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Kendrick Lamar Confronts His Demons At SAP

In Music
THE GREATEST: With ‘DAMN.,’ Compton hip-hop philosopher Kendrick Lamar has made the case that he is the best of all time.

THE GREATEST: With ‘DAMN.,’ Compton hip-hop philosopher Kendrick Lamar has made the case that he is the best of all time.

This year, Kendrick Lamar ran away with the title of best rapper alive. Drake may be richer, Young Thug may be bolder and the Migos may better reflect the modern sound of the genre. But since Kanye West cut his show short in Sacramento, no hip-hop artist feels more important than Lamar, a reputation that he earned with Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, reinforced with To Pimp a Butterfly and cemented with his most recent album, DAMN.

Performing at the SAP Center on Aug 12, Lamar stands apart primarily for his ability to package profound insights in face-melting verses. He rarely uses the electric modulation of his peers, instead relying on his gale-force flow and mastery of poetic meters.

He cranks this skill to 11 during the second half of the album’s second track, “DNA.” Reportedly, Lamar had been so possessed in the booth that he rapped the dizzying, relentless verse a capella. Producer Mike WiLL Made-It finished the track with a gobsmacking beat flip that, combined with Lamar, steamrolls the listener. It’s awesome, in the actual sense of the word.

But crucially, Lamar backs up his verbal gymnastics with substance. And on DAMN., he tackles his personal triumphs, failures and hypocrisies in a way that seems vital to our nation’s understanding of itself in a time that has “the feelin’ of an apocalypse happenin’, but nothin’ is awkward,” as he puts it on “FEEL.”

Still, he knows his listeners don’t want an hour-long lecture. So he gives a few crowd pleasers, primarily “HUMBLE.,” the NBA playoffs’ theme song, and “LOYALTY.,” a complementary collaboration of equals with Rihanna that’s much more interesting than the flirt-sesh most rappers ask her for. Both have music videos with gripping visuals, which combined with Lamar’s Phelps-ian breath control, should make for a well-worth-it live show.

Otherwise, Lamar spends much of DAMN. addressing personal and national depravity. On “XXX.,” he pairs with a nearly unrecognizable U2 and starts by advising a friend to shoot those who killed his son and ends by pointing out that America, from the “back streets” to “Wall Street,” rewards the viciously selfish. By the time he asks, “Is America honest or do we bask in sin?,” the answer is pretty obvious.

He examines this theme more thoroughly on “LUST.,” a song that contains probably his greasiest hook ever, which ends with these two lines: “Let me put the head in, if it’s okay/She said, ‘it’s okay,’” He growl-coos the first part, then follows with a falsetto, making the consent feel deeply ill-advised.

In the verses, he begins by painting portraits of superficial pleasure seekers, including himself. Then he pivots to describing the post-election street-storming that’s faded as we’ve adjusted to our increasingly chaotic and fascist government. Suddenly, the hook’s meaning jumps from highlighting personal weakness to national complacency that’s allowed a truly vile movement to put the head in.

Throughout DAMN., Lamar readily admits fault and reckons with his guilt of falling victim to the same evils he decries. Over indie guitar strums on “PRIDE.,” he cops to his emotional unavailability and admits, “in a perfect world, I’d choose faith over riches…work over bitches…” And these moral failures have consequences for Lamar, who samples a phone call from his “cousin Carl” that describes the continuing influence of a curse prophesied in Deuteronomy.

Unlike the happy-go-lucky New Testament gospel of Chance the Rapper, Lamar possesses a more Old Testament view of a God—a deity that punishes wickedness and rewards good deeds. And in this a-religious era, the sermons land because of Lamar’s ability to extrapolate from his personal experience at every strata of life to wrangle with our unprecedented state of affairs.

On the album-closer “DUCKWORTH.,” Lamar unfurls a twist-laden story of how his father, Ducky, worked at a KFC and hooked up Anthony Tiffith—the drug dealer turned head of Lamar’s record label—with extra biscuits and chicken, prompting Tiffith to decide against robbing the store and potentially killing Ducky. The rapper muses that this choice may have ultimately allowed Lamar to avoid a life of crime.

Laid over a soul sample that sounds like a game of duck, duck, goose, the intricate track points out how, in difficult circumstances, seemingly meaningless acts of kindness can produce unimaginable rewards—divine advice in these damned times.

Kendrick Lamar
Aug 12, 7:30pm, $47+
SAP Center, San Jose

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