Damn. Kung Fu Kenny killed it

Society, politics, religion, fame and identity. Damn. gets deep – and from Kendrick Lamar, the current king of complex, meaningful rap, we wouldn’t have expected anything less. The wildly anticipated follow-up to To Pimp a Butterfly is a sprawling, complex and ambitious album. There’s so much going on, but together the fourteen tracks still feel like a cohesive body of work. It’s just one you need to listen to several times to get your head around.

The tracks are all so different and all so individually powerful that to single one out as the strongest feels almost counterproductive. But hey, we’re still going to call it, and it’s got to be “Lust”. The eerie guitar with the heavy and reversed drum samples give the production a rhythmic flow, allowing Kendrick’s clean vocals to cut right through. It’s the kind of track you’d catch yourself bobbing your head to on the tube without meaning to, or that you’d blast while nudging your whip right up to the top end of the speed limit. What you’d think is at first another typical rap song lyrically – “I just need you to want me” – actually ridicules the repetitive, obviousness of being a rapper: “I know the perks of bullsh** isn’t meant for me”.

He talks about Trump and election morning, “We all woke up, tryna tune to the daily news / Lookin’ for confirmation, hopin’ election wasn’t true / All of us worried… Stealed and sad, distraught and mad” before pulling a classic Kendrick and getting all philosophical, commenting on how political action falls back into apathy because of the human tendency to revert to introspection and our own selfish needs: “Parade the streets with your voice proudly / Time passin’, things change / Revertin’ back to our daily programs / Stuck in our ways, lust”. It’s thoughtful, it’s serious and it’s still a great beat. It reminds you of why To Pimp A Butterfly was canonised by Harvard and of why every serious rap lover rates King Kendrick (or “Kung Fu Kenny”, as he refers to himself throughout the album) so highly.

The next track, “Love” is a bit of a curveball, but it’s still solid. Every song title relates to the individual theme of the track, and this is a proper, smooth love song. The hook by Zacari is soft and airy, with light drums and more melodic vocals. There’s none of Kendrick’s usual straight up real-talk, but it’s an easy listen, and we like it a lot. It’s very Drake, with a chilled pop, R&B sound.

“Loyalty” featuring Rihanna is equally as radio-ready. Slower and lazier, with none of the rapid-fire verses we hear elsewhere on the album, the song reflects on fame, asking “tell me who you loyal to”, stating “it’s so hard to be humble”, with an infectious hook courtesy of Rihanna. This album around, Kendrick seems pretty preoccupied with being humble. The teaser track “Humble” is one of the best, with a video that sent the internet into overdrive when he dropped it back in March.

In typical complex Kendrick style, quite a few of the tracks feature full-on narratives, from the opening track “Blood”, an experimental track with vocals that sound like spoken word and a sample of Fox News reporters discussing Kendrick’s song “Alright” about police brutality (“‘And they hate popo’…ugh, I don’t like it”), to the closing track “Duckworth”. Fox News reporters are also sampled in “DNA” – a heavy trap beat where Kendrick’s relentless flow about heritage is more Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. than TPAB – saying “hip hop has done more damage to African Americans than racism in recent years”.

There’s a lot of self-reflection going on in the album, “Feel” is like a stream of consciousness, while “Pride”, with its warped guitar riffs and varying pitches – Kendrick’s falsetto vocals on the chorus would make Andre 3000 proud – imagines a utopian world where he’d “make schools out of prisons”. There’s all the heavyweight political commentary we’ve come to expect from Kendrick. XXX, the U2 Track, opens with “America. God bless you if it’s good to ya.” Gun control’s a major theme – “Ain’t no black power when your baby killed by a coward” – and although harder to digest compared to some of the smoother, more aurally cohesive tracks, it’s still one the coolest things U2 have done in the last ten years.

One song after XXX comes “Fear”, the opus of the album that encompasses the album’s larger themes in the same way that “The Blacker The Berry” did in TPAB. It’s melancholy, brutally honest and unashamedly vulnerable. That’s the thing about Kendrick, he’s not afraid to shy away from the scary, the unspoken and the strenuous. His music isn’t “rap” in the inane bitches-money-club-way we’ve become so accustomed to hearing, and it’s why he’s seen as a poet and a visionary as well as a rapper.

Intelligent, contemplative, and intricate, Damn. is Kendrick Lamar proving once again why he’s the only rapper who really matters right now.

This review was published on GQ.co.uk

The Weeknd’s ‘Starboy’ album has landed and I’ve got it on repeat

The Weeknd has been making waves since way back in 2011, when he dropped House of Balloons as a free download to great critical acclaim. The mixtape’s dark, alt-R&B sound was somehow gritty yet smooth at the same time, so listenable and yet nothing like conventional pop music. In those days, the man the entire world now knows as Abel Tesfaye was an anonymous enigma. Fast forward five years and The Weeknd’s third studio albumStarboy, which landed today, has been one of the most eagerly anticipated records of 2016.

