2017

Slowdive – Slowdive

Slowdive is one of a trio of influential and acclaimed British shoegaze bands from the genre’s heyday in the early 1990s to release a record 20+ years after their last one (the other two being My Bloody Valentine in 2013 and Ride this past week).  The group’s beloved Souvlaki is one of shoegaze’s defining albums, and while the band has moved only in subtle new directions in the time since its release, their new self-titled LP is proof that the group’s signature ‘huge wall of textured guitars’ sound still comes across as fresh, inventive and beautiful in the 2017 musical landscape.  On the some of the album’s softer and more derivative moments, however, the group’s direction can feel awkward, leading to a generally strong but at times inconsistent listen.

Shoegaze, by its nature, is a genre about adding as many effects and reverb pedals as you can to as many guitars as you can and creating an ocean of endlessly deep, distorted sound over which you sing soft, incomprehensible lyrics about loneliness, and Slowdive does not often attempt to diverge from this formula.  Instead, the band stakes their edge and originality on great melodies and song structures that worm into your head, making sure that every track’s collage of synths and guitars sounds as epic and titanic as possible.  Opener “Slomo” comes in close to seven minutes but doesn’t overextend, riding echoing shotgun snares behind looping synth and lead guitar patterns, never complex, one after another until finally vocalist Neil Halstead’s voice enters in a familiar wash of effects, singing a looping melody that almost sounds like another instrument piled on atop the giant sea of sound.  When Rachel Goswell’s voice finally pierces the fray to loop the same melody an octave above Neil’s, the song (and maybe entire album) has reached the peak of what it intends to be – a magnificent, swirling whirlpool of sound, all the individual components adding up to something far greater than the sum of their parts.

“Star Roving” kicks things into an uptempo, even dancey groove that doesn’t sacrifice carefully laid layers of washed out guitars, but does move into a wonderful central quiet section, an eye of the hurricane, before the track rushes back in with even greater energy and conviction.  These first two tracks are Slowdive at their best, and similarly enormous second half cuts “Everyone Knows” and “No Longer Making Time”, the former dancing amidst a falsetto Rachel vocal, the latter featuring the album’s best back and forth, loud and soft dynamics and vocal melody from Neil, who at times even leaves bare his now raspy, aged voice, injecting a certain human element into songs that typically convey emotion through their guitars.

But in the album’s center, “Sugar for the Pill” similarly exposes Neil’s vocals and cadences amid gently delaying guitar lines, but the melody and voice feel strangely out of place within song’s spectral ambiance, and I can’t help feeling like the song is a mid-album letdown, especially following the lilting and energetic “Don’t Know Why”.  The penultimate “Go Get It” has an almost Pearl-Jam like grunginess to its chord progression and call and response chorus, but doesn’t really add anything new to the wall of sound formula that is exercised with far more emotion on “Slomo” and “Star Roving”.  And the album’s final track, “Falling Ashes”, is unfortunately a failed experiment; a slow, mostly barren piano elegy that sees the vocalists repeating the phrase “Thinking about love, thinking about love” ad nauseum.  I get it; he’s thinking about love.  Thinking what?  Where does this song go?  What was the idea here?  This isn’t Tim Hecker haunted piano beauty– it’s just an end of the album bummer.

At it’s best, Slowdive is as good as anyone could ever hope Slowdive to be after a twenty-year absence.  But at its worst, while far from unsophisticated or uninteresting (aside from “Falling Ashes”, that is), the group feels strained, their ideas not the meddling of a new band defining their sound, but an old band trying to put eight tracks together that can at least stand up with their previous work.  And five out of eight times, they succeed, which is a more than good enough batting average for a late-career album.  There are times where Slowdive sounds like the best thing that’s come out this year, but as a whole it can be inconsistent and is never novel or revolutionary.

Score: 9 / 13

Phoenix – Ti Amo

Hey look it’s another classic indie rock band with a classic album that has gone full disco! (Looking at you, Arcade Fire.)  Although anyone that’s been plotting Phoenix’s trajectory over the last decade or so could see this one coming from a mile away.  After their most guitar heavy album, 2006’s underrated It’s Never Been Like That, the band became the best indie act of 2009 (maybe outside of The xx) on the back of their bonafide masterpiece Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.  I’ve written about that album before and will probably do a ‘Rank The Songs’ feature on it as well, so stay tuned.  2013’s Bankrupt! was met with mixed reviews, as most critics simply shrugged and delivered the typical ‘well, it’s not as good as their last album’ response.  Not that they were wrong, but Bankrupt! is another underrated effort by a band that hasn’t ever made a sub-par album.

