Here we go. New Kendrick Lamar album. Damn. It’s been extremely hyped. It’s had rave reviews across the board. Metacritic assigned it a rating of 97/100. That’s a pretty damn good rating. As you can see by my rather snazzy new rating system, I don’t agree. Why don’t I agree? I’ll bloody tell you.
First up, this is in no way a bad album. For a start, the production is incredible—but that’s unsurprising, seeing as the production on both To Pimp a Butterfly and good kid, m.A.A.d city was of the highest quality. The beat switch ups in this thing—on ‘DUCKWORTH.’, for instance, and on my favourite on the album, ‘DNA.’—are pretty unbelievable in how well they work. One criticism of the production is that the range of styles on this album isn’t nearly as broad as on TPAB, and some of the songs come across with a pretty commercial style. Admittedly, Lamar and his producers do commercial much better than most other rappers in the game right now, but it still doesn’t appeal as much as the huge trap beats on, for instance, ‘DNA.’, or the 90s pastiche on ‘DUCKWORTH.’
Secondly—and don’t misunderstand me here—there are some absolutely monstrous songs on this record. This is the third time I’ve mentioned it now, but ‘DNA.’ is absolutely incredible. The song exhibits some of the finest lyricism on the record, as Lamar discusses his background, his cultural heritage, his personal history and, of course, how terribly fucking good he is. The production, too, is close to being unrivalled; it could comfortably sit on GKMC, but at the same time, it fits in perfectly with the rest of the songs in this album. For me, it’s on a level of production quality rivalled only by ‘The Heart Part 4.’ Oh, and the music video features Kendrick Lamar in traditional martial arts gear, confirming the origins of his Kung Fu Kenny nickname: Don Cheadle’s character in Rush Hour 2.
‘HUMBLE.’, released as the lead single, features a crazily impressive first verse, a pretty weak hook and a disappointing second verse. The production is okay, but that deep piano becomes aggravating quickly. Still, the pure quality of the first verse—textbook rapper stuff about Lamar being the best in the game, which he probably is—more than makes up for any faults the song may have. Also, ‘My left stroke just went viral’ makes me chuckle every time I hear it. ‘The Heart Part 4’ was a more impressive release, though, and would have been a better single. I was disappointed when I saw it wasn’t on the record.
Then, of course, there’s ‘FEAR.’ The smooth, rolling production of this song is nice, and it becomes almost hypnotic, but for a six minute song (the beat stops around six minutes) gets a little tedious. Still, as always, Lamar’s bars—the best on the album, here, and some of the best of his career—manage to make this track insanely listenable. The pure introspection here is formidable, and perhaps some of the only recent bars that have gone into such emotional depths are on Freddie Gibbs’ latest effort You Only Live 2wice. (It’s a comparably good album and I won’t hear otherwise.) Lamar speaks so candidly about being abused as a child, about dying, and about whether he will maintain his success—a pleasant break from all the machismo and bragging, and a rare insight into the real anxieties of unfathomably popular rappers.
My final favourite track, ‘DUCKWORTH.’, harks back to the boom bap beats of the 90s, as does the detailed storytelling of Lamar’s lyrics. The tale itself is chilling, and Lamar’s final reflection that if Anthony had killed his father, he would never have been a rapper but would have been a gangster, serves as potent commentary on the trajectory of young, poor black American men, and the unjust, dangerous conditions under which they live. Then, of course, there’s this mental A Level English Literature-worthy analysis on Genius:
As Bill Hicks said, if you’re listening to albums backwards, you’re the devil.
And, alas, we arrive at all the stuff I don’t like about this album. My first problem with it is that of the thirteen songs on this thing (I don’t count ‘BLOOD.’), I only really, really like three of them. Then there are four or five I think are decent, but not that incredible. Then, there are a few I positively dislike. Take ‘LOYALTY.’ For a start, I never understood why people want to work with Rihanna, considering she’s virtually talentless; sure, she can sing, but so can Adele, for fuck’s sake. Lamar has evidently tried to make a simple commercial tune, which he didn’t need to do considering that ‘HUMBLE.’ and ‘DNA.’ have already exploded. Then there’s ‘LOVE.’, with this Zacari character, an insufferable listen. I can’t believe Lamar has managed to include some of the best tracks he’s made on this album, and then this monstrosity, which sounds like it belongs on an Akon record, and a really bad one at that.
There’s stuff like ‘YAH.’, which is just boring. Nothing happens in it, the song doesn’t go anywhere, and there are barely any bars on it. The flow just sounds lazy, the beat’s lethargic, and it doesn’t move along the story or build on the theme of the record; it’s the definition of a filler track. Then, just before the incredibly introspective ‘DUCKWORTH.’, Lamar talks to himself as god on ‘GOD.’ It’s a typical bragging tune of an incredibly talented MC, ruined by no new ideas and a terrible hook: ‘Laughing to the bank like aa-haa/Flex on swole like aa-haa’. Really? Then there’s the stupid pitch shifting of Lamar’s voice throughout ‘PRIDE.’, and while the song deals deeply with Lamar’s faith, I find its Mac Demarco take on production a little dull, and Lamar’s delivery only emphasises this.
As a whole, it’s a decent album. I appreciate the acute introspection of the lyrics, the production is, as always, of an extremely high quality, even if the style itself doesn’t always appeal to me, and there are, of course, a few excellent tunes. But at the same time, they aren’t all excellent, and some of the tracks break the thematic flow of the album, as well as just sounding like commercial cop-outs for an artist we know can be wildly successful without pandering to popular taste. 7/10 is a fair rating. If this is 97/100, what the hell do you rate TPAB?