MC remains complex, relentless on latest strange, multifaceted album, in which he goes deeper into his own mind.
Kendrick Lamar has already taken hip-hop to the outer galaxies of style, sound and resonance. Protesters in Chicago, Cleveland, Oakland and New York took to the streets singing his 2015 single "Alright" like it was the new "We Shall Overcome." His last album, To Pimp a Butterfly, will likely go down as the defining reflection of the America that spawned #BlackLivesMatter, in the same way Pablo Picasso's Guernica stands as the defining reflection of the Spanish Civil War.
But two years later, the perils of fame and the exhaustion of fighting for social justice seem to weigh on Lamar. "Last LP I tried to lift the black artists," he laments on "Element," one of the many bruising, battle-scarred battle-raps on his fourth LP, Damn. "But it's a difference between black artists and wack artists."
Seemingly exhausted with the burden of constantly pushing hip-hop forward into concept operas, electric Miles explosions and Flying Lotus electronic burbles, Damn. seemingly takes a classicist route to rap music. If To Pimp a Butterfly was the best rap album in 2015, Damn. is the platonic ideal of the best rap album of 1995, a dazzling display of showy rhyme skills, consciousness-raising political screeds, self-examination and bass-crazy-kicking. Kendrick has many talents – pop star, avant-garde poet, lyrical gymnast, storyteller. But here he explores what we traditionally know as a "rapper" more than on any of his albums to date. The rhymes on songs like "DNA," "Element," "Feel," "Humble" and "XXX" come fast, furious and almost purist in nature. In an era where "bars" seems almost old-fashioned in the age of Drake's polyglot tunesmithery, Young Thug's Silly-Putty syllable stretching and Future's expressionist robo-croak, Lamar builds a bridge to the past.
On Butterfly, he untangled the mess in his mind with multiple personalities and distended voices, an Inside Out-esque spray where different emotions would almost require different timbres. Now he stares down almost everything with the same voice and a singular focus, whether his problems are external (Fox News, the prison-industrial complex, guns), internal (self-doubt, pride) or something in between (see the masterful "Lust," which treats news of Donald Trump's election as but a rumble in a monotonous Groundhog Day timeline of existence). His flow remains exquisite without having fall back on the dramatic filigrees he brought to Butterfly. Producers like Mike Will Made It and Sounwave make Damn. feel state of the art – an album full of beat changes, tempo switches, backmasking, needle bounces and broken melodies – but Lamar's rapping is timeless enough to step into Ice Cube's Death Certificate Timberlands.
Of course, this is Kendrick Lamar, so if he's going to delve into a more classic style of rap, he's going to take a complex, multifaceted, strange, unexpected path to get there. His twists on vintage hip-hop are downright post-modern. Kid Capri, the DJ whose blends and airhorn voice were omnipresent on early Nineties mixtapes, shows up with his iconic voice. But instead of brassy hype, he drops existential koans like, "Y'all know, what happens on Earth stays on Earth." "XXX" is a vintage screed about clapping back at killer cops, perfectly in line with Rodney King-era revenge fantasies by Geto Boys, Paris and Lamar's personal hero 2Pac. But Lamar goes deeper into his own mind, painting blood-soaked hypotheticals and then juxtaposing them against his desires for gun control. (U2 are featured on the track, but their input sounds like maybe eight measures of a melody used like a sample.)
That's the electric part about Damn.: 2Pac rapped through his contradictions; Lamar raps about his contradictions. The theme here is humility, and Kendrick clearly has mixed feelings. On "Loyalty," he treats his boasts like a weakness, with Rihanna crooning "It's so hard to be humble." On "Pride," he treats his boasts as an annoying obligation, drolly saying "I can’t fake humble just 'cause your ass is insecure." Then, on "Humble," he finally screams "Bitch, be humble" like he worked up the confidence. And even then, you can't help but wonder if he's talking to himself. On "Element," he'll say "I don't give a fuck" but then immediately follow it with "I'm willin' to die for this shit."
In the album’s introduction, Lamar helps a blind lady searching for something on the ground, and she turns out to be a murderer. The meaning of this metaphor is open for debate, but one thing is indisputable: Kendrick Lamar sees himself as someone here to help people find the things they have lost –quite often, it seems, a sense of humanity itself. And that's a huge job for one man, especially since his peers can hold court on a relatively smaller part of the collective subconscious. Chance the Rapper raps like America's hope and optimism; Kanye West its untethered id and basest impulses. Hundreds of street-level mixtape rappers represent anger and nihilism; and mega-stars like Drake, J. Cole, Big Sean, Nicki Minaj and Eminem are all explorations of various ideas of self. Lamar, patient and meticulous, self-doubting yet bold, is left as pretty much the unofficial navigator of everything else, a wide, complex, occasionally paradoxical gulf of noise.