Which brings us to Ti Amo, a love letter to Giorgio Morodor and schmaltzy 70s Italian disco.  This is the kind of record most people expect to be terrible.  And if you go into this project looking for an indie rock album, you’re going to be disappointed.  But honestly, the 10 songs and 37 minutes Thomas Mars and co. deliver here, while far from their most interesting or intricate work, is consistently catchy and enjoyable, and I think the vintage, sun-drenched summer sound is actually somewhat refreshing given the current climate of dark, frigid, minimalist R&B we find ourselves in.

Opener and first single “J-Boy”, despite the asinine title and a handful of asinine lyrics (“Then inside an alley you’re out of words / Well I thought it was radium at first”) is bristling with layers of colorful keyboard lines all over the channels, and Mars’ smooth, too school for cool, autotune-assisted vocal delivery is right in his wheelhouse.  Spoiler alert – the lyrics on Ti Amo are some of Phoenix’s worst, and this is a band that tends to only sound profound by accident (the language barrier probably doesn’t help in that regard).  But I find that they rarely detract from the listening experience – dance music has never been deep lyrical territory, LCD Soundsystem notwithstanding.  “Tuttifrutti” (it’s painful to even type that) rides the same pulsating 1-2 beat that persists throughout the whole album along with some funky guitar and flute lines before the tropical, slow and grandiose “Fior Di Latte” arrives, a song that somehow works (credit the strong choral melody) despite being part Jimmy Buffet and part 80s power ballad.  Mid-album cuts “Lovelife”, “Goodbye Soleil” and “Fluer De Lys” flow so effortlessly into one another the record can at times imitate a DJ set.

While none of these tracks are bad (although some lyrical moments – “So let me control, regret that I broke our thing”, “You’re numero uno, ready for the win” – are patience testing), few of the tracks stand out as highlights.  My choice for the album’s best cut is actually the final track, “Telefono”, which carries some of that deeply cathartic longing that made Wolfgang such an incredible album.  The chorus and melody are classic mid 2000s Phoenix, re contextualized for the band’s current disco obsession.  The song fades both in and out, like a passing idea from a past age, and that’s sort of all Ti Amo is – a fleeting moment, a passing phase.  But for a band as talented as Phoenix, and for a frontman as charming and confident as Mars, the seemingly effortless project still manages to succeed.  None of these tracks are really anything close to groundbreaking, and few pack novel, interesting ideas, but the record works for what it is, and I think spending some time with it reveals that it’s as solid a piece of unabashedly disco-obsessed pop music as you’re likely to find this year.

Score: 8 / 13

 

Bleachers – Gone Now

I came across this album browsing albumoftheyear.org, aka the best website on the internet.  I didn’t know who Bleachers was, but I assumed it was an indie rock band.  Bleachers is an indie rock band name.  And I actually love the artwork, which I assumed was a photo of someone that was definitely not in the band.  Boy was I in for a surprise!  Turns out Bleachers is Jack Antonoff, formerly of fun. and co-writer / producer of hits with Taylor Swift, Sia and Carly Rae Jepsen.  Gone Now is about as pure a mid 2000s ‘pop’ album as exists anymore.  This is an album full of songs that are one vocal take away from being on a kids bop CD.  I wouldn’t be surprised if any of these songs were supposed to be the single, since they pretty much all follow the same ‘jaunty Bon Jovi piano verses into big, theatrical, over-the top, epic I HAVE SINCERE FEELINGS chorus’ formula.  If this was 2009, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear any of these songs on the radio.

