Kendrick Lamar: DAMN

Introduction

At this point in contemporary music culture, it’s no radical idea that Kendrick Lamar is considered by most to be the best rapper alive.  Numerous articles, video essays, and even prominent artists have revered the man in almost every way imaginable, almost to the point of cliché.

Regardless of whether or not Lamar has become a cliché, it is futile to try and discount his work for being anything less than outstanding.  His course from Section.80 all the way to To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB) has been a rapid ascension of his talent and writing that every artist in the world should aspire to mimic in their rate of progression.

The problem with releasing such a monumental hip-hop album such as TPAB arises when you sit down and think about the sheer amount of effort it must take to best a work that already appears to be near perfect.  Obviously, an artist wants to say that a new record will be better than the last but anyone and everyone know that eventually, creativity begins to wane at some point or another.

In early hindsight, DAMN was an essential album to release at this point in Lamar’s career.  Going back to the claims made at the beginning of the article, Lamar had already established himself as the greatest rapper alive at the peak of his last record’s limelight.  That being said, his last album was also VERY narrative heavy and required a small amount of patience to get through the interlude and spoken word moments before one could enjoy the music.  To casual music listeners, this could be considered off-putting and provides unjust fruit for potential arguments such as, “Drake had a catchier hook” or “That BIG SEAN track went way harder than ‘How Much a Dollar Cost'”.

These are obviously outrageous hyperboles and comparisons but everyone knows ‘that guy’ who would fill this stereotype and the massive numbers of people out there that continue to follow this illogic.  DAMN is Lamar’s answer to the pop calling that the masses have been coaxing him towards.

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Review

Yes, DAMN is Lamar’s pop album without any doubt.  It’s been a strong thought in my mind ever since I heard ‘HUMBLE’ and the appeal that it had among hardcore and casual listeners of his music.  Unlike previous records, Lamar leans light on the inclusion of a narrative between songs and focuses more on blending a story into the music itself.

‘BLOOD’ starts the album with a Western-inspired instrumental, creating a sense of calm unruliness as Lamar narrates a seemingly nonchalant encounter with a disoriented woman.  As he helps the woman, he finds that this situation is actually a trap and he is immediately gunned down without warning.  Many speculate what exactly this woman represents but for the sake of the narrative, being gunned down is Kendrick’s alternate fate had he not have entered the rap game through his connection with Anthony ‘Top Dawg” Tiffith.  The track also poses the premise of the whole album through the single-word song titles that are either the spawn of wicked or weak nature.

This album design fits in with the nature of other conceptual ideas in Kendrick’s past but feels like the most fragmented address he has ever made.  On the surface, it’s intuitive that Lamar uses this method to add variety between his heavy; gritty deep cuts and some of his softer more melodic centered pieces but deep down, I feel like this could be an excuse to insert more pop elements throughout; some of which work flawlessly and some that stick out like a sore thumb.

‘LOYALTY’ and ‘LOVE’ are two culprits for this example.  Both songs include a highly interesting fusion of top 40s pop elements twisted with Lamar’s conscious lyrics for a medley that has not been seen on any of his solo releases yet.  These tracks add a great amount of reach potential for Lamar’s growing audience but fall flat compared to a majority of the better tracks featured here.  Rihanna’s feature track starts out with a neat mashup of Lamar’s niche ‘reverse’ effect but her singing portion doesn’t amount to anything remotely outside of her typical role on songs like this.  Zacari was a fantastic choice for the type of song ‘LOVE’ aspires to be.  My issue with this track lies primarily within the placement and substance of the song.  It feels forced when put between the two exceptional songs ‘LUST’ and ‘XXX’ and lyrically could be Lamar’s most surface level release to date.  I understand that the appeal here is to be a catchy pop tune but something feels very off about this song in retrospect to the rest of the album.

Ignoring the two or three outlying songs on this album, the rest of the release is nothing but pure goodness.  ‘PRIDE’ is a total dreampop/ hip-hop crossover that is full of lyrical gold, “I can’t fake humble just because you’re insecure” being only the tip of the iceberg.

