Kendrick Lamar released his fourth studio album last week, entitled simply, DAMN. Like previous releases, DAMN has garnered rave reviews, and constant praise for Kendrick is impossible to miss for anyone remotely interested in rap. With that being said, nobody’s perfect and I’d like to draw a line between Kendrick the artist, and Kendrick the messiah.
In a genre made for placing its heroes (among other things) on pedestals, Kendrick Lamar stands out as the current central figure. While Kanye West’s streak of seminal creativity has been tempered by the often-unfortunate things that come out of his mouth, Kendrick remains unblighted by such ill-judged public outbursts which could distract attention from the music he releases. Sure, he upsets the right wing pundits at Fox News and your parents probably don’t get him, but these are the people artists like Kendrick are supposed to offend. The unadulterated focus of his message, added to a catalogue of daring musical innovation, has propelled Kendrick to the peak of the hip-hop world. Unlike his most successful contemporaries, there is no real stick with which to beat him: Drake is mostly a pop star at this point and probably doesn’t write some of his lyrics, Kanye can’t stem the tide of his irascible ego, and J. Cole is just really, really unspectacular. Kendrick, on the other hand, is pretty much unimpeachable in the sense that nothing appears to preclude him from the status of musical visionary and voice of a generation.
Well, perhaps. Kendrick first came onto my radar in the post Section.80 period of late 2011. At that time he was an obviously gifted lyricist releasing smart music, backed up by the three other members of Black Hippy, the loose collective of four rappers who made California’s Top Dawg Entertainment their record label home. The stage was then set for Kendrick and the rest of the TDE roster to translate their notable underground success into mainstream prominence, an endeavour in which it is fair to say Kendrick has had by some distance the most success. In 2012 he released his debut major album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City to universal critical acclaim. Good Kid blended an array of stellar contemporary beats with vivid storytelling to paint a thrilling conceptual picture of his youth in Compton, L.A.
What followed was To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), which somehow managed to be even better received than its predecessor. Where Good Kid was built on modern beats and Kendrick’s brilliant approach to traditional street storytelling, TPAB embraced more experimental fusions with jazz and Parliament style funk. This sonic shift was the musical basis for an album that functions as a study of black self-esteem when faced with the systemic racism of twenty-first century America. The album was hailed by almost every critical voice, and not just those specialising in hip-hop: critics rooted in other musical genres, and those in literature as well, also loved the album. To Pimp a Butterfly cemented Kendrick’s position at the vanguard of hip-hop, and also happens to mark the point at which I myself began to deviate from the conventional mood of devotion towards his music. DAMN continues this trend. It is harder to classify then Good Kid or TPAB, which both had distinct sonic styles and concepts. Instead it is a deliberately mixed bag, contrasting anger and fear over beats ranging from trap bangers to a feature from U2 (which is actually better than it sounds).
I have to preface what follows with this: I have no doubt in my mind that Kendrick Lamar is the most obvious choice for the award of “Best Rapper Alive”. He’s lyrically stunning, blessed with jaw-dropping technique, and most importantly his music has almost unparalleled cultural significance. However, my criticism of Kendrick Lamar stems from the fact that with his last two studio releases he doesn’t really seem to have been trying to make albums to listen to. This sounds facetious, and I’ll clarify: obviously he wants people to listen to his albums, but it is my opinion that he has focussed on conveying his admittedly vital message at the expense of producing great art.
An old friend of mine once said that Closer (1980) by Joy Division was possibly his favourite album of all time, but that he completely hated it. More specifically, he hated listening to it. The reason for this is that while there is certainly a time and a place for the levels of all consuming darkness associated with a record of this nature, it remains hard to describe as something that anyone should “enjoy” listening to. This is sort of an analogy for To Pimp a Butterfly and DAMN: albums for which I have great respect but ultimately find to be a bit of a slog to listen to front to back. Take the second half of “u” from the former, a grim retelling of Kendrick trying almost to drink himself to death in a hotel room rather than confront the guilt of not visiting his now deceased friend in hospital. The blisteringly honest and vivid picture he paints has nothing to do with the experience of the track as music: it’s vital to the story of the album but not really a great “song.” Before you rush to judge me as someone who has no ear for anything more than a catchy hook, I’m all for music which is challenging. Death Grips or later Radiohead albums are challenging because they require ears attuned to their particular sounds, but that half of “u” doesn’t really have an aesthetic to speak of in the same way. There are a million different ways to judge music, so this is really a subjective point, but I think there is a case that music’s value as art should at least to some degree be separate to its meaning. In simpler words, great music should carry some appeal even to those who don’t know the language of the lyrics; this is not something which I believe is always the case in Kendrick’s music.
On DAMN many of the tracks play as if they’ve co-opted a sound without really engaging with its purpose. DAMN is notable for its embracing of a sprinkling of trap beats on songs like “DNA.” or ”HUMBLE.” but while these tracks are forcefully delivered and contain the rattling high-hats and deep sub bass which characterises trap they don’t have any of the melodic urgency which characterises the best work of, say, Future or Young Thug. On “LOVE.” Kendrick seems to repurpose some of the flow from his verse on Travis Scott’s smash single “goosebumps.” His attempt at this more tuneful track lacks all of the melody and prettiness which Travis’ voice, for all his other comparable failings, brings in abundance. Other tracks such as “YAH.” and “FEAR.” plod along sluggishly making it difficult for the listener to engage with Kendrick’s complex lyricism without a concerted effort to concentrate. Needing to focus in on an album isn’t by definition bad but here I found myself drifting off and losing track of the meaning or narrative of tracks, and this is a problem when the work is so conceptual.
There is a degree to which I believe given enough good will and repeat listens any album can eventually immerse a listener; I also believe that this is, to an extent, a factor in the hype surrounding DAMN. Experience of music is subjective and I’m not suggesting that fans are claiming to like the album because they want consciously to be on the right side of the critical consensus, but Kendrick’s reputation proceeds him to a degree that listeners innately wish to understand and appreciate his music and will thus gloss over some of its limitations until they’ve spun the record enough to learn to love it. Obviously at the same time this is partly a matter of taste. I’ve also probably enjoyed Kendrick’s music less as he has gone on to unleash some of his more nasal vocal stylings. However, I would argue that hip-hop has reached the point in its still relatively young history that looking back wistfully on older styles has become central and the desire to return to a time when rappers were “real” has set the stage for Kendrick to be elevated to the level of icon; a label which, again, I would not suggest he hasn’t earned. Without meaning to humblebrag on Kendrick’s behalf, I just believe that currently he is a better messiah than he is an artist.
 Greg Tate, “Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly”, Rolling Stone 19th March 2015.
Mensah Demary, “The Literary Genius of Kendrick Lamar”, Literary Hub 27th May 2016.