But it’s not 2009, it’s 2017.  One of the best #1 hits on the radio this year was Migos’ “Bad and Boujee”.  Bieber has owned the radio by pivoting from love songs to low-key Drake-washed trop house.  Kendrick Lamar set a streaming record with an album about expectation-fueled depression and conservative politics.  The two pillars of a successful hit in 2017 are Rihanna’s “Work” (repetitive minimalist song about fucking) and Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” (trap).  What I’m trying to say is, Antonoff injected a corny, saccharine, over-the-top sentimental tween-friendly pop album into the worst environment he possibly could.  Who the fuck is looking for a fist pumping choral refrain of “You steal the air out of my lungs, you make me feel it / I pray for everything we lost, buy back the secrets!” over 80s shotgun snares sung by Lena Dunham’s boyfriend when “HUMBLE.” hit number one?  Who wants sappy saxophones blaring away while said white dude throws on all the reverb in the world to build through a pre-chorus of “But there’s nothing I wouldn’t do to settle up with Heaven / And today I gotta settle in Heaven”?  Katy Perry’s much more adept songwriting team is floundering in the current environment.  Gaga pivoted to acoustic.  Sheeran is the poster-boy for sincerity and he killed a it this year with a repetitive minimalist song about fucking.  Even the calculated, manufactured Song of the Summer © at least has Chance and Quavo on it.

There is little variety of themes or sonics throughout Gone Now.  The run-times of the first 9 songs differ by less than a minute.  Every chorus on here is ‘bombastic’.  Every bpm is between 90 and 120.  Some moments are worse than others.  On “Goodbye”, there’s a Lena Dunham spoken word passage interjected into Antonoff’s singing that comes off as incredibly heavy-handed and indulgent.  It’s as if it wasn’t enough for Antonoff to beat you over the head with how much being sad sucks on his choruses so he had to prove it by saying “Here, look at this!  This is my GIRLFRIEND!  This is REAL!  This is RAW!”  “All My Heroes” is like the 3rd grade cliff-notes of LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends“.  Antonoff actually does two reprises of songs he did earlier on the album, and neither of them are the closer.  There is a song called “Nothing Is U”.

There is one moment on the record that shows signs of potential.  The second track, “Goodmorning”, is plenty corny, rehashing the same “I make mistakes at night and feel ways about them but I’ll persevere!” theme that pretty much every track goes for (“Because I lied to you / I lied to your face in the summer”), but it’s as catchy as anything on here and the production is actually very interesting.  There are plenty of moments were Antonoff isolates his voice completely in one channel, a risky move that leaves it very exposed.  Other times the vocal production is almost Casablancas-fuzzy, and rather than crowd the chorus with a million synthesizers and choir vocal takes, he actually keeps the arrangement spartan and tidy.  If the whole record took these kinds of creative risks, I’d say we might be in business.  Sadly, Antonoff abandons such ideas by track 3 and the rest of the record is fucking wallpaper.

Score: 2 / 13

Passion Pit – Tremendous Sea of Love

Talk about overlooked – Passion Pit, the project of Cambridge’s Michael Angelakos, had huge synthpop hits and lit up the the album of the year charts on 2009’s debut LP Manners, then failed to slump on the sophomore followup, 2012’s Gossameryet the group’s newest LP has to date only be reviewed by two blogs and has made close to zero waves on the 2017 landscape.  That’s likely because it was released for free, on YouTube of all places, and was largely produced, mixed and mastered by Angelakos himself.  In a lengthy (and slightly obnoxious) announcement, Angelakos described his process as making something quickly, with human mistakes and errors rather than polished revisions, so that he could show his true, human self.  I don’t know how much I buy the excuse of doing something hastily for authenticity’s sake, but nonetheless, Angelakos has put together a solid collection of tracks here, with very cohesive themes and ideas, and I think the project succeeds and even points in the direction of a return to form after 2015’s underwhelming Kindred.  It comes as no surprise, however, that the album’s Achilles heel is in the production.

After a swirling and bombastic opener filled with all the typical Passion Pit synths (fun, sprightly, bouncy synth lines in all directions), the album opts for its most ambitious track in the number two position, the six minute “Somewhere Up There”.  A three-parter that begins like something off Manners, the album discusses Angelakos’ depression and insecurity regarding his divorce (and subsequent public coming out), a recurring theme in Passion Pit music.  The opening passage is catchy and dynamic, but the vocal take is rough and could have used with some cleaner production or the chorus effect that Angelakos likes to frequent on his melodies.  But unmistakable is the emotion in his voice, and I think the abrupt switch up halfway through to a soaring half-time track with crescendoing vocals works.  I even think the two spoken word passages (one from Angelakos’ mentor and another in the form of a voicemail from his mother) play into the deeply personal songwriting the album is going for.

