Album Review: Kendrick Lamar Reclaims Rap’s Throne with DAMN.

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock since 2010, you may have a decent idea of who Kendrick Lamar is. Since his official label debut good kid, m.A.A.d city, Lamar has earned himself worldwide appeal as both a popular and conscious rapper. Now, two years since his genre-shattering To Pimp A Butterfly, Lamar has returned to the spotlight with DAMN., a record dense with personal reflection and exemplary production that once again establishes him as one of the all-time greats.

“So I was taking a walk the other day…” Kendrick starts DAMN. off with a short narrative in which he describes his own death. It seems that the remainder of the album revolves around Lamar contemplating his own life, considering if his life would have been worthy of living had he actually died. The album even reverses on “DUCKWORTH.”, the final track, and returns to where DAMN. started off. The song titles cut no corners; each previews the song’s subject matter. “HUMBLE.”, for example, delicately balances on Lamar’s own bravado and the constant reminder to “sit down” and “be humble.” Other tracks cut deeper. “FEAR.” outlines Lamar’s fears, including death’s unpredictability and of losing the fame and wealth he’s earned. The mood throughout the album sways between vulnerable and confident; it’s a blend of what made both To Pimp A Butterfly and good kid, m.A.A.d city unique. Despite relying on similar tones, Lamar delves into new topics and makes DAMN. feel just as unique as his previous two works.

Unlike To Pimp A Butterfly, DAMN. features a departure from jazz rap, rather fusing pop, electronic, alternative, and trap music into a refreshing sound that caters to Lamar’s versatility. The production credits are indicative of such; to name a few, James Blake, 9th Wonder, James Blake, Steve Lacy, and BADBADNOTGOOD all lend their production talents on DAMN. Each song is an otherworldly experience on its own, yet listened to side by side reveal the narrative of Lamar’s latest work. “XXX.” features perhaps the wildest beat switch (one of many) on the album, exploding from a dark, bass-driven beat into a flurry of sirens. Other highlights include “LUST.”, a song empowered by a delayed entry of the drums, and “PRIDE.”, whose guitar chords slow the pace to a melodic crawl.

To Pimp A Butterfly took some time to grow on me when I first heard it. I was initially disappointed because I was hoping to hear more tracks reminiscent of good kid, m.A.A.d city, but instead what I got was vastly opposite. Once I had come around to it, however, I learned that artists aren’t supposed to rely on formulaic music to become successful. Real artists grow and change; they learn and evolve to create new, exceptional music that keeps them one step ahead of the competition. Lamar’s competition, Drake, has fallen victim to this and chosen to stick to what works rather than take risks and mature as an artist. Lamar, on the other hand, continues to grow and surprise his fans, with each new album being more unprecedented than the last. DAMN. is a shining example of such. An album inspired by Lamar’s own life and attitude, it stands alone as a masterpiece and singular experience. Lamar continues to solidify his placement upon the Mount Rushmore of rap, and he will most certainly surprise us all with whatever he has planned next. Listen to DAMN. here.

Archie O’Dell

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Album Review: Joey Bada$$ Gets Political on ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$

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In case you couldn’t tell by the album’s title, Joey Bada$$ is not merely dropping a typical rap album. Inspired by the late Capital Steez’s AmeriKKKan Korruption, Bada$$ has decided to follow in the footsteps of Pro Era’s former great. Exactly five years to the date after Steez’s album, Bada$$ has delivered a project strongly rooted in the “korruption” in present day America.

ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ features a departure from Bada$$’ typical boom-bop New York sound, favoring a tracklist highlighted by bright production and jazz rap. Long-time producer Statik Selektah produced only two of the twelve tracks on his new album, compared to four on B4.DA.$$. This time around, Bada$$’ producers implement horn sections and electric guitar on a number of tracks, elevating them from decent to fantastic, as well as displaying Bada$$’ adaptability by stepping in a new direction of melody. The middle of the tracklist includes what might be the grooviest sequence of production on an album this year, with “TEMPTATION”, “LAND OF THE FREE”, “DEVASTATED”, and “Y U DON’T LOVE ME (MISS AMERIKKKA)” following one after another. The transition from these four tracks to the next two, “ROCKABYE BABY” and “RING THE ALARM”, is completely jarring, but a welcome shift back towards Bada$$ embracing his ruthless lyricism.

