Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. Album, Religion, and Finding Himself

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Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. album cover | c/o Interscope Records

 

Kendrick Lamar may be the best rapper out right now at hiding the proverbial medicine in the candy. His latest album, DAMN. has songs that are focused on totally unattractive topics when it comes to their assumed commercial potential: Humility. Loyalty. Integrity. And they’re all touched on as part of his exploration of religion, another touchy subject. Making club-ready, popular Hip-Hop that bangs as hard as DAMN. does while quoting Bible verses in the lyrics is no easy feat. Still, as Kendrick says on “ELEMENT.,” he makes it all sound sexy.

As I marveled at DAMN. over several listens, I wrote about how Kendrick is learning more about himself and the world he lives in with the guidance of Bible scripture for Billboard.

Kendrick Lamar: Making Sense of His World, One Bible Verse at a Time 

Here’s a taste: “The Bible’s influence is immense. For many it functions as their life’s compass, by which going in the right direction means to walk in God’s footsteps and all other paths — at best — lead nowhere. That perspective is what Kendrick Lamar cautiously navigates on his third proper studio LP, DAMN.

Check it out, y’all.

also: Kendrick Lamar, Exposing The Fakes

Kendrick Lamar, Exposing The Fakes

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Kendrick Lamar dropped his new track, “Humble” yesterday. Fans and pundits alike went gaga over it. The verdicts vary but are overall joyous. They’re cheerful hearing Kung Fu Kenny kick bars over simpler Hip-Hop production (it’s an ominous Mike WiLL Made It doing, less intricate than To Pimp a Butterfly’s jazzy musicianship) and, frankly, delighted that the rapper is still talking his shit—clowning junky stars and also those who aren’t honest in their representations of themselves. The messaging in its Dave Meyers-directed video is noteworthy, too. So much so that I wrote about it for Billboard.

Kendrick Lamar Exposes the Fake to Encourage the Real in ‘Humble’ Video

I’m not going to ruin it for you, but I will tease it with the opening paragraph:

As the opportunity to exaggerate our best features and highlight only portions of our lives grows thanks to the magic of Instagram filters and Twitter posts, Kendrick Lamar has noticed what apparently many have yet to: The world — his generation, at least — is shifting away from practicing humility and authenticity. Blowhard fakes are flourishing faster than a showoff can say “Clarendon” or “Send tweet.”

Give it a read. April 7, the release date for Kendrick’s third LP, can’t come soon enough.

Random Thoughts I Had While Playing The Weeknd’s ‘Starboy’ Album

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The Weeknd’s Starboy album cover | c/o Republic Records

 

In the music biz statistics confirm success, but not always quality. A lot of crappy tunes become hits. I can’t fully explain why yet. Hey, shit happens. So it’s refreshing when a good project does something noteworthy in the numbers department.

In the last few days The Weeknd’s Starboy album has racked up plays and purchases and the first wave of tallies resulted in the Toronto singer-songwriter breaking the global record for first-week streams on Spotify, with more than 223 million streams. It also broke their one-day record, with 40 million streams in 24 hours. To boot, Starboy opened at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart. So he obviously killed it on the scoreboard.

There’s so much I enjoyed about several of Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye’s 18-song newbie. His sound, which I used to describe as Sade-like—if she had done hard drugs, dwelled in the underworld and adored classic horror flicks—has broadened to shimmering ’80s pop while also staying true to his core. Here are some random, though fitting, thoughts I’ve had while listening to Starboy.

“Starboy” – Somebody woke up feeling theirself!  It’s so fun hearing Weeknd’s gentle Ethiopian  voice stunt so hard and talk his shit. His main and side chicks are out of your league.  New Edition is who he’s playing while he’s whipping his Bentley Mulsanne. G’ shit. Been enjoying his promo performances. That American Music Awards showing is the best of the bunch. I wish Daft Punk produced for me people, like on the Disclosure work-for-hire or complilation tip.

Random Thoughts I Had While Playing Bruno Mars ’24K Magic’ Album

“Reminder” – This isn’t my favorite track overall on the album (might be my fifth), but it  hits the hardest lyrically. From jump he’s on the assault, swinging on radio DJs that are more apt to play “blue-eyed soul” before his songs. I’m always intrigued by successful people who are still woke enough to know that the game is not all the way fair. This isn’t some rookie act crying foul. The Weeknd spent all of 2015 becoming a legit, pop chart-topping artist. Still, on the follow-up to the album that likely gave him the confidence to call himself a Starboy, he’s giving corny, racist music business gatekeepers the side-eye, like, “I see you.” Love that.