The album’s front side continues the hot streak, with both “Hey K” (another divorce track, this time sung to Angelakos’ ex-wife directly) and “You Have the Right” being cut from the same cloth as Gossamer’s R&B-tinged standout “Constant Conversations“.  The vocals are clear and crisp, and the slower tempos, clicks and soft synthesizers providing a cushion to the jagged edges of the first two tracks.  I do think the album loses some steam by opting to sequence the instrumental title track, a four minute ambient piece that resembles the waves on the record’s cover, at the halfway point, clearly breaking the album into two distinct movements.

The B side boasts the biggest issues with production.  The chopped-up and glitchy “Inner Dialogue” is a mess, neither catchy nor pleasant, and “I’m Perfect”, which is filled with energy and features an excellent chorus, suffers from the same demo-quality production that haunts the entire record.  Passion Pit music is so dense and bombastic that it benefits more than most genres from crystal clear vocals and synths, and the quick mixing that Angelakos went for truly is a detriment on songs like this.  The eighth- and ninth-sequenced “The Undertow” and “To the Otherside”, while solid and featuring good melodies and piano/keyboard riffs, fail to really get big or go in as hard as you’d like, as hard as Angelakos did on Manners favorites “Make Light” and “Sleepyhead“.  The record ends with the largely instrumental “For Sondra (It Means the World To Me)”, a swelling instrumental that ends with a bare, raw acoustic guitar and voice take that features the record’s most intimate lyrics (“But mother you knew / Your love kept on hurting me / But you’re my family / Why would you?”).  It’s an appropriate ending to a cohesive, thematic and personal record.

Tremendous Sea has a few really good tracks and I think the low-stakes project succeeds in what it was shooting for.  But excellent LP this is not, partially because it’s quite short (36 minutes, including two instrumental tracks), and partially because a couple of the tracks are weak, but mostly because it sounds like a demo.  The extra flourishes, vocal harmonies, solos, layering and impressive production touches that other Passion Pit records relish in are largely absent, leaving us with a relatively stripped back collection of songs from a project that built itself on over-the top maximalism.  Still, this record is proof that Angelakos can still write great Passion Pit songs, and it instills hope that the next LP could move the band back in the direction of their creative peak.

Score: 8 / 13

(Sandy) Alex G – Rocket

Philadelphia’s (Sandy) Alex G, (formerly just known as Alex G) is a twenty-four year-old prolific bedroom recorder/producer whose plethora Bandcamp releases got him a deal with Domino.  Rocket is his second album for the label, following 2015’s Beach Music.  I’ve been following Alex since his 2014 release, DSU, which was affecting and emotional despite (or because of) its lo-fi production aesthetic.  Alex last popped up on Frank Ocean’s Blonde, of all places (he played guitar on “Self-Control”), and on Rocket, he shows that the two enigmatic musicians have more in common than one might think – they’re both in the business of completely throwing the idea of genre or traditional song or album structures out the window.

Rocket starts with one of my favorite songs of the year thus far, the droning, banjo picking, other-world folk of “Poison Root”, on which Alex, singing as though he’s drowning in a puddle of mud, describes taking psychedelic plants before repeating “Now I know everything,” a lyric that I’ve come back to again and again for its endless interpretations as the introduction to an album about learning how to be an adult.  The song rockets immediately into “Proud”, an upbeat, jaunty, head bobbing piano and acoustic number that, even at 4:57, doesn’t overstay its welcome.  Alex sings of his insecurities as a young adult – “If I sink / I don’t wanna be the one to leave my baby out without no bottle to drink”.  “Country” is a slinking, jazzy extended electric guitar solo over which Alex, in innumerable overdubbed falsettos, sings the harrowing tale of being in jail with a kid who had “a few bags of heroin deep in his stomach / He swallowed a razor / See I got some stories” before the fourth-wall breaking “Hey why don’t you write that into a song / Maybe your fans with dig that”.  And, naturally, the album courses directly into the melancholy fiddle and banjo duet “Bobby”.