The subject matter is surprisingly heavy compared to the albums upbeat production. Much like Common’s Black America Again, ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ addresses issues plaguing American’s African Americans, such as police brutality, racism, and inequality. “Y U DON’T LOVE ME (MISS AMERIKKKA)” is reminiscent of an homage to 50 Cent’s “21 Questions”, except Bada$$ questions America’s lack of acceptance towards African Americans. He spits, “Tell me why you don’t love me/Why you always misjudge me?/Why you always put so many things above me?/Why you lead me to believe that I’m ugly?”. Bada$$ doesn’t hold back, and it pays off. The last two minutes of the album are when Bada$$ is at his strongest; he effortlessly dismantles the U.S. government, accusing them of trying to start a civil war between its black and white citizens. He encourages his listeners to unite and fight back, rather than fight each other like he believes the government wants.

Bada$$ hits the mark on every aspect of this album. The production is solid, the guest appearances burst each track into flames, and the themes present relevant issues that need to brought forth time and time again. The focus of ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ is much tighter than B4.DA.$$, and its production more versatile. Bada$$ has shown great signs on improvement on his sophomore effort and has proved himself deserving of the national spotlight alongside industry titans like Kendrick Lamar and Drake. Listen to ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ here.

Archie O’Dell

Album Review: Khalid Brings the Fun on American Teen

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Khalid has been on my radar for quite some time now. He was part of my list of artists to watch this year, and he has entered the spotlight with American Teen. Khalid has proven he lives up to the hype, and that he knows how to have fun doing it.

Despite the tone of American Teen, most of the songs’ instrumentals are uplifting and catchy. Khalid primarily sings over ballads, but he goes out of his comfort zone on a few tracks. “Young Dumb & Broke” is one of the highlights, a trap-flavored track where Khalid encourages his fellow youth to act heinously while they can, because it won’t last. The majority of the tracks revolve around the theme of being young and reckless. It’s pretty fitting, considering Khalid is only 19 years old. Other tracks involve Khalid grieving about lost love and failed relationships, such as on “Another Sad Love Song.” The tone and instrumental clash here; the production is so infectious and groovy that the listener might not even know Khalid’s crooning about missing a past lover.

Khalid’s voice itself doesn’t impress often. He sits on the same pitch for the entire album. His tone rarely changes, so he sounds the same on every song. This isn’t necessarily terrible, because it conveys his vulnerability on the slower ballads. Otherwise, it’s disappointing, and I hope he takes more risks with his voice on the next album. 

Another pitfall American Teen faces is its lyrics. Khalid’s lyrics are awfully surface level and a lot of them cover familiar ground. Most of the time he’s saying it in a different way; it only sounds different, but doesn’t feel different. “Coaster”, “Hopeless”, and “Shot Down” each encompass the feeling of being heartbroken. Complex lyrics are by no way a requirement for albums, but Khalid needs to find a way to effectively convey his feelings about love and youth in more than one or two forms. 

Khalid has pretty much met my expectations with American Teen. The subject matter is focused but doesn’t deliver as distinctive. He tropes mundane topics through the 15 tracks, usually settling for a melancholy love song or an anthem for the adolescent. However, if the listener doesn’t pay too much attention to the lyrics, the album is wonderfully entertaining. The production is a mash-up of electronic, R&B, and trap that blends together remarkably well. American Teen is a fun album; just don’t expect to have any intellectual conversations about its themes. Listen to American Teen here.

Archie O’Dell

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Best Releases of the Week

This past Friday saw a hefty number of releases. Rather than attempt to write five or six album reviews this week and promptly self-combust, here are some mini-reviews of my favorite releases from last week.

