Kendrick Lamar dropped his fourth album DAMN. on Friday, leaving little doubt who the best rapper in the game is—rapper being the operative word. While Drake has mastered the art of pop stardom, Lamar is a prodigious lyricist, and DAMN. is his opus.
I felt a lot of feelings on my first listen, awe being one of them, and giddiness another. There are moments on this album—like on the face-melting “ELEMENT.” when he raps “Bitch, all my grandmas dead / So ain’t nobody praying for me, I’m on your head,” or on the album closer “DUCKWORTH.” where he rifles through his family’s history with cinematic precision—that make you sink your head into your hands, the way you do when Russell Westbrook dunks a basketball or Rene Redzepi cooks you dinner. This is someone in his prime, at the top of his game, doing things with the artform that no one else can. Kendrick Lamar is just better at his job than everyone else, it’s that simple.
To help him create this rich tapestry, which incorporates an eclectic array of sounds, from jazz, to African tribal, to chillwave—Lamar recruited a diverse set of collaborators from around the world. Electronic music virtuoso James Blake contributes, as does super-producer Mike WiLL Made-It, Toronto upstarts BADBADNOTGOOD and Kaytranada, Sounwave, the Alchemist and the mysterious producer and vocalist Bēkon. But of course, all anyone will be talking about for at least the next week is Rihanna’s feature on the woozy earworm “LOYALTY.” because guess what: Riri has bars! Even U2 makes an appearance on the song “XXX.” and I was just as surprised as anyone that it actually works. That’s how good this album is. Kendrick Lamar somehow made U2 sound cool again.
But behind the shiny guests and Lamar’s endless verbal gymnastics, lies the same angsty kid who erupted onto the scene with 2012’s epochal Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, only now he’s a lot more rich and a lot more famous. Despite his superstar rapper status, Lamar’s heart remains in the streets that helped create him. He’s still shouting—about death, racial injustice, and Donald Trump—at the ruling class that’s already accepted him into their fold. The only difference now is, we’re all paying attention.