Written Before Listen
Here we fucking are. Kendrick Lamar is back after 5 years. First off, Kendrick (a lot like Kanye) is one of my favorite artists of my time, and probably in my top 3 favorite rappers of all time. The albums good kid m.a.a.d City and To Pimp A Butterfly alone remain two of my favorite hip hop albums. Also, albums like Section.80 and DAMN are just purely enjoyable listens with a solid concept behind them as well. With that being said, there has yet to be a Kendrick album I haven’t loved, let’s just hope it isn’t broken with this one, without further ado, let’s get into it.
Since this is positionally a double album, I will break down each LP separately. Let’s start with the opening track “United In Grief”. Starting with the motif that continues throughout the album, it leads to these dissonant piano chords and Kendrick going off. It then leads to these DnB-inspired breakbeats and Kendrick relentlessly goes off talking about materialism, women, and how people who objectify both “grieve different”. We then get N95 which is a criticism of that same materialism, but it comes with this anthemic beat that is bound for the charts. We then get “Worldwide Steppers” where Kendrick goes with this flow that he talks about how everyone kills everyone rather physically, consciously or subconsciously. The beat is also amazing as its sample flip is surreal, minimal, and dark. We then get to “Die Hard” where Kendrick contemplates a changing mindstate for his music and whether or not it's too late. The beat is a low-key one as the drums are retro and the chords have a Neo-soul vibe to them, not to mention that Blxst and Amanda Reifer do a good job fitting the vibe of the track. “Father Time” is the follow-up track and holy shit, not only do the beat and the hook go hard, but the topic of “daddy issues” not only reflects on his fatherhood but his father’s approach to parenthood, it's a very introspective song and might be one Kendricks most introspective songs. After a Kodak interlude, we get the track “Rich Spirit” which is probably the weakest track on the album but it’s mainly because it just goes right through sonically and conceptually. With that being said, it’s still bouncy and an enjoyable listen. We then get the dramatic “We Cry Together” where Kendrick and Taylor Paige go at it portraying a toxic couple. I’ve seen multiple comparisons to this and Eminem’s “Kim” and rightfully so. It’s an uncomfortable listen and has a sinister beat as well. The only difference is instead of being about murder, it’s all about romantic troubles that urban America stereotypically goes through such as unloyalty, cheating, derogatory treatment, etc. The beat is one of my favorites on the album as The Alchemist just does what The Alchemist does. We end the album off with “Purple Hearts” which is a solid track but another underwhelming track, especially to end the album. Luckily, the Ghostface Killah and Summer Walker contributions are near perfect for the vibe so Kendrick gets points for choosing some great features. Overall, I loved the first side. I think the first three tracks hook the listener and songs like “Father Time” and “We Cry Together” will be remembered. There are surely some weaker points but I still enjoyed listening to it.
We now get to the Mr. Morale side, where the humbleness gets turned out. We open up with “Count Me Out” which is a unique intro where he talks about writing his wrongs, and it’s not my favorite on the album, but the melody is catchy and the production is pretty experimental for Kendrick, but what’s even more experimental for Kendrick is the following track “Crown”. This track truly caught me off guard when I first heard it. It’s a laid-back piano track where Kendrick talks about not being able to please everybody. It’s not my favorite track on here but it has its part. “Silent Hill” has another Kodak contribution and the beat is great, but this is just a trap song. I’m not going to complain about how this song lacks substance, but I will complain that isn’t as hard or catchy as it’s trying to be. We then get a Baby Keem interlude where he delivers an amazing verse talking about traumatic experiences from his past over a classically inspired beat. We then get “Savior” with a Baby Keem hook and a bouncy beat. Kendrick on the other hand talks about his savior complex and talks about how he is not your savior. It’s an important track in Kendrick's discography and also a strong track for the second side. We then get “Auntie Diaries” where a minimal beat focuses on Kendrick and he chooses to talk about two of his transgender relatives and what growing up in Compton with these two relatives was like. He then talks about religion contradicting the choice of life as well as the discussion of the f-slur. We then get “Mr. Morale” which is a nocturnal Pharrell-laced track where Kendrick talks about trauma and abuse but it doesn’t compare whatsoever to what happens next, “Mother I Sober”. The track not only comes with a beautiful Beth Gibbons feature but it discusses so much. He mentions the abuse his mother suffered from, talks about molestation, he talks about his addiction to sex and it all leads to songs like “Father Time” and “We Cry Together”. We then get a clincher with “Mirror” where he self-reflects and leads us to what I consider a cliffhanger, not only for the concept but for his career. Overall, I would say that this is the side that is harder to get into, but it has layered and intricate meanings to it that made some of his best songs so good.
Now we have the main stuff out of the way, let’s talk about the features a little bit more. Like I said earlier, the Blxst and Amanda Reifer contributions are perfectly fit for “Die Hard” and I honestly enjoy them on this track more than Kendrick himself. Sampha also delivers a luxurious hook on “Father Time” where his vibrato is put to the front. We get two main Kodak features and both of them are…pretty good. I think the “Rich Interlude” is entertaining when it's on and “Silent Hill” has a solid Kodak feature as well, but it’s nothing to adore. Taylour Paige comes in less as a rapper and more as an actor and holy shit, she’s so believable. The yelling, the unintentional rasp, and the emotion are all there. It’s acting 101. Like I said earlier, the Ghostface and Summer Walker feature on “Purple Hearts” is great, and just like “Die Hard”, these features kind of act as a redeeming quality to this album. Just like Kodak, there are two Baby Keem features but they appear back to back and I already mentioned how great the “Savior Interlude” was, but the hook on “Savior” is solid, but it’s far from the most memorable thing on the song. The other PgLang signee appears on “Mr. Morale” and I do not think he was the right choice. The last feature is the legendary Beth Gibbons of Portishead fame on “Mother I Sober” and her quivering voice fits perfectly for the approach Kendrick was trying to go for on this song. I think the features were not only chosen well, but a necessary asset of this album, and I wanted to focus on them.
One thing that Kendrick doesn’t get enough credit for is his ability to genre-bend. Kendrick has always brought elements of soul, jazz, and funk to his music. This time around, the soul influence is turned up, especially with songs like “Die Hard” and “Crown”. There are also some unique influences brought in and it comes right away with the opener and the drum and bass-inspired groove it comes with. We also have the nostalgic and chilly “Purple Hearts” that has the richness to it that could’ve been a hypnagogic song if recorded to tape. The main influence on this though is classical, with the interludes as well as the minimalism of “Crown” and “Mother I Sober”. It’s intentional as its grandness fits with the savior complex Kendrick is usually treated but he takes those opportunities to give others the mic, or talk about his imperfections. I got to tell you, the classical influence took me a bit to adjust but I came to appreciate it.
Well, I guess that some of the tracks are a little bit sleepy, but it might even need some adjusting. I will also say that the concept of the album isn’t as tightly wrapped as it was on good kid maad city, To Pimp A butterfly, and maybe even Section.80, but I still think the concept is there but it’s just a lot more scattered this time around. Other than that, I am more than proud to say that Kendrick remains consistent.
Here we fucking are. Kendrick Lamar is back after 5 years. With that being said, there has yet to be a Kendrick album I haven’t loved, and the statement remains.