Fighter: Kendrick Lamar

Trainer (Gym): Dr. Dre, Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith (Aftermath, Top Dawg Entertainment, Interscope)

Cut Men: 9th Wonder, The Alchemist, Mike Will Made It, Bēkon, BadBadNotGood, Cardo, DJ Dahi, Greg Kurstin, James Blake, Kuk Harrell, Mike Hector, Ricci Riera, Sounwave, Steve Lacy, Terrace Martin, Tae Beast, Teddy Walton, Yung Exclusive

Weight Class: Rap Superstar/Lyrical Heavyweight/Conscious Rapper

Notable Fire: DNA, LOYALTY Feat. Rihanna, FEEL, LOVE Feat. Zacari, DUCKWORTH

Notable Trash: None

Tale Of The Tape: Far too often, people negatively equate emotion to weakness. Within the confines of hip-hop music, emotion often manifests itself in the forms of slow songs, singing, piano melodies…pretty much everything you hear from Drake and J. Cole these days. Rarely do people see the correlation between emotion and anything uptempo. Perhaps the most emotionally charged (and criminally underrated) rap song ever is Eminem’s “Kim“, a record fueled purely by the emotion a blind rage to levels unmatched in hip-hop. It’s disconcerting to some — understandably so — but it’s as artistic as anything arranged by Kanye or Cudi.

Old head rap’s favorite son of the new school, Kendrick Lamar, released his fourth solo LP with his mind on displaying emotion in a way unique to hip-hop in 2017. Kendrick (commonly referred to as “Kung-fu Kenny…when/how did this nickname even become a thing?) used lively production to tell various stories of pain, confusion and ecstasy in a flurry of one-word song titles on DAMN. Specifically, Mike WILL Made It re-staked his claim as rap’s top producer by pouring gasoline on the studio during the making of  “DNA”, most notably after the beat switched up in the song’s final minute.

Mike WILL also laid the production for the album’s lead single “Humble”, a track that  (at the story goes) was originally intended for Gucci Mane.

And therein lies the difference. Kendrick spent his last two solo projects attacking issues of morality, spirituality and racism with a cunning hand that required acute listening from his consumers. DAMN offers an intelligent perspective, yet is still a far more traditional rap album than To Pimp a Butterfly or Untitled Unmastered. The result is a product that is wide-ranging in its appeal and delivery.

Like a great point guard, an agile Kendrick changes pace on a dime on DAMN (e.g. the transition from “DNA” to “YAH” or “PRIDE” to “HUMBLE”). Beginning with “BLOOD” — where Kendrick coyly described his own shooting death on the song to Beats 1 Radio as “a new life” — to the final track “DUCKWORTH”, Kendrick weaves the emotions of life through various beats and tempos, frequently on the same track. This “new life” he speaks of is directly connected to the final track, as Kendrick recounts a story of a chance meeting between his father “Ducky” and Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith in a recording studio as Kendrick’s career was taking off. Tiffith and Ducky had actually crossed paths back in the 80’s— Top Dawg ran the streets and was planning to (again) stick up a local KFC, which employed Kendrick’s father, Ducky. Top Dawg could’ve killed K-Dot’s father in the incident, but decided against it (free chicken and biscuits can save lives!). As a result, Kendrick’s father remained in his life and helped steer him away from a life of crime, while Top Dawg went straight and made music his primary hustle, serendipitously resulting in his discovery of Kendrick.

This remarkable and true story makes “DUCKWORTH” one of the great story-tell rap songs in recent memory, if not all-time (the song also contains three 9th Wonder beats). The would-be fatal gunshot to Kendrick at the end of the record ties directly back to the gunshot heard on “BLOOD”, drawing a correlation between the songs and highlighting the potential consequences of the actions of man. For like so many of our brothers and sisters who fall victim to cavalier gun violence, Kendrick Lamar is a talented and complex individual. He thinks, moves, and operates on a higher plane. He loves, feels and has “loyalty and royalty inside his DNA.”

Damn, indeed.

Sidebar: More detail surrounding the theories behind “BLOOD” and “DUCKWORTH” can be found here

One can’t help but wonder why Kendrick has held onto such an amazing story and concept for this long. Whatever the reason, it bookended Kendrick’s most complete work since Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. Lyrically, DAMN a slight step below what we’ve come to expect from Kendrick— there aren’t many “WOOO!” moments here. However “FEEL” offers up the best reminder of what Kendrick is capable of when he steps in the booth.

“Fillin’ the void of bein’ employed with ballin’/
Streets is talkin’, fill in the blanks with coffins/
Fill up the banks with dollars/
Fill up the graves with fathers/
Fill up the babies with bullshit/
Internet blogs and pulpit, fill ’em with gossip/
I feel like this gotta be the feelin’ what ‘Pac was/
The feelin’ of an apocalypse happenin’/
But nothin’ is awkward, the feelin’ won’t prosper/
The feelin’ is toxic, I feel like I’m boxin’ demons/
Monsters, false prophets schemin’/
Sponsors, industry promises/
Niggas, bitches, honkies, crackers, Compton/
Church, religion, token blacks in bondage/
Lawsuit visits, subpoena served in concert/
Fuck your feelings, I mean this for imposters”

Kendrick continues to exercise his unique skill-set, such as the varying of inflections in his voice, even multiple times within the same verse on “PRIDE”. It doesn’t appeal to everyone, but it continues to work for him.

Two marks of great basketball players: never having two bad games in a row, and having “bad games” that are actually great games for 95% of the rest of the league. KL has undoubtedly achieved this status. This is the third consecutive LP released by Kendrick reviewed by this site that is without “Notable Trash”. While some songs are better than others, “ELEMENT” probably ranks at the bottom on DAMN, the fact that he consistently puts out materiel without glaring weaknesses is meritorious. Most rappers fail to accomplish this, even on their best work.

Fight Night: Fifth Round KO

“‘I can’t change the world until I change myself'”, Kendrick said of DAMN. “So when you listen to records like ‘PRIDE.,’ ‘HUMBLE.,’ ‘LUST.,’ and ‘LOVE.,’ these are all just human emotions and me looking in the mirror and coming to grips with them.”

It would’ve been easy to assume going in that a Kendrick album with this subject matter would be a chore to listen to on some level, like Untitled.Unmastered, or even TPAB. That would be a false position to take. Kendrick did what rappers, like Cole, refuse to do: acquire beats from popular mainstream producers to get the attention of the masses, then delivering the rest of the album on his terms. Interestingly, the Comptonite calls attention to this on the “Mask Off Remix“. “How y’all let a conscious nigga go commercial while only making conscious albums?”

He came in, he made waves, he made hits, he made dough, he made records with Taylor Swift; now he’s wrecking the game while delivering his message. Damn is a shoo-in for album of the year consideration; at this juncture, Kendrick Lamar has used this project to springboard himself to a plateau above his contemporaries, including Drake.

You can maybe find better lyricists (Lupe), better beat selectors (Rick Ross), better hit  makers (Drake), better rapper-singers (also Drake), and better visionaries (Kanye), but Kendrick Lamar is currently the best amalgam of all these worlds.