Kendrick Lamar, “Damn” (Aftermath/Interscope)

Lamar makes music like an artist running out of time. Just about everyone on the planet eventually feels their mortality, but for him, the urgency translates into works of art that burn with purpose, that take the measure of the times and then zoom back to give a broader picture. He asks big questions over lean musical backdrops. How did we get here? What did we lose along the way? And how can this mess be redeemed?

A lot happens in the first two minutes of Lamar’s latest album. “Is it wickedness? Is it weakness?” a choir asks in “Blood.” “Are we gonna live or die?”

Enter Lamar in a confiding voice, as if he were talking to a friend about something that’s troubling him. In the manner of “How Much a Dollar Cost” from his previous album, the acclaimed 2015 release “To Pimp a Butterfly,” “Blood” is framed like a brief biblical parable involving a wise elder, this time with a shocking resolution. Lamar raps, and the album unfolds, a series of parables, prayers and critiques, often aimed as much at Lamar himself as the community that shaped him and the world he struggles to navigate.

Wickedness or weakness? The answer plays out over 14 tracks that suggest that it’s easy to talk about taking the high road, much more difficult to do so when your life is on the line. How does a person of color — a black kid from one of the most notorious ghettos in America, Compton, Calif. — walk that line in a life defined by its contradictions? “DNA” elaborates over a brutally minimalist backdrop of subterranean bass and electronic hand claps.

In contrast to the lush landscape of “To Pimp a Butterfly,” which essentially took on a century’s worth of black music, “Damn” strips down the rhythms to their essence, flavored with the occasional cameo (notably Rihanna and U2). Lamar’s voice does most of the heavy lifting, playing multiple roles and characters. His supple singing complements a variety of rap tones and textures.

“I’ll prolly die anonymous,” the young Kendrick laments in “Fear,” while his older self acknowledges that “at 27 years old my biggest fear was being judged.” He could mean being judged by his community or his rap peers or, more likely, God. “You have to understand this, man,” the voice of a relative intones, “we are a cursed people.” That biblical sense of a fallen people shadows each track. Lamar includes himself in their number. He may be a rap star, but he’s tired of rap beefs and the trappings of celebrity. He finds meaning in the work: “I put my faith in these lyrics.”

That faith blooms in “XXX,” in which the narrator tries to dissuade a young gangbanger from repeating the mistakes of his predecessors, then widens the scope. The violence of the streets is just an outgrowth of a greater wrong.

In the final track, “Duckworth,” named after his father, Lamar explores the nearly fatal encounter between his parent and the man who would eventually sign him to a record contract. Fate intervened to keep Kendrick from becoming an orphan. And then the tape rewinds, and we’re back at the beginning. Sometimes we get another chance to make things right.

GREG KOT, Chicago Tribune


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