through breathtaking harmonies. The humming groove let’s Lamar start with a haunting story, that hits with a hard finale and quick shots at the media critiquing “Alright”. “DNA.” cuts in with the warped vocal samples before running to the smooth but grimy bass and guitar combo all over his thoughts on judging people based on their heritage. The aggression steps up in the track’s finale as the distortion booms and Lamar debates who people really are.
Lightening things up, “YAH.” goes for a slowed jam reflecting on Lamar’s life, even talking about the media and press’s takes on his words. After a powerful intro mixing different kinds of vocals, Lamar comes in on a creepy vocal warp as he raps about the struggles he and his family have gone through just to get him where he is now. Ironically Lamar mixes in some hyperbolic lines about how far he’d go to keep his position, mocking some of the rappers he’s calling out in the process.
On its disintegrating vocal track “FEEL.” builds in an oddly soothing way, as Lamar talks about how his high status in the rap world hasn’t kept him safe from his own anxieties and the poison of the industry. In his more angry moments he even cuts to the commercialization of himself and how he’s marketed purely for the colour of his skin. “LOYALTY. (FEAT. RIHANNA.)” Lamar jumps between harmonies, on top of a groovy high-pitched sample. The way that Lamar and Rihanna so organically switch between singing and rapping back and forth with each other is immensely satisfying, and their lyrics about trying to find true dependability and honesty from the people in their life is all too relatable.
After Steve Lacy’s creamy falsetto opening, “PRIDE.” breaks into a relaxing clangy dream wash between him and Lamar. Interestingly enough the track’s immediate world-burning words quickly make way for a more self-observing view, taking stock of everything wrong Lamar has had to do, and trying dissolve the poison of pride to make way for productive solutions to the world’s issues. The heavy bass and low piano of “HUMBLE.” bring up the might of the track and Lamar himself while testing others to be more reserved. Seemingly making fun of himself with comparisons to Evian and TED Talks, the track’s more subtle religious parallels will also feed into the flaring fan theories of the album’s Easter follow-up.
Trippy drums and reversed samples on “LUST.” create a creepy base for Lamar’s lines about the “typical” rap lifestyle, lusting after anything and everything, and never coming down. The way the whole track opens up on later choruses is intense, RAT BOY’s cut in lines add to the psychedelic sound perfectly and the stop and go bridge adds a whole other layer before the distorted vocal solo takes some of Kanye’s techniques to interesting places. “LOVE. (FEAT. ZACARI.)” goes into the more cutting details of his relationship with his fiancé, obviously musing on love but also the equally important factors of trust and the aforementioned loyalty.
With a very 90’s backtrack over-scored with blaring bass, “XXX. (FEAT. U2.)” Lamar talks about feeding the starving before an appropriately juxtaposed story of a friend who needs help coping with the loss of his son. Mixing themes of religion and patriotism until they’re one and the same the vocals from Bono, are at times unrecognizable but refraining “God Bless America,” hit just as hard. Over the beating bass “FEAR.” finds Lamar admitting the many fears in his life, from childhood domestic violence to teenage gang crime. While production-wise one of the more downbeat of the album, the closing sections with Lamar musing on his own fears in himself and losing his new life compared to losing his life at all is just as intriguing.
While “GOD.” seems like a brag track, with Lamar going so far as to compare himself to God, he’s quick to change his tune when he’s humbled by actually making the comparison, imploring other rappers to do the same. Going out on a high note “DUCKWORTH.” recalls the story of the man who almost killed his father only to later sign Lamar (legally named Duckworth) years later. Ambitious in its constantly moving production it’s a joy to listen to before it ominously ends on a reverse of the album and references to the start of the album, alluding to the repeating cycle of violence.
With virtually no complaints in the span of 14 songs Kendrick Lamar has continued his career with another album that is just as fun to listen to as it is impressive and intriguing. With so much detail in commentary, religious comparisons and self-reflection it is truly a record that is worth anyone’s time, especially those who barely listen to rap to begin with. Even if the rumours of a companion record aren’t true, this would be more than enough to appease any fan for quite some time.
review by Owen Maxwell