Luckily for The Weeknd devotees, this 18 track behemoth doesn’t disappoint. Prior to today, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. Interest levels have been piqued pre-release by the drip-dropping of four tracks off of the album, including title track “Starboy” – a collaboration with Daft Punk. Given how radio-ready “Starboy” sounds, we were a little nervous as to whether the album would retain the roughness that makes Tesfaye’s music so unique. Sure, it’s a good song, but the essence of dissent and debauchery that made the early stuff so appealing appeared to have been diluted to make it more popularly palatable. On reflection, there was nothing to worry about, Starboy is every bit as sexy, as soulful and as packed full with banger after banger as 2015’s Beauty Behind The Madness.

The track after “Starboy” is “Party Monster”: a dark, synth filled track co-written by Lana Del Ray that features the smooth, at times heavily processed, vocals typical to Tesfaye. Here, The Weeknd once again returns to his favourite themes – intoxication and women – in this deliciously sordid song; the “bump a line” lyric is even accompanied by a sniffing sound. The catchy hook “Woke up by a girl, I don’t even know her name” complements the production’s heavy base and looming guitar perfectly. “Reminder” is more of the same, but in a good way. The electro-R&B sound is slick and silky, with memorable melodies and lyrics that encapsulate the the amusingly contradictory nature of The Weeknd’s popularity: “I just won a new award for a kids show/ Talking ’bout a face coming off a bag a blow/ I’m like goddamn b*tch I am not a Teen Choice” is an obvious reference to the Teen Choice award he won for the 2015 hit “Can’t Feel My Face.”

Tesfaye is one of the only hugely successful mainstream artists at the moment who isn’t conventionally cookie cutter, and it’s this dichotomy that characterises him as an artist. The Weeknd oscillates between pop-gloss and grit, between futility and meaning and between exposure and mystery. His smooth, soulful voice, which has so often been compared to that of Michael Jackson (who he continuously credits as a key influence and whose impact is unequivocally audible in “Rocking”), almost obscures the fact that, more often than not, he’s singing sexually explicit lyrics laden with references to drug use, with more than a small side of brooding desperation and nihilism. “All I Know”, featuring the rapper Future, is (another!) standout track that typifies The Weeknd’s ability to make seemingly polar pairings work. The track is a kind of confessional lament-cum-club banger, the potentially depressing lyrics are offset by the heavy sub bass line typical to the trap music that has dominated the American hip-hop scene recently. It’s the kind of song you want to blast at full volume while driving a Bentley Mulsanne.

Much of his subject matter used to be the reserve of rappers, and yet The Weeknd has now pioneered a kind of sub-genre of R&B that feels uncompromisingly authentic. “Six Feet Under” is a case in point. The worn out tropes of “b*tches and money” somehow feel subversive again, thanks to the experimental production and Tesfaye’s crooning vocal. Where this kind of content would usually feel sleazy or sordid, The Weeknd manages to get away with it; the lyrics feel like an uncompromisingly realistic reflection of his reality, and the aggressiveness is tempered by the smoothness of his sound.

Pop music that truly speaks to people is a rare thing these days, but this album is so magnetising because it feels so distinctly personal. “Sidewalks” featuring Kendrick Lamar details Tesfaye’s rise to the top, from “homeless to Forbes list”, and is illustrative of Starboy’s credentials as a cohesive body of work. While the unique productions overlaid with eerie soulful vocal are of course a unifying thread, the narrative of Tesfaye’s grappling with success is at work throughout the hour long album. In an age where popular music has become increasingly bland in order to appeal to as many people as possible, his music is vividly honest – it’s not just about getting drunk in a club, it’s about the horrors of hedonism too, from come downs to regret to psychological turmoil.

He’s cut his hair, broken up with Bella Hadid and has burst out into the mainstream, but Starboy is still The Weeknd doing what he does best. It’s a rare thing for an artist to be able to shape popular music, instead of being passively shaped by it (Tesfaye even managed to make his explicitness mainstream with “Earned It”, the single from the film 50 Shades of Grey). The album’s title is a nod to David Bowie, who Tesfaye calls “the ultimate inventor”, and this reference is telling in terms of his aspirations. “Starboy” is a solid sign that The Weeknd, like Bowie, is pushing the boundaries of what we consider to be “popular”. Whether his legacy will be half as enduring remains to be seen.

Originally published at GQ.co.uk (25 November 2016)