You don’t need to be a hip hop fan to know that Kendrick Lamar released a new album Friday. DAMN. is easily Kendrick’s most concise and accessible work to date. Where To Pimp a Butterfly and good kid, m.A.A.d city dove deep into intricate narratives, this album feels as though it was purposed for mass consumption. In fact, it was so easily consumed that the Twitterverse started circulating a theory about a second album release scheduled for Sunday night (it didn’t happen). However, the fever surrounding his new work is an indication of the ferocious appetite for his brand of thoughtful, conscious wordplay.
At this moment, hip hop is really a tale of two kings. Drake is the rapper that’s so famous even your mom knows him. He switches effortlessly between street anthems and pop singles. He racks up billions of streams based on charisma, infectious songwriting and pop sensibility. On the other hand, you have Kendrick, whose music has always delivered a message—a grim counterpart to Drake’s easily digestible hip pop.
You may like both, or you might despise one while unabashedly loving the other. However you feel, it’s clear that rap (and music in general) has carved out space for both. For every “Passionfruit”, we need an “ELEMENT.” For every “Hotline Bling”, we need a “HUMBLE.”
In the video clip for the latter, Kendrick is draped in papal regalia, recreates The Last Supper with his TDE crew, and fashions himself an outsider amongst a crowd of men in black suits. He may not be an outsider in the truest sense. After all, DAMN. is poised to be the number one album in America next week and he just rocked an acclaimed Coachella set over the weekend. But he’s an outsider in hip hop—a peerless wordsmith who can capture the national conversation without turning down the truth factor in his lyrics. A rapper who can incorporate jazz and trap into a single album. An artist who can guest on a Sia or Taylor Swift single and have U2 play second fiddle on one of his own songs (“XXX”).
Kendrick may not have reached Drake levels of record sales or chart success, but he doesn’t need to. The impact of his music will live on long after the artists at the top fade from memory. His approach is a long game—a quest to make classic albums that solidify his position as one of the greats; hip hop touchpoints that will be referenced for years to come. You’ll be humming Drake but you’ll be learning from Kendrick.
As much as we need a soundtrack for the summer BBQ, we also need to be challenged. When you look at the sea of blandness that regularly dominates the iTunes Top 10, it’s refreshing to see a rapper, who’s in top form, become a part of that conversation. Though DAMN. is an easier listen than his past records, Kendrick Lamar’s latest work is just as layered and complex. Whether we get that rumored second LP or not, this album further proves that we need musicians like Kendrick—fearless creators who never settle for the status quo and constantly work to outdo their own output.
All hail King Kendrick.