In his creative prime and swiftly moving forward from his instant classic "To Pimp A Butterfly", Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar hits us with a perhaps unexpected stark visual style, a picture of the rapper with a simple font in that brightest red shade. No conceptual art, polish or touch ups, just the the word damn. It would stick with me as the record opens, gospel singing and sorrowful string sections lead us to a sudden twist as a man is shot trying to help an elderly lady find her glasses. That and Kendrick going of on one at the end of "DNA.", the bass drops and Kendrick raps like fire, it had me literally thinking "Damnnnn". They would not be the only impressive moments of surprise and astonishment. There is a lot of creativity to be found here.
With the bar set so high, Kendrick does a fantastic job of moving forward, forging a new set of instrumentals to conjure a different tone. Far more electronics and lots of vocal manipulation fill the background of tracks between tight drum patterns and slamming sub kicking bass lines. Occasionally organic instrumentation comes into the fold however everything feels tinged in manipulation, acoustic guitars soaked in flange or beats cut together with reversed samples which seem to increase with frequency as the record draws on. "FEAR." has him rapping in reverse and the closing track "DUCKWORTH." reverses many vocal parts and beats like a tape playing backwards and speeding up. It ends up ending the record where it started off.
Instrumentally there's a lot of hands on deck, it plays through well but can sway in different directions, from dark futurist bangers, to old school beats like "FEAR." and a couple of pop tunes too. Although it offer a fair amount in places, its Kendrick who lights the tracks up with his flow and sharp lyricism, playing both direct conventional narratives and more artistic flavors too even throwing in a tribute to Juvenile's classic "Ha" where each sentence paints a scenario and asks a question with the simplistic ha? statement. He comes up with his own statement led rap with the iconic "I beat your ass" rap, painting a rather sorrowful tale of abuse in a broken home. Lyrically hes got relevant and smart introspections on his fame, role in his community, self perception and where things are heading and usually they unravel best in the faster of his flows.
There is much food for thought but not everything is about thought provoking, which leads me to the weaker side of the record. For the moments he strikes gold there are equally some rather tame or uninteresting tracks, for me "HUMBLE." was a stinker. A couple of pop tracks, "LOVE." & "LOYALTY." don't raise the eyebrow much either. Its all preference and taste but I feel that Kendrick has put a firm foot forward and compartmentalized his current situation it a set of songs covering it from different angles. Which in turn means not everything follows the same path or relevance.
"XXX." is possibly my favorite track, moving through three phases we get very contrasting flows and instrumentals that gel together almsot seamlessly despite going from a raunchy cranking beat laden with police sirens to a smooth Jazz Hop instrumental with vocals from Bono. Its the shining example of what this album might have been but with its different aspects its as if the spell cast on the opening tracks gets chopped and churned on its way to the finishing line, spewing out many amazing moments between some relative mediocrity. I cast my mind back to how it took me sometime to really get into "To Pimp A Butterfly". I hope I'm late to the game again but right now it feels like Kendricks genius shines bright while a few clouds pass by.
Favorite Tracks: DNA., FEEL., PRIDE., XXX., FEAR., DUCKWORTH.