'tell me when destruction gonna be my fate'
New Kung Fu Kenny – Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN.
Phone never on, I don't conversate
I don't compromise, I just penetrate
Sex, money, murder—these are the breaks
These are the times, level number 9
Look up in the sky, 10 is on the way
Sentence on the way, killings on the way
Motherfucker, I got winners on the way
- “DNA.,” Kendrick Lamar
I don’t have the word count allotment to discuss Kendrick Lamar’s new album, DAMN., in full. Paradoxically, it would take more words to discuss just the second single on the album, “DNA.” I can’t even do that. Instead, I’m going to focus on just the last minute of the song.
When the Geraldo Rivera sample comes in. When the beat switches. When the countdown ends. When the sample of Rick James shouting “Gimme some ganja!” from a live performance of “Mary Jane” inexplicably becomes the only sample a song ever needed.
Kendrick’s achievement here is performing in such a way that feels completely in control and constantly on the verge of exploding into thousands of unrecognizable pieces. The “DNA.” outro makes us into passengers in a fighter jet as the pilot executes ever-sharper banks and rolls. I’ve heard music critics this week call the performance “athletic,” “muscular,” and other variations thereof, and they are essentially right. This song reminds listeners how physically demanding it must be to maintain the kind of effortful, precise flow that Kendrick uses in “DNA.” And because the beat and the flow are so jarring, the song also reminded me that I have a body of my own. It’s a physical experience that honestly surpasses the thrill of watching the accompanying music video, also released this week.
The video, directed by Nabil & the little homies, pits Kendrick against a detective played by Don Cheadle. Don Cheadle, who was the original Kung Fu Kenny in a brilliant cameo in Rush Hour 2, becomes possessed by a kind of racial mind meld with Kendrick, which leads to them rapping the lyrics at each other in a hostile dual/duel interrogation. As the video progresses, there are cut scenes of women joyriding, men shooting craps, and Kendrick with his full retinue mean-mugging the camera. At the end of the video, Schoolboy Q stalks up to the lens and decks it. It’s a hell of a video, but the diegetic sounds of the video narrative end up swallowing some of the best sonic textures in the “DNA.” outro. It’s a little hard to make out just how damn hard Kendrick is rapping at the end of the song, and that does a disservice to the track. But beyond that, the video is exceptional.
A funny thing happened on my way through this album. As he sings and raps the chorus of “ELEMENT.,” I realized that Kendrick was doing a Drake impression, and pulling it off at least as well as the original. The harsh lyrics and enunciation are all Kendrick, and the tempo is faster than typical Drake, but the core of the flow is intentionally parallel to the Canadian king of emotional rap, especially in the hook:
If I gotta slap a pussy-ass nigga, I'ma make it look sexy
If I gotta go hard on a bitch, I'ma make it look sexy
I pull up, hop out, air out, made it look sexy
They won't take me out my element
Nah, take me out my element
Then, in a non-sequitur that proves the point, Kendrick goes into a flow that the rapper Juvenile made famous in 1998 on “Ha.” As you might guess, every line ends with “ha.” That’s the whole trick. It was cool and funny then, and it’s cool and funny now, even as it only serves to prove that Kendrick has the chops to elevate something kind of corny into something kind of dope.
Other than the punishing and invigorating “DNA.,” most of my favorite tracks on the album are the slower-tempo songs with jazzed out, electronic flourishes, like “PRIDE.” and “FEAR.” There’s great production here from The Alchemist, James Blake, and Mike Will Made It; and terrific features from Rihanna and U2. Yes, that U2.
I’m not going to put myself in the position of slotting DAMN. into a ranking against other Kendrick albums. There is enough of that on the internet this week. I’m not against rankings, especially after having enough time to let the new work marinate, but the exercise seems counterproductive when dealing with this new album because it’s now clear that Kendrick has a lot of different itches that he wants to scratch as a musician and, for that same reason, each of his albums is going to produce extreme partisans who ride hard for whatever flavor that album primarily represents. To Pimp a Butterfly is discursive, it’s deeply funky, it’s inward-looking. untitled unmastered carries some of those same elements, but substitutes more jazz for funk, and is a masterpiece of compression at only 34:06 running time. And now, just when some segment of Kendrick fans—maybe Kendrick himself—wanted to know whether Kendrick could still just out-rap everyone else in his genre, he releases an album that, again, nods to those earlier flavors, but also rains entire songs’ worth of tightly constructed, muscular bars on you. He reminds you that he’s a rapping-ass rapper here to rap his ass off. And even for talents as expansive as his, that’s a useful thing to do sometimes.
If this trend continues, and Kendrick keeps folding the best elements of prior albums into new ones, ranking his work will become an ever more pointless exercise. The best album will always be the next one.
above image: batiste safont / wikimedia commons
 Rivera had some silly things to say about the deleterious effects of hip hop on black youth back in 2015.
 Kanye West also sampled some ad-libs from a live Rick James performance in “Runaway” from 2010. And Lana Del Rey sampled some in “Blue Jeans” from 2012. I didn’t know this was a thing. But right now it’s the only thing.