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King Kendrick still rules

Kendrick Lamar tackles politics and religion in his new album.
Kendrick Lamar tackles politics and religion in his new album. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Kendrick Lamar's fourth album seals his status as rap royalty

Kendrick Lamar's new album is a lyrically dense work that cements his position as contemporary hip-hop's most lauded rapper, even though it is not as musically esoteric as his previous two releases.

DAMN., his fourth album, eschews the jazzy headtrips of 2015's multi-Grammy-winning album To Pimp A Butterfly and 2016's Untitled Unmastered for a leaner, yet more sinewy sound.

His flow, exceptional as ever, is marked by complex rhyming patterns, eclectic delivery and verses that are purposeful and persistent.

The lyrics are a heady brew, as the rapper, one of former United States president Barack Obama's favourite artists, deliberates on politics, religion and the duality apparent in his nature, a subject that he goes back to several times on the album.

  • HIP-HOP

  • DAMN.

    Kendrick Lamar

    Top Dawg/ Aftermath/ Interscope

    4.5/5 stars

A track called PRIDE. sits next to HUMBLE., and LUST. comes just before LOVE.

But the titles appear ironic. In PRIDE., Lamar admits his weaknesses ("See, in a perfect world, I'll choose faith over riches"), while HUMBLE. is full of rap braggadocio ("If I quit this season, I still be the greatest").

He wants to elevate the artistry in hip-hop ("Last LP I tried to lift the black artists", he raps in ELEMENT.) yet he is not immune to the temptations that come with success in the music industry ("Wake up in the mornin'/Thinkin' 'bout money, kick your feet up", he continues on LUST.).

In XXX., one of the most loaded tracks on the album, he ruminates on the current state of the US, referencing Martin Luther King Jr's "I Have a Dream Speech" while admonishing what he sees as the systematic discrimination against African-Americans ("It's nasty when you set us up/Then roll the dice, then bet us up/You overnight the big rifles, then tell Fox to be scared of us").

American channel Fox News remains one of his top adversaries. Lamar takes aim in several tracks at what he sees as its biased reporting. On BLOOD., DNA. and YAH, he samples the news segment in which the network attacks him ("Fox News wanna use my name for percentage").

Mr Donald Trump's rise to power and the country's military excursions are not spared either.

The most intriguing track has to be FEAR., a compelling narrative outlining the important phases in his life in three parts: experiencing tough love as a child at the age of seven, a fear of dying at the age of 17 from either crooked cops or criminals in his rough neighbourhood and, finally, at the age of 27, his anxieties and fear of losing all that he has built in his life and music career so far.

King Kendrick, as he is known in hip-hop circles, is not without weaknesses, but he is a master storyteller blessed with the ability to spit out contemplative rhymes, regardless of whom he collaborates with.

The 29-year-old's collaborators here are a diverse bunch, from stars U2 and Rihanna to lesser-known but acclaimed names such as Canadian post-bop outfit BadBadNotGood and Steve Lacy from hip-hop collective The Internet.

Despite fans' worry about U2's undue influence when it was announced earlier that the band co-wrote XXX., the Irishmen's impact is actually quite minimal, with only Bono's slightly weary voice heard singing in the chorus.

There is no question who rules throughout DAMN., which seals Lamar's status as rap royalty.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 19, 2017, with the headline 'King Kendrick still rules'. Print Edition | Subscribe