Lamar's gift is not just that he can say why he's the best ("I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA"), but also that he articulate how this responsibility feels ("I feel like the whole world want me to pray for 'em/But who the fuck prayin' for me?"). He can paint pride and agony with the same brush, and it’s that ability that makes "Fear" probably the most emotionally rich song in his entire discography. Like Sigmund Freud meets Scarface, Lamar connects the dots from the seven-year-old terrified of catching a beating from his mother to the 17-year-old terrified of being murdered by police to the 27-year-old terrified of fame. "I practiced runnin' from fear, guess I had some good luck," he raps with ease. "At 27 years old, my biggest fear was bein' judged."
Much like the recent A Tribe Called Quest record, Damn. is a brilliant combination of the timeless and the modern, the old school and the next-level. The most gifted rapper of a generation stomps into the Nineties and continues to blaze a trail forward. Don't be confused if he can't stay humble.
Topics: Kendrick Lamar
Wilco leader takes a lo-fi rummage around in the rearview.
Together At Last is the first of three acoustic albums exhuming the Jeff Tweedy songbook. Anyone familiar with the Wilco band-leader could anticipate it: heavy-lidded observationals sung in a stagger over a gently thumbed acoustic. Across 11 low-key tunes there are no revelations here. That's OK – Wilco's existential anthem "Via Chicago" is infallible; Loose Fur's "Laminated Cat" gorgeous; and "Hummingbird" shows there's still power in Tweedy's dog-eared voice. But there are moments of background snooze, too; "Lost Love" sounds like the once ornery songwriter kicking into caretaker mode. Or maybe just clearing his hard drive.
The Drums reduced to their wonderful, winsome essence.
Across three albums and nearly a decade of zippy, melancholic pop songs, US four-piece the Drums have finally whittled to one: founding songwriter and frontman, Jonny Pierce. Not that you'd notice. Long responsible for the majority of the Drums' recordings, Abysmal Thoughts is the DIY manifesto Pierce finally gets to own.
It's another reverb drenched collection of addictive guitar-synth pop, by an author now expert at couching his woes in gilded pop exteriors. (And still with fair debt to the Smiths). But there's been trouble since third record, 2014's Encyclopedia. Pierce split with his husband, as well as with co-founding bandmate Jacob Graham. Abysmal Thoughts is a document of the ensuing self-examination. "How do I say goodbye to something I love so much/This boy I cradled in my heart?" he pines in a typically wounded sigh on "If All We Share (Means Nothing)". But Pierce never mopes, instead harnessing the drama of emotional turmoil to energise his music.
Pierce's production benefits from the same focus. The dubby, synth sub-bass that burbles under opening earworm "Mirror"; a pedal steel-whine haunting "Under the Ice"; the goopy analogue synth in "Your Tenderness" – these parcels freshen the Drums' already boundless pop smarts. Abysmal Thoughts might find Pierce at the end of both his band and tether, but the result is a sweet unshackling.
Local post-punk quartet aim big, and deliver, on album three.
Sydney post-punks Mere Women say their third full-length is positioned as "an alternative view of the female experience", with consideration given to social and physical isolation, not just economic inequalities. An ambitious aim, yet boldly met by an across-the-board dynamic boost of both the band's mathy anxiousness and haunting synth surrounds. Better still, vocalist Amy Wilson wrestles free from her all-too-often companion role, and here her striking one-liners leap from the desolate, backwater scenes with a confidence and clarity that further delivers on the album’s thematic focus.
Gossip singer impresses on her debut solo LP.
"We could always play it safe/ But that's no fun," Beth Ditto teases on "We Could Run". As Gossip's enigmatic leader, Ditto emboldened the group's zigzag evolution from garage-punk to disco-pop, and that adventurous spirit remains intact on Fake Sugar. A record about love in all its gnarly forms, Ditto is overcome with desire on retro cut "Fire"; indulges obsession on Eighties torch ballad "Oh My God"; and questions her lover's gaze over the disco funk of "Do You Want Me". Fake Sugar is Ditto in all her forms: some perfect, some flawed. But that may just be the point.
Solid if more-of-the-same second outing for UK duo.
