R&B

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

 

 

Sampha – Process

This Sampha album, his debut full-length, is great.  There’s not a bad song on here, Sampha does interesting things vocally and from a production standpoint, and his lyrics are thoughtful and personal while staying wrapped in deep metaphors and double meanings.  And because it vaguely fits into the ever-expanding genre of R&B (with Sampha’s sound tinted more by synthesizers and effects ala Frank Ocean or fellow British contemporary James Blake), the songs are pleasant, melodic and listenable as background, dinner-party music in addition to being compelling close listens.  And with close listens comes the revelation that this is very much an album about grief.

Like many, I first heard of Sampha through his vocal work on SBTRKT’s wonderful first album.  His voice has been compared, favorably, to James Blake (and for good reason), but Sampha can dig into softer, more personal territory, and it shines through on some of Process‘s best tracks.  After kicking off with the building, atmospheric “Plastic 100° C”, which extends an outer space metaphor to include spoken-word Neil Armstrong samples and blast-off noises, the album finds true form in second sequenced “Blood on Me”.  Sampha has spoken extensively about where the song’s anxious, paranoid lyrics come from, and the trip-hop drum beat, rattling cowbells, jangling piano and panting vocal harmonies serve to build a nightmare surrounding Sampha’s voice, which sounds like it’s running through the song, losing breath, as he sings “I swear they smell the blood on me / I hear them coming for me!”  This attention to detail, to be sure that all elements of the song contribute to its lyrical themes, are part of what puts Process a cut above its peers.

Ditto for “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”, which, after the claustrophobia of the first three tracks, takes the album into minimalist piano-ballad territory.  Sampha is singing about how “Know one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home”, therefore the song is stripped back and the piano is featured prominently, not doused in effects but sounding like it’s coming straight out of his mother’s home.  But the piano is a greater metaphor for Sampha’s late mother’s love, as he sings on the chorus “You know I left, I flew the nest / And you know I won’t be long”.  The album continues with another stark piano ballad, the two-minute, “Take Me Inside”, to finish the front side, before switching gears again with “Reverse Faults”.  The track uses reversed synthesizers to engineer a beat over which Sampha rattles off metaphors about his own faults – “Took the brake pads out the car / and I flew”, “I shot the blame and it scattered / Now there’s bullt holes spread across the walls”.

Across the album, Sampha sings with an anxious edge, worried less by the actions of others but by his own potential to fall apart, and it isn’t a stretch to suggest he is haunted by the recent losses of his parents.  Never is this more apparent than on “Blood on Me”, but on the second half “Under”, Sampha buries himself under a chorus of vocal harmonies chanting “under” as he sings “Waves come crashing over me, I’m somewhere in open sea/ I’m gasping for air”.  “Timmy’s Prayer” follows suit, a writing colab. with Kanye that takes the latter’s penchant for big, slow-jam drum beats and pairs it with Sampha’s séance-inspired address to his late parents – “If ever you’re listening, if heaven’s a prison / Then I am your prisoner”.

The record concludes with its most ambient track, “What Shouldn’t I Be”, which lacks percussion and is led by harp and soft, spacey synthesizers.  The track ends the record in the present, as Sampha sings “I should visit my brother / But I haven’t been there in months / I’ve lost connection, signal / To how we were”.  This album does not end on a happy, forward-looking, cathartic note.  Rather, Sampha is just as unsure as ever, singing “Family ties / Put them ’round my neck.”  The album title seems to refer to Sampha’s process of coping with his grief, or processing what has happened in his life, but the record’s fleeting happy moments occur only in the past, and the process seems, at the moment, to be ongoing.

Tight thematically, sad but intriguing lyrically, well-arranged and well-sequenced, Process is certainly a success.  I kind of want the record to perhaps take a few more risks, include a few more high energy tracks ala “Blood on Me”, and shoot for some bigger, more bombastic, grandiose moments, but given the content that inspired the lyrics, those moves might not have suited the record’s emotional palette.  Still, I anticipate this cracking many a year-end list, and for good reason – Sampha has delivered one of the best albums of the young year.

Score: 10/13