By this point in the record, it’s apparent that Alex is plays by no rule book, linking his songs together only with his ever present easy acoustic strumming and unique but personal songwriting topics.  Then we hit “Horse”, which sounds like a bunch of cheap Logic bell loops all played a half step out of time with each other around an ominous synth bass, bringing us to the album’s centerpiece, “Brick”.  This experimental, raging, loud, distorted piece of raw, unadulterated free form experimentation sounds like Death Grips meets Mellow Gold -era Beck.  “Proud” might make its way onto the curated eight-hour Yankee Candle store corporate playlist.  “Brick” might make people on bad acid trips kill themselves.  Personally, I think the track is genius and perfectly sequenced right at the record’s half way point, as if Alex was concerned that the listener was growing too comfortable.

I think the record’s back half, however, features Rocket‘s weakest songs, not because they are too inaccessible or self-indulgent, but because the aesthetic concept they shoot for just isn’t that compelling.  The immediate follow-up to “Brick” is “Sportstar”, a piano loop track on which Alex utilizes unflattering chipmunk auto-tune and sings “Sport star / Let me wear your jersey / If you want to hurt me”.  The song appears to be about violence and masochism, but I don’t understand the auto-tune choice and I feel like the song lacks the emotional punch a more raw, stripped back version could have delivered.  The grungy “Judge” is classic Alex G but not particularly memorable, as is the careful, downcast “Big Fish”.  But I do like the unsettling, shifty looping, banjo, fiddle and sound-effect percussion of the instrumental title track.

“Powerful Man” is one of the record’s many ‘WTF’ moments- if I get what he’s going for, Alex is purposefully utilizing a simplistic lyrical style to tell a story that demonstrates a young male’s immaturity and sows the seeds for a violent future as a parent: “Mom’s in a mood this week/ Cause she thinks her family’s going crazy / Guess it started with the baby / She went for a hug but it bit her on the cheek / That was pretty funny to me / Guess I should have more sympathy / I ain’t never raised no kids / But I bet I’d do a good job if I did”.  The title may also be a reference to fellow Philadelphia artist’s song of the same name about domestic violence.  Either way, the song is catchy and the fiddle work is sublime.  The album ends with “Guilty”, another upbeat, jazzy track featuring electric guitar, drums and a saxophone solo.

Rocket is a wholly unique album, and although a couple of these tracks miss the high water mark set by the standouts, the record’s many twists and turns, lyrical, instrumental and production detours and cohesion through raw, intimate recording make it a success.  Not all the tracks are catchy or easy to sing along with, and at times its hard to see where Alex is going lyrically, but I’m willing to bet there are far more nuances and subtleties than I’ve been able to detect, resulting in an album that rewards listeners for closer, careful inspection and reinterpretation.

Score: 10 / 13

Mac Demarco – This Old Dog

Mac Demarco is a wonderful fixture of the indie music scene these days.  He’s easily the funniest person in indie rock (the Pitchfork mini-documentary is hilarious).  He self-records / produces all his music and plays all the instruments on his albums.  He’s been with the same woman, who we can subtly track through his songs about her, since he was a teenager.  He’s an immigrant (from Canada), he’s invited any willing fan to come to his house for coffee, he puts on a good live show and he’s well-liked.  He also carved out a niche for his woozy, pitch-controlled guitar work alongside simple, clean drum and bass arrangements that never feel cluttered, putting the onus on his strong melodies and songwriting abilities to do the heavy lifting, which they do.  2 is typically the fan-favorite Mac album, although I thought 2014’s Salad Days was a bright spot in an otherwise dismal year – so much so that I gave it album of the year honors in the Rice Thresher.

Mac never fails to put together a mix of fun, catchy jams and slower, sweeter, blissed-out guitar tracks – even his 8 song EP, 2015’s Another One, contained some classic songs.  Lyrically, though, he’s more of a mixed bag.  His lyrics are never awkward or off-putting, but rather safe, simple, and surprisingly conventional for a guy who does interviews lying between two men on the ground.  In short, you don’t come to Mac Demarco albums for lyrics.  This Old Dog at times feels like an attempt to remedy that in some way, but always winds up back in Mac’s wheelhouse.  He’s not really attempting to break new ground in any sonic way, aside from perhaps a slight uptick in synth usage and arrangement.  The drum machine that opens the album on “My Old Man” is as experimental as Mac goes, and it succeeds in spades.  “My Old Man” is the album’s best song and a sign that a little deviation would have done the album wonders.  But the song’s subject matter – Mac feeling more and more like his estranged father – is the sound of someone who no longer wants to write songs about cooking meth, smoking cigarettes and courting Vancouver prostitutes (although those songs all rock are my three favorite tracks off 2).