The seismic grooves of Royal Blood's debut LP set them apart in 2014, not only due to their line-up – a two-piece rock band featuring bass and drums – but because they breathed life into rock's quickly cooling corpse. But where that album benefited from their sonic limitations – thanks largely to bassist/vocalist Mike Kerr's array of effects pedals – its follow-up isn't quite so fortunate, coming off as a facsimile of that record rather than a fresh new statement. The riffs are still big ("Don't Tell"), the hooks insistent ("I Only Lie When I Love You"), but while there are a few new tricks – the keys in "Hole In Your Heart" – they're subtle at best.
Pacific Northwesterners emerge unbowed with mind-expanding triumph.
After a six-year wait for a new album with only some strategically timed social media hints to go on, Fleet Foxes have successfully created an aura for themselves. Well done, them – but it does burden them with an obligation to live up to the enigma and intrigue. What's more, in attempting a concept album partly based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald essay that gives the record its name, they are hardly making things easy for themselves.
Thankfully Robin Pecknold, he with the unassumingly angelic voice, has artistically matured in such a fascinating, worldly way since 2011's Helplessness Blues, that this record works. This is no sugar-sweet indie-folk smothered with those luscious harmonies that made them de rigueur in 2008 – this is challenging, instrumentally eclectic and not immediately accessible. Complexity and experimentation – by Fleet Foxes standards anyway – combine in a sprawling wall of sound suggestive of the smoky haze of David Crosby's early solo work, particularly the outstanding "Mearcstapa", while "Naiads, Cassadies" and "Kept Woman" show they remain capable of straightforwardly beautiful tunes.
Fleet Foxes have answered the question of how to redeem ensemble-based folk-pop in a post-Mumford world by embracing the esoteric, the risky, the lyrically abstruse – this is Pecknold's Smile, if you will. Indeed, anyone turned off by the five-piece's erstwhile unrelenting pleasantness should give this a spin.
Head Automatica duo summon the spirit of the Eighties.
Glassjaw/Head Automatica frontman Daryl Palumbo has never shied away from his Eighties influences, but never has he worn them so brazenly on his sleeve as he does in Color Film, his collaboration with fellow Head Automatica member Richard Penzone. Their debut album isn't so much a tribute to the decade as it is a time machine, placing the listener firmly in the John Hughes era of electronic drums and new romantic songwriting. The spectre of the Cure, the Smiths and Talking Heads looms large, so much so that it's hard to discern the point, beyond a couple of musos simply indulging their love of all things Eighties.
Dreamy cohesiveness of the highest order.
What is so delightfully refreshing about this London duo is the utter effortlessness of their music. Oh Wonder's brand of alt-pop is modern, beautifully crafted and often catchy as hell, but the radio-savvy hooks are delivered with little fanfare, and the songwriting seems to take its own seamlessness for granted. Perhaps it's the made-to-meld voices of Josephine Vander Gucht and Anthony West, or the carefully paced tracklisting that goes from earthy energy and quirky pop (think Of Monsters and Men covering Kate Miller-Heidke) to the arresting sparseness of "My Friends" and "Waste". Either way, this dreamy, polished album is a winner.
The Alabama songwriter goes wider musically but takes things more personally.
"Last year was a son of a bitch for nearly everyone we know," sings Isbell on "Hope the High Road". We all know what he's talking about. In a post-Trump world it sometimes seems that all the news is bad news. But Isbell's glass is still half full: "Wherever you are, I hope the high road leads you home again."
He sounds warmer and softer than usual, perhaps because he knows about second chances. On the fast track to alcoholic oblivion as a member of Drive-By Truckers, he cleaned up and made up for lost time on 2013's Southeastern, an extraordinary collection of songs that unfolded like great short stories.
The Nashville Sound is not a solo album, but the new record with his group the 400 Unit, which means he goes wider. You can hear echoes of Ryan Adams and Bruce Springsteen (little surprise) but also Elliott Smith and R.E.M. (quite a surprise).
He's also getting more personal. His protagonists find answers in a bar ("Cumberland Gap") or a loving woman ("Tupelo") or "the fire in my little girl's eyes" ("White Man's World"). And on "If We Were Vampires" he duets with the 400 Unit's fiddle player Amanda Shires, who happens to be his wife, on a song musing on the fact that one day one of them will die and the other will be alone.
On her long-awaited second LP, the pop diva proves she’s in for the long haul.
On her debut, Pure Heroine, Lorde ridiculed pop music while glorying in it. The former Ella Yelich-O'Connor displayed an honour-roll-brat-in-detention-hall flow, a goth sense of drama and the sort of supreme over it-ness that only an actual 16-year-old can muster. Full of heart and nuanced writing, the LP was a small masterpiece and a massive hit as well. You could tell the Auckland, New Zealand, kid was in for the long haul, and after a four-year wait, her second album, Melodrama, confirms that notion.