Stormzy, Gang Signs and Prayer

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I came late to the grime scene, but so far it has been merely decent. For those who don’t know, grime is a combination of electronic and hip-hop characterized by hard-hitting English MCs. Skepta’s Konnichiwa was the first full-length grime album I listened, leaving me slightly disappointed but curious about the genre. Stormzy’s new album, Gang Signs and Prayer, has proved that grime is a legitimate genre in the music industry and that it should not be meddled with. Stormzy delivers ruthless lyrics over raw, machine-like instrumentals, never wasting a breath. This album, unlike other grime projects, carefully balances the line dividing typical aggressive grime tracks and soft, stripped-back vocal tracks. Stormzy lends his singing voice on multiple tracks and impresses. Overall, a strong debut for Stormzy that puts an unconventional yet refreshing twist on traditional grime. Listen to Gang Signs and Prayer here.

Steve Lacy, Steve Lacy’s Demo

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Two and a half months into 2017 and The Internet has already become very busy. They kicked off a tour last week and have already released three solo projects this year. Steve Lacy is the latest of the band to drop a project, following Syd and Matt Martians. Recorded entirely on his iPhone, Steve Lacy’s Demo sits at six tracks long (or short), and Lacy clarified on Twitter that the project is neither an EP or album, but a song series. Nonetheless, it’s lackadaisical style and lo-fi vibes provide a relaxing listen. Lacy’s guitar leads most of the songs, usually settling for a pairing with the drums or bass and not much else. The lack of variety seems daunting at first, but Lacy makes due with the tools at hand. Steve Lacy’s Demo is a short, sweet intro to The Internet’s youngest member, highlighted by his melodic vocals and lo-fi atmosphere. Listen to Steve Lacy’s Demo here.

Oddisee, The Iceberg

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Oddisee continues to strengten his discography with his latest release, The Iceberg. His eleventh studio album tackles poverty, racism, and more ethical issues. He spits lyrics with sincerity and depth, quite possibly taking multiple listens to decipher. The instrumentals include bright horn sections; each song sounds like a crisp live rendition. The climax of the album occurs on “Like Really”, a low-key banger where Oddisee addresses everyday problems minorities face. The Iceberg proves to be another strong release in Oddisee’s ever-expanding discography. Listen to The Iceberg here.

Thundercat, Drunk

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Thundercat finally returns with what will most likely be an album of the year contender, Drunk. At 23 tracks long (only 53 minutes total), Thundercat croons about losing friends, anime, masturbating, cats, and everything in between. He takes what made Apocalypse great (increased use of singing) and what made The Golden Age of Apocalypse great (bass solos and instrumentation) and combines them on Drunk, effectively creating an explosion of clever production and sweet, delicious vocals. Most tracks, unfortunately, are short, but each is still strong enough to stand up on its own. There are a lot of features, too, each which contribute to the song exactly as expected (even Wiz Khalifa, which isn’t really a good thing). Thundercat’s eccentric, unique style plays to his favor again on Drunk, coming through with the best release of the year thus far. Listen to Drunk here.   

Archie O’Dell                  

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Khalid Releases Title Track to New Album

Khalid continues to build up hype for his debut album American Teen, premiering the title track “American Teen” on Beats 1 Radio early Wednesday. This release comes just two weeks after he dropped “Shot Down”. On “American Teen”, Khalid glides over glossy piano chords and synth-flavored drums, singing about being a youth in America. The song overall is solid, but doesn’t stand out in comparison to singles like “Location” and “Coaster”. 

A week before his album is set to drop, Khalid has already released seven of the fifteen songs on the album. Has he given his audience too much of a preview of his debut album? Will the lack of new songs on American Teen leave it feeling lackluster and disappointing as a complete work? We’ll know by next Friday; until then, check out Khalid’s music here, listen to “American Teen” here, and check out the album cover below.

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Archie O’Dell

Check out more music and news from Rainy Dawg Radio @ RainyDawg.org!