The record follows with the gentle but psychedelic title track, which moves into the crowded space of Mac Demarco love songs about his significant other.  The song is classic Mac and features some really nice guitar and synth sample panning, but delivers the album’s primary sentiment with relative simplicity (“This old dog ain’t about to forget / All we’ve had and all that’s next / Long as my heart’s beating in my chest”).   “For The First Time” falls into this camp as well, and uses the shimmering 80s synths we heard on “Chamber of Reflection”.  “One Another”, a catchy and upbeat number, musing on what a breakup must be like, could have fit perfectly on Another One not because the titles are so similar, but because Another One featured eight songs examining love and relationships.  “Dreams From Yesterday” and “A Wolf Who Wears Sheeps Clothes”, back to back on the album’s B Side, both feature the tropical clicking of a wood block, the latter also making good use of harmonica, but don’t pack memorable choruses or guitar lines.  They are followed by a song called “One More Love Song”, as if Mac knows there are a surplus of them on the record and is promising us that this is the last one.

All in all, This Old Dog is never unpleasant, always chill, if not lacking the signature distorted guitar rock song that other albums have featured.  But, and I hate to say it, Mac basically wrote the same ten songs he has on his last two projects, without much to show in the way of development.  Sure, you could point to that drum machine on “My Old Man”, or the acoustic piano and careful harmonies of “One More Love Song”, or even the 90s smooth R&B vibe of “On The Level” and say ‘look, he’s trying new things!’ and I’d slide every other track on the record into a playlist with songs from Salad Days and Another One and you wouldn’t know the difference.

The closer, “Watching Him Fade Away”, about watching his father die from afar (physically and emotionally), is, lyrically speaking, the best song that Mac has ever done, and hints that mining his personal life in a little more detail (“The thought of him no longer being around / Well it sure would be sad but not really different / And even though we barely knew each other / It still hurts watching him fade away”) would pay dividends.  But otherwise, This Old Dog just throws less memorable and catchy tracks on to the pile of love songs and ‘I guess I gotta be an adult now’ songs that Mac doesn’t seem to know how to stop writing.  Going in, this sorta felt like the album where we’d assess if Mac was a real pioneer and trailblazer in indie music or if he would go off in the Real Estate direction where you make the same album every two years until people get bored and forget why you were acclaimed to begin with.  This Old Dog is unfortunately strong evidence for the latter case.  It’s still a fine album to play as background music, driving music, chilling music, but not really in contention with people who are actually doing something interesting.

Score: 7/13

Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 narrative concept album, was, besides far and away the strongest album in a strong year, the second rap album I ever got into (the first belongs, perhaps surprisingly, to Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris).  After a few listens, I proclaimed, to no one but myself, really, that Kendrick was the best rapper of all time, and that GKMC was something like The Beatles’ Revolver – so far above every other contemporary album that nothing else even registered as competition.  Clearly this was a brazen position, but after following up with 2015’s consensus album of the year (To Pimp a Butterfly) and now DAMN., which is sure to top many a 2017 year-end list, I feel pretty darn smarmy and pretentious as I watch writers and critics start to gingerly test the waters of ‘greatest of all time’ claims.  To me, DAMN. is Kendrick saying ‘hey, I don’t need an 80 minute concept album to still kick the shit out of every other rapper out there.  I can do what y’all do better than you can, but you can’t even touch what I put out when I’m on my game.”  Thus, DAMN. isn’t a masterpiece the way Kendrick’s last two LPs were, but it’s still the best rap record to come out since his last one.