The first verse on “Reminder” is about how he achieved massive success while staying true to himself. “I let my black hair grow and my weed smoke,” he says. If you had asked me years ago if the House of Balloons guy with the Basquiat hair would become a pop star, I would have said something like, “Hope so” and put my hands in prayer position, because only God could make Dark Side MJ a Hot 100 killer. And that he did. Weeknd just cut his locks a few months ago.

And he’s fully aware of how crazy it is that he was able to make a song featuring a cocaine -reference in the hook hit record, one that Nickelodeon nominated for Best Song at their 2016 Teen Choice awards. It’s hilarious. “Starboy” also boasts a drug lyric in the hook, where his girl sees coke on the table, then “clean[s] it with her face/ Man, I love my baby.” Clearly, he’s still the same guy from his House of Balloons mixtape days, not at all concerned about cleaning up his content for fame. He’s winning on his terms. I can appreciate that.

Also, what’s the more cringe-inducing (though somehow fun) line—Abel’s “Got a sweet Asian chick/ She go low, mayne”  (Get it? Lo Mein, like the Asian dish) or Drake’s “Shout out to Asian girls/ Let the lights dim some” (Get it? Dim Sum, like the Asian dish) from “Over My Dead Body”?

“Secrets” – Can’t separate the rhythm of this song from 112’s “Dance With Me.” Take a break and watch the guys dance in oversized Adidas tracksuits. The clip’s tucked inside their video for “Peaches and Cream.”

“True Colors” – The song in a nutshell: “Pull all the skeletons out of your closet, sit them right here on the couch with us. I promise not to trip.”

“Starboy Interlude” – The Weeknd and Lana Del Rey’s characters get hot next to the microwave and stove. Made me think of Kellz’s classic.

“Sidewalks” – This would have been a solid song without Kendrick’s raps. I love the western feel the guitar rift adds. But this feature might be one of the best guest appearances of 2016—definitely the top verse of Kendrick’s year as a wingman. On top of the bars being top notch, he’s actually following along with the Starboy theme. I can tell he put actually thought into this verse, which is not a surprise when it comes to Mr. Lamar. Was cool learning how this cut came together.

“Love to Lay” – I’m a sucker for warm synth keys. The Weeknd makes great ‘80s pop.

“A Lonely Night” – More ‘80s pop. This guy’s really good at hiding totally unpleasant conversations in danceable tracks. Imagine hearing this for this first time and bouncing along to the beat only to find out on a deeper listen that he’s telling a girl that she was just a one night stand “and if I led you on, then I apologize.” Oh, wow. Bummer. The mood of his instrumentals and the message they relay have an interesting relationship. In that regard, this is some “Billie Jean” Trojan Horse wizardry.

“All I Know” – Trap drums on thump. Futcha Hendrix being Futcha Hendrix is always welcome.

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A post shared by The Weeknd (@theweeknd) on

 

“Die For You” – Might be the first time on the album that he’s fully vulnerable and it’s epic. One of my favorite three songs on Starboy. What about someone would make you die for them? What would factor into that decision.

“I Feel It Coming” – Daft Punk open and close the Starboy story. The disco vibes are strong here. As are the Michal Jackson-esque vocals. His lyrics towards a girl who’s a bit fearful of what love brings are softer and just aggressive enough to let her know he’s the one. It’s a sexy, smooth dance closer. “Coming” is the finale of his short film MANIA, which is worth its 12 minutes. The first few of them remind me of Kanye West’s Runaway film. Somehow, Starboy starts with Weeknd being a supremely confident bad-ass kingpin and it ends with its star charmingly delivering his version of “Rock With You.”  What a trip.

Kendrick Lamar’s untitled, unmastered Scraps and Why Artists Should Package Theirs Like Him

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Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered. album artwork.

 

A few days ago news came out that the latest Star Wars movie The Force Awakens, which came on in theaters in December 2015, would be released on DVD in April. As is the case nowadays, the blockbuster movie will be paired with bonus features that include the chance for fans to see a documentary on the making of the movie, find of how the costuming came to be, and, of course, watch deleted scenes.

The latter feature is always a questionable one for me: “Why would I want to see what was purposefully left on the cutting room floor?” It’s a question I always wonder before inevitably pressing play. What occurs next is some version of harsh criticism (“Why didn’t they include XYZ?! That would have fit perfectly!”) or thankfulness (“Whew! I’m so glad they left this junk out!”). And the same goes for music and album releases. Though when an album comes out, the way its “extras” are packaged with the actual “standard” album is a bit more messy.