‘LUST’ takes the cake for having one of the sickest beat drops on the album, as well as clever lyrics painting the metaphor for Lamar’s ‘thirst’ ex. “I need some water”.  The song also diverges into a Euro grime section once or twice, even furthering the genre range of this album.  It’s almost as if Lamar wrote each track on this piece to appeal to a variety of bodies, furthering the number of people that can possibly appreciate at least one or two songs provided here.

 

The production on DAMN is up to par with previous releases.  The sample dropping in ‘DNA’ on the second verse pairs nicely with the aggressive flow happening in the vocals, along with a dirty bassline that must be enjoyed on a quality home speaker system to understand its true glory.  One of my few complaints lies within the song ‘XXX’, the U2 featurette where Bono’s grunting vocals can be heard around two minutes into the track.  To me, this feels like one of those moments that was meant to sound really cool but truly comes off as corny and pseudo-edgy.  Having said that, this isn’t a terrible issue but only distracts from an otherwise decent song.

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Verdict

It would be an understatement to say that there is a lot happening on DAMN.  Kendrick takes the theme of weakness or wickedness down many different paths, each with their own ideological message that can be taken or left, but at least respected nonetheless.  He does all of this while creating some of the deepest accessible music that can be found on the top charts and does it all with the same grace his fans have come to know and love.  For me personally, I view this album as Lamar’s answer to stubborn listeners that weren’t sold on the lyricism and musicality behind TPAB or those that still think Drake is still the best rapper.  Lamar has offered a variety of different sounds for fans to pick and choose what they love or hate, which explains why everyone seems to have very differing opinions about which tracks are hot or not.  I believe DAMN is a good album and could arguably be Lamar’s most important album from a business viewpoint but it most certainly is not his best.  I can understand those that think this album is flawless but specific areas listed above keep me from being completely sold.  My honest opinion of this album is a 7.5/10.

 

 

The Weeknd: Starboy

Leading up to the release of Starboy, Abél Tesfaye (The Weeknd) had a fair amount of hype to fill in order to match the hits that were presented on his previous albums, especially from the global sensations on Beauty Behind the Madness, which features Tell Your Friends and Can’t Feel My Face.

With his latest release, The Weeknd manages to keep the energy alive and flourishing in an array of tracks that arguably add up to be some his greatest works but leaves a bland taste with its extraneous list of filler tracks and uninspired lyrics.

Starting with the opening song, Starboy takes the cake for being one of the top singles of 2016.  While it is debatable where it ranks among the rest of Abél’s hits, the fluid verses and addictive chorus present the perfect lead into the record.  Not to mention, the production from Daft Punk adds in subtle accents that help to set the bar for what a fine-tuned pop song should sound like.

Other great songs that mirror the title track in ambition and style include Rockin’, a more house-inspired dance track that blends perfectly into “Secrets”, which takes a look at The Weeknd’s lower register and pairs it with a contrasting tone-bended synth.  Love to Lay starts out with a slightly boring verse, but climaxes into one of my favorite melodies on this album, with a really great chorus to sing along to.

Sidewalks (feat. Kendrick Lamar) is the pinnacle track on this record and does not retain that status simply because Kendrick has a quality verse, but for Abél’s soulful falsettos that take his sound into a realm that should be explored deeper on future releases.  Not to mention, the lyrics of this piece show that The Weeknd is capturing more introspective themes than the usual nightlife rhetoric.

While the majority of the songs on this album are quite good, “majority” tends to lose its magnitude when there are eighteen songs in total.  There are several moments on this release where tracks will sound great back-to-back, but some of the places in-between these tracks are mundane and admittedly unnecessary.

One of the biggest letdowns of this album comes from the third track titled False Alarm, which in all of its ironic glory is an accurate description.  The song starts itself at an incredibly fast pace but loses momentum within the first ten seconds and then attempts to regain itself through an unexpected shriek, but is engulfed in so many effects that it comes across as cliche and too over-the-top for its own good.

Other inexcusable places on this album include the track that features Future, which is so uninteresting that it is worth skipping even on the second listen.  In fact, this album also takes the cake for wasting the most features of any 2016 release, especially for the interlude with Lana Del Rey that seems like nothing more than product placement for a public figure.

Aside from the pleasant exception mentioned earlier on the track Sidewalks, the lyrics of this album bring nothing new to the table.  That being said if the listener is a fan of the typical subjects throughout The Weeknd’s discography, then no disappointment should be felt here.