As many have pointed out before me, just because DAMN. doesn’t hit you over the head with one big, central concept doesn’t mean its at all lacking in themes or motifs.  Just look the all caps, single word track listing evocative of the seven deadly sins or ten commandments.  Songs like “LOVE” and “LUST” or “HUMBLE” and “PRIDE” aren’t sequenced next to each other by accident.  This is an album about the wide range of emotions Kendrick feels after sitting on top of the rap world for nearly half a decade now, contextualized by his status as an influential black man in post-Black Lives Matter, post-Trump America.  It’s political because being Kendrick Lamar in 2017 is inherently political.  It’s dark and maddening, revealing and honest – a glimpse behind the curtain at a rapper who most prominently shows himself through relaying the stories and experiences of others.  “Niggas thought they wasn’t gonna see me, huh? / Niggas thought that K-Dot real life was the same life they see on TV, huh?” he confirms on “ELEMENT”.

Each of these tracks tackles an aspect of Kendrick’s complex personality represented by the title.  On the aggressive thumping “DNA” he flashes boasts tracing back to his African roots – “I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA”, but also makes mention of the violence his family tree has witnessed “I know murder conviction / Scholars, fathers dead with kids / Yeah yeah, soldier’s DNA”.  On “PRIDE” he checks himself and the relationship between his actions and intentions – “I wouldn’t blame you for mistakes I made or the bed I laid / Seems like I point the finger just to make a point nowadays”, but he follows up with “HUMBLE”, the album’s single and biggest banger, in which he instructs every other rapper (*cough Drake cough*) to “Sit down, little bitch, be humble.”  Kendrick is perceptive and introspective enough to rip his own flaws out of them and display them under a bright light like a science experiment, but still human enough to revert back to his own greed for unilateral recognition as the best rapper alive.

The production all over the album is excellent.  The choruses and hooks often feature guest soul singers and see Kendrick dipping into one of the many voices he commands (high pitched, slurred, low and drugged, robotic), effectively creating a subconscious backdrop to the true Kendrick present on the verses.  The arrangements are more minimal and straightforward than much of To Pimp a Butterfly, but I think that only serves to strengthen the tracks, focusing them more singularly around Kendrick’s voice on the album on which he delves the deepest into himself.  Accordingly, there are no guest verses (just Rihanna, Zacari and Bono on three of the hooks).  The low key, chilled-out tracks like “YAH” and “FEAR” (which refer to one another) ride great slide guitar riffs, spacey, echoing vocals and 90s boom-bap beats.  “HUMBLE” and “DNA” hit harder than just about everything since Danny Brown’s last album, and they don’t really make any attempt to conform to the trap zeitgeist.  The Bono feature, “XXX”, goes over way better than anyone probably expected (which was probably a bad bet – it is Kendrick, after all).  “ELEMENT”‘s hook of “Imma make it look sexy,” is already a universal catchphrase.  Even the ‘corny’ love song that takes a break from harrowing self-surgery rides a sweet, catchy hook and Akon inspired flow that would have been a top five single for someone like Drake. (Sidenote: does anyone else miss Akon?)  In short, Kendrick can do any style, any tempo, and any aesthetic better than anyone else can, and on DAMN. he manages to do it while simultaneously peering deeper into his soul than Drake’s managed on all six of his albums combined.

No review of DAMN. would be complete without mention of “DUCKWORTH”, the final track.  This is a story song in the truest sense – it’s the true story of Kendrick’s father meeting Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, the owner of the record label that’s had his back since the beginning.  Kendrick flashes legendary story-telling skills for only a single track, but it’s enough to recognize just how far he’s come since GKMC.  How many internal rhymes are in “That’s when affiliation was really eight gears of war / So many relatives tellin us, sellin us devilish works / Killin us, crime, intelligent, felonious, prevalent proposition with 9’s”?  How does he manage in four lines (“Southside Projects, Chiraq, the Terror Dome / Drove to California with woman on him and 500 dollars / They had a son, hopin that he’d see college / Hustlin’ on the side with a nine-to-five to freak it”) to do justice to one young man’s courageous life-changing decision?  How does he have the vision to foresee his life’s alternate path (“Because if Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg would be servin’ life / While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight”) and then tie that all back to the album’s introduction, where Kendrick is killed, perhaps rendering the entire record a concept album after all?  Because it’s fucking Kendrick Lamar, the best rapper of all time.

Score:  12/13