Kendrick Lamar is a musical artist who, when he releases a new record, stops my musical world from spinning. He just steps in and Zack Morris-es everything and forces my whole attention to remain on him until he’s said his piece. Then, he graciously allows me to resume my life, although by that point I have musical Stockholm Syndrome and can’t stop listening anyway, even though I’m theoretically free to.
But since I’ve still got about 24 hours before I stuff his newest album, DAMN., into my earholes, I figure I should try to pass the time productively. In this case, that means pontificating about what I (and you, if you know what’s good for you) will experience when I press play tomorrow morning.
Fearless Prediction #1: DAMN. will be great…
This is easy. Vegas wouldn’t take bets on this one, or if they did, it would be like a UConn Women’s Basketball bet where you have to wager $25,000 dollars to win a nickel or something. How do I know it’ll be so good? Well, there are the two tracks Kendrick has released in the last two weeks: “The Heart Part 4” and “HUMBLE.” Though I prefer the latter (which won’t be on the album), both are proof that the trajectory set by 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly and last year’s Untitled Unmastered isn’t changing directions.
Fearless Prediction #2: … but it will be seen as a step down from TPAB.
Las Vegas would also not allow bets on this one. Listen, anytime an artist releases a stone-cold classic like To Pimp a Butterfly, expectations soar and level-headedness goes out the window. As a result, whatever comes next, even if excellent in its own right, generally doesn’t get the credit it really deserves in the moment. TPAB has a couple of things working against it on this front: not only was it capital-G Great, but it was captial-I Important, too. When you’ve channeled the anger and fear and pride of an entire social movement (Black Lives Matter), taken the leap into critical sainthood, maintained your rep among purists as the best writer in rap, and done it while also racking up awards and selling a ton of records, it’s hard for people to not want to bring you down a peg. TPAB ended up with a 96 on Metacritic in 2015. My guess is DAMN. settles somewhere in the mid-80s, and you hear a lot of “still excellent, but doesn’t hit the heights of its predecessor” kinds of reviews.
Fearless Prediction #3: No fewer than three rappers will change their names and move to other countries after hearing DAMN. for the first time.
Kendrick’s first album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, took stock of his relationship to his hometown and the family and friends who populated it. To Pimp a Butterfly took stock of the world (or at least the America) surrounding it. My guess is that DAMN. will touch on some of the same themes that those albums addressed, but if “The Heart Part 4” and “HUMBLE” are any indication, this one’s gonna take aim at Kendrick’s profession, with the express purpose of putting the title of “Greatest Rapper Alive” (which Kendrick already holds) so far beyond the reach of his contemporaries that all they can do is tip their caps and go back to whatever life awaits them on the other side of the Kendrick-pocalypse. Part of claiming that crown, though, is by using your work to knock your closest competitors down a peg. It’s not enough to just get good reviews and win awards, you have to assert dominance in your verses. If there was any doubt before DAMN., there won’t be afterward.
Fearless Prediction #4: The U2 feature won’t suck as much as my gut is telling me it will.
Listen, I love Joshua Tree. And War and Achtung, Baby and even All That You Can’t Leave Behind. But let’s be honest: U2’s best work is behind them, probably by about 15 years. So needless to say, when I saw that they’d be one of just two features (along with Rihanna) on the entire album, I was surprised. And kind of bummed. One of the reasons I enjoy Kendrick’s work so much is because he doesn’t stuff his albums full of guest spots from other artists. It’s his vision, front to back, and I don’t want a U2 feature to distract from what we’re all tuning in to hear. But you know what? I have faith that Kendrick knows what he’s doing, and I have to believe that he’s going to use U2’s contribution only insofar as it makes the music better. And who knows, maybe Bono and co. will get reinvigorated by working with K-dot (as the kids say). We can hope, right?
Fearless Prediction #5: A UK basketball player will get a mention at some point.
OK, so this is by far the riskiest of my fearless predictions, but fortune favors the bold, so, you know, I’m rolling with it. Kendrick is a basketball fan, and he name-checked Russell Westbrook in “The Heart Part 4,” so the possibility that one of BBN’s own ends up on a track isn’t that far-fetched. Smart money is on John Wall, but don’t sleep on Boogie Cousins. Devin Booker is a sneaky dark horse. Skal is 5000 to 1.