For example, the standard version of Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo album technically ends with Frank Ocean’s words on “Wolves,” the thirteenth track on the album. It’s perfect. But what immediately follows Ocean’s thoughtful lyrics is a goofy Collect call from imprisoned rapper Max B. The Harlem rhymer, iconic for his cool ways effectively gives West permission to use the eventually scrapped Waves title. The entire skit is unnecessary. By including it on Pablo, Kanye is basically saying, “Hey guys, Max B approved of me using a title that I eventually decided against. Just thought you should know.” And because this bonus track sits right next to “Wolves,” it effects the quality of the album as a whole. From Max B on, four tracks that clearly don’t fit the mood of TLOP play, ruining the good standing of the actual standard album.

Kanye West: Pablo Creates and Loves Seeing You Flourish, Too

This morning I woke up to my younger brother’s text: “KENDRICK’S NEW ALBUM IS GREAT.” He was excited. As was I. The Compton rapper apparently released new material last night, just a year removed from dropping his critically acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly album. Once I hopped on my MacBook to check out the music, one glance at its track-listing told me that the cuts are essentially ones that were left on the cutting room floor from TPAB recording sessions. Their titles are all calendar dates, suggesting that the eight songs were made while Lamar was working on his Grammy-winning masterpiece. This collection is suitably called untitled unmastered. That says it all.

So with that in mind, I wondered what I usually do: “Why would I want to hear what was purposefully left off the album?”

Well, I do appreciate that Kendrick didn’t carelessly fling these songs at the end of Butterfly. So I can separate the two from each other. It’s a gift Kanye didn’t give me. And I for sure want to have more insight on what one of this era’s greatest musical minds was thinking and creating when he made his second landmark album. untitled unmastered. is not an album as much as it is a mixtape of rough drafts and ideas that didn’t make it out of the cocoon. Still, as marvelous as Butterfly is, some of those ideas, are bound to be good, right?

In this case, RIGHT!

“untitled 03 05.28.2013.” is this gem that he dynamically performed on The Colbert Report in December 2014. “untitled 08 09.06.2014.” debuted on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon in January, another fervent performance of a song that I couldn’t listen to a studio version of. Until now.

Other tracks are solid, but are clearly sonically out of place on TPAB, like “untitled 02 06.23.2014.,” which sounds too trappy for the funky jazz vibes that dominate the true album. But it’s cool to know that Lamar wasn’t a complete shut-in and at least put some time in to trying out different genres within Hip-Hop.

It’s also crazy to think that all eight of these songs could have made the TPAB had they been shined up to 100%, which all don’t seem far from. As far as content, they all are Butterfly-worthy, from the apocalyptic future Lamar envisions on the opener (“The ground is shaking, swallowing a young woman/ With a baby, daisies, and other flowers burning in destruction/ The smell is disgusting, the heat is unbearable…”) to the culturally divisive third track to uu‘s closer.

So in the case of untitled unmastered., yes, I’m thankful that these tracks weren’t Butterfly bonuses. But I’m also glad these saw the light of day. Clearly, Kendrick loved them enough to share live, possibly finished, variants of them on television. And I’m looking forward to unpacking their content, which rivals TPAB cuts in most cases.

Other artists should adopt Lamar’s method of releasing bonus cuts/deleted scenes. Don’t ruin the shine of your proper/standard album by sitting it’s premature siblings next to it, as promising as they are. When you can recognize the difference, it’s easier to fully appreciate both.

DJ Dahi NPR Feature

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DJ Dahi, photo c/o Audible Treats

 

I wrote a feature story for the good folks at NPR on DJ Dahi, the guy who:

  • Produced “Worst Behavior” for Drake
  • Produced “Money Trees” for Kendrick
  • Who is about to be The Guy and release a compilation album called The Good Seed featuring a load of his music buddies and propel himself to a place where he doesn’t always need to be described as “the guy who…” You’ll just know.

DJ Dahi: Making The Move From Bass Line To Top Billing

“My goal with this music is to not to have to be less of myself when I see people. I want to be able to walk outside and be able to defend everything I created for it.”

I went to his studio in the valley to catch his vibe, called up his sweet Christian mom and also rapped with production wizard/Def Jam top dog No ID for the story. Read it. Then play his music and zone out. Cool? Cool.