Overall, Starboy is by no means a bad album and actually contains some of the best work that The Weeknd has put out yet.  Unfortunately, quantity was favored this time around and the obvious filler tracks hold the rest of the amazing singles back to an almost unfair level.  Had this record have been ten-twelve tracks long, the reception would be much different.  My honest opinion of this album is a 6.8/10

Frank Ocean: Blonde

Oftentimes when an artist prolongs the release of their next catalog of work, the hype behind it ascends too far into the cosmos to truly meet what was expected. With Frank Ocean’s Blonde, the hype extended as far as the heavens, and has since descended back to Earth bearing the gift of complete fulfillment, and an underlying message that Frank truly did see the future first.

Starting off, it is important to know that while this is the follow up to the beloved Channel Orange, fans should not expect more of the same this time around. Ocean opens his album with the track Nikes, and brings along with him a familiar sound but with a much more somber tone. His pitched up vocal delivery creates suspense as spectators await the moment they hear his raw and unaltered glory. Upon reaching that moment, the song shifts gears as a soft guitar accompanies a voice that starts off impregnable but transcends into falsettos of pure vulnerability.

Truly, the guitar (and other uses of acoustic instrumentation) is what pushes this release onto the next level of R&B. Other examples of this technique reside in songs like Skyline To, that feature introspective lyrics dealing with the brevity of life that would not stand out as prominently without the sheer emotion that acoustics can provide. On the flip side, the guitar is also used in a way to create jarring or abrasive effects to an otherwise traditional sound. Towards the end of the bridge in Nights, the electric guitar plays a descending riff that contrasts from the overall melodic smoothness we are used to from standard R&B. It is elements like this that further the notion that “perfect music” is going out of style, and that experimentation is the future.

From the very first slew of rumors, it has been known that the overall structure and production on this project would fall under legendary standards, and the rumors would happen to be right. Features like James Blake, Pharrell, Beyoncé, and many more prominent figures hold tidbits of influence throughout this record and showcase that this is not only about Frank himself, but a testament to the talent of our time. One of the best examples of this outside guidance comes from the track Close to You, which happens to be a cover of a song that Stevie Wonder covered himself. In this song, Frank mimics Wonder’s voice modifier by using an effect that is most closely related to the vocal sound of James Blake/ Bon Iver. This tribute serves as a nice double homage to both classic and contemporary influences.

When looking for common patterns within this release, I noticed that no hook or chorus seemed tiring or monotonous, rather, careful thought has been placed into each song to provide the listener with just enough catchiness to rouse the interest, but exits the scene early enough to avoid any level of annoyance and therefore leaves the listener wanting more. Hooks like the ones on Nights, Self Control, and Pretty Sweet all maintain the same standard of brevity mentioned before, but deliver melodies and beats that could stand completely independent of pre/post context and may be an attempt to emulate the pursuit of Nirvana, which is a theme that is brought up within tracks like Siegfried on the latter half of the album.

Undoubtedly, the best quality of this artistry resides in the lyrics themselves. I could go on and on about the double meanings, word bending, post-ironic product placement and metaphysical significance behind this work, but ultimately the best way to experience Blonde is to listen to each track with the lyric sheet wide open and determine the meaning behind these words independently. That being said, it is worth mentioning that while this record contains more than one inherent explanation, a crucial note to mention is that this is an effort to explore inhuman possibilities; to relinquish oneself of stereotypical programming such as “boys don’t cry” or “man up”. Frank’s references to his bisexual orientation are not a mere statement of sexual preference, but an attempt to seek love on all levels of the spectrum and free himself of the bonds and restrictions that inherited roles can possess. Hence, the dispute between the title Blond (masculine) or Blonde (feminine). Frank chooses to take the middle ground and beckons, “Why not both?”.

There will never be enough words that can be said about this dense piece of art. Every track (besides interludes) stands out on their own and presents a cornucopia of sound, innovation, and meaning that could stir up enough conversation to last a whole night, and then some. It may have taken four years, but our countless hours of prophecy and speculation has lead to an unfathomable glimpse into tomorrow. My honest opinion of this album is a 10/10.