Now 20, Lorde signals a new order straightaway, with lonely piano chords where Pure Heroine's electronic palette was. They open the single "Green Light”, a barbed message to an ex who the singer can't quite shake. The song grows into a stomping electro-acoustic thrill ride, its swarming, processed vocal chant "I want it!” recalling another precocious, hyperliterate, synth-loving auteur singer-songwriter: Kate Bush, who insisted "I want it all!” back in 1982 on "Suspended in Gaffa”. Give Lorde credit for wanting it all too – the huge vistas of electronic music alongside the human-scaled and handmade.
That's the trick here, abetted playfully by co-writer/co-producer Jack Antonoff, who brings the rock-schooled song sense he coined with fun. and honed on Taylor Swift's 1989 to Lorde's electro-pop craftiness. Using empty space to spectacular effect, the arrangements veer from stark clarity to delirium, often in a few bars. Like the finger snaps on her breakout, "Royals”, small touches loom: the dry guitar opening of "The Louvre”, with its ambient-dub atmospherics; the distant yelps and heraldic roots-reggae brass on "Sober”, a sexy midtempo jam endlessly second-guessing its own pleasure; the screeching industrial noise and f-bombs on "Hard Feelings/Loveless”; the trap beats that strafe the title track's orchestral brooding. As a pop-song production display, it's a tour de force.
Lorde's writing and fantastically intimate vocals, ranging from her witchy, unprocessed low-register warbles to all sorts of digitised masks, make it matter. She has said the album's conceit is a house party and its unfolding dramas; indeed, Pure Heroine's cool snark is now a hotter passion, in its millennial-sceptical way. It's most vivid on the rueful piano ballad "Liability”, a meditation on the loneliness of an ambitious pop drama queen.
But Melodrama's most striking moment may be the aside on "Homemade Dynamite” – a goofy new-lust paean with a Top Gun reference and a death wish – when Lorde vocalises a tiny explosion amid total silence, like a friend whispering a wordless message in your ear in a nightclub booth as chaos rages. It's emblematic of a modern pop record that prizes old-school intimacy, and lingers well after the house lights have gone up.
English band raise their voice on urgent second album.
Perhaps responding to criticism that their smooth 2015 self-titled debut was so light in places as to almost disappear in a wisp of smoke, Liverpool three-piece All We Are have turned the volume and attitude up on second album Sunny Hills. Opener "Burn it All Out" sets the tone with vaguely danceable post-punk that resurrects the spirit of early New Order and the Cure; a template that is adhered to throughout the LP with capable but rarely innovative results. It's only on epic closer "Punch" – a song Florence Welch would kill to have written – that All We Are find their own voice, opening an intriguing door to whatever may follow next.
Ninth album from enduring Californian punk rockers.
Given that this is only Rancid's third album in 14 years, it's something of a surprise to see Trouble Maker so soon after 2014's Honour Is All We Know. But that's where the surprises end. The 17 songs that comprise their ninth LP – of which eight don't even make the two-minute mark – contain all the Rancid trademarks: anthemic, heartfelt melodic punk ("Telegraph Ave"), flat-knacker venom ("All American Neighbourhood") and two-tone/ska ("Where I'm Going"). It's all quite acceptable, but as with each of their LPs this millennium nothing grabs you by the throat with the life-affirming power of their classic mid-Nineties output.
Country golden boy cheats Alzheimers with one last LP.
The rhinestone cowboy's final curtain is handmade and lovingly tended. The handful of Jimmy Webb songs, the fireside duet with Willie Nelson, a back porch demo from Roger Miller and, at last, Campbell's first studio recording of "Everybody's Talkin'" add up to finely finished business. Having joined the country TV hero as a teenager in the early Seventies, Carl Jackson's steady hand at the desk gives Adiós a warm-hearted glow and one of its best songs: "Arkansas Farmboy" is his mentor's life story, written for a voice he clearly knows like his father's. From honky tonk tears to a ragtime twist on Dylan, it's a farewell that stands tall even beside its bonus hits disc.
Fiery eighth album from Chicago punk stalwarts.
Rise Against's furiously politicised punk means there's always fodder for their meaty chops, and now's as good a time as any with a psychotic narcissist in the White House. So the muscly punk of "Mourning In Amerika", "How Many Walls" and "Welcome to the Breakdown" tackle the rampant divisive dipshittery of Trump's America, while the charging title-track ought to accompany a clip of el Presidente and his disgusting cronies distorting into nightmarish animals devouring humanity. Best, though, is "Bullshit", a fiery punk-rock torch song examining political apathy and moral hollowness in contemporary society.