Review: Kendrick Lamar – DAMN / Gorillaz – Humanz

Kendrick Lamar remains on the top of his game with DAMN, while Gorillaz' Humanz features a star-studded cast.

After topping the chart on both sides of the Atlantic with his previous album To Pimp a Butterfly, not to mention dominating 2015’s end of year lists, sweeping five Grammy Awards and attracting the venom of right-wing US news networks with his lyrics attacking police violence, it’s fair to say that Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar owns a significant corner of popular culture right now. While it may be markedly different to its epochal predecessor, it’s also fair to say that his hugely-anticipated fourth album DAMN won’t be seeing him relinquish that position any time soon.

“So I was taking a walk the other day…” begins opening spoken-word scene-setter Blood, before it’s eventually interrupted by the crack of a gunshot and a sample of a Fox News item wagging a patronising finger at Lamar for his lyrics bemoaning the readiness with which police will shoot young black people in the street. Having implicitly aligned himself with the Black Lives Matter movement, he doesn’t waste time here in casually throwing shade on his conservative critics, amid a wider swirl of confusion and rage about what it means to be a young man growing up in Trump’s America.

Where To Pimp A Butterfly mixed free-jazz, funk, soul and avant-garde music, DAMN is less sonically dense, gearing principally towards the more vogue-ish motifs of trap music. And yet it’s still fascinatingly strange and intricate, and full of unexpected twists and turns. Some key collaborators from the last album return – jazz multi-instrumentalist Kamasi Washington composes strings for Lust and space-bassist Thundercat fingers his six-string on Feel. Elsewhere Lamar has made famous new friends: Rihanna raps and sings on the woozy Loyalty and U2 crop up on XXX, with Bono lending it an unusually restrained croon.

Don’t doubt that Lamar still raps with power, poise and poetry

DAMN’s most instantly rewarding cut Love, featuring Californian vocalist Zacari, shows that Lamar can traverse into Drake’s territory of sensual hip-hop earworms. But don’t doubt that he still raps with power, poise and poetry – just see final track Duckworth, the true story of how Lamar’s father was once nearly shot by a teenager who would years later sign his son to a record contract. It ends as the album began – back on the street with all its random risks and injustices: “So I was taking a walk the other day…”

Gorillaz

Gorillaz’ fifth album Humanz proves that the impossible can sometimes happen. During its making in late 2015 and early 2016, Damon Albarn – one half of the virtual band together with comic book artist Jamie Hewlett – told collaborators to imagine a future in which Donald Trump became president, to help them get in character for its concept of emotional responses to a world-changing event. Then the unthinkable became reality: one of those collaborators was Noel Gallagher.

Albarn’s Britpop nemesis makes a low-key contribution to Humanz’ most high-energy track We Got The Power, as led more prominently by Savages’ Jehnny Beth. She’s just one of many vocalists who help make this Gorillaz’ most crowded and upbeat record to date. De La Soul variously sing, rap and chant the techno-powered Momentz. Danny Brown sprays deranged rhymes over Submission. Grace Jones laconically leads the charge on Charger while Benjamin Clementine brings drama to Hallelujah Money. A riot of voices, beats and synth-pop melodies, Humanz is like a celebrity house party at the end of the world.