Kendrick Lamar – “DAMN.”

(Photo Credit: TDE/Interscope/Aftermath)Grade: A

Key Tracks: “DNA.” “HUMBLE.”

One of the hottest debates of the past two years has been, ‘how will Kendrick Lamar follow up To Pimp A Butterfly?’ Last year’s mini-offering “untitled unmastered.” was an extension of that album, with verses and tracks that were cut from that behemoth. Of course, since it’s Kendrick, it wasn’t minute-long outtakes, it was fully formed songs, and even the mini-release had serious flow to it. But now we have a proper answer to the question, in “DAMN.”

“DAMN.” is an interesting album in that it almost feels forgettable on the first listen. In a lot of ways, it feels like a regular old hip-hop album, and if it were released by a different artist, it might sound more like a mission statement. But you have to factor in the approach – Kendrick couldn’t follow up “TPAB” with an equal masterpiece; masterpieces are almost never followed up with things of equal brilliance. And he, like many musicians before him, understood this. “DAMN.” is much more simplistic than “To Pimp A Butterfly” is, because it aims to fight an entirely different opponent than its predecessor. Look at the covers alone – “TPAB”‘s cover was a group of people, standing in front of the White House, in a B&W photo. “DAMN.”‘s cover is the opposite – just Kendrick by a brick wall, in harsh lighting with harsh colors.

“DAMN.” is a deeply religious album. Biblical lines pop up on nearly every track. Some of the seven deadly sins come up as track titles: “LUST.” and “PRIDE.” It is worth noting, though, that both tracks are followed up by (respectively), “LOVE.” and “HUMBLE.” The biggest difference between “DAMN.” and “To Pimp a Butterfly” is restraint. Both in flow, and in production, this album feels caged. This isn’t a critique – “To Pimp A Butterfly” was such an unhinged album that it practically demanded an antithesis. There was no saying what each track on that album would hold. But “DAMN.” feels more secure, in some ways. While the insecurity and illness factors are still present, they’re more subdued by religion and family.

You might want to see this as a more “down to earth” hip-hop album. And if so, you might be looking for hip-hop beef. It’s here. The most obvious example is a beef with Jay-Z. On “GOD.,” Kendrick raps, “I’m sellin’ verses, Jay-Z, watch me work it, JT.” I’m not sure where this feud started, and it seems to be one-sided on Kendrick’s part, but taking on a king is still impressive. He threw an equally palpable dig at Jay-Z on “The Heart Part IV,” released prior to the album. He also digs at Big Sean, his former collaborator. “ELEMENT.” opens with Kendrick repeating the line “I dont give a fuck,” the title of one of Big Sean’s biggest hits. Throwing the phrase away in the intro could be a diss. And as always, his most interesting and subliminal disses remain with Drake. There are no surface-level beefs with Drake on this album, but there are hints. Booking Rihanna for “LOYALTY.,” a song in which a first-person narrator beats another man up, seems like a Drizzy dig. Also, his flow on “YAH.” sounds almost distinctly like Drake’s. It can’t be coincidence. The best digs, though, come early – Kendrick takes a track to directly respond to incomprehensible criticisms leveled at him from incomprehensible human Geraldo Riviera. On his FOX News (ugh) show last year, Riviera responded to Kendrick’s incendiary Grammy’s performance (of an optimistic song) by blaming him (specifically) for violence in the black youth community. It didn’t make sense.

This album might be polarizing to some fans. Much of the jazzier elements of “TPAB” are thrown by the wayside, in favor of more concrete and standard beats. That doesn’t make Lamar any less powerful, Lamar can turn just about any song into a spiraling nightmare (save that collaboration with Maroon 5 that was clearly a paycheck job).

So, to answer the bigger looming question, is Kendrick dropping another album? He might be. The conspiracy theories run Alex Jones deep, but because this is Kendrick, there’s no reason to believe he doesn’t have something up his sleeve. I can’t work anyone up, for fear that it isn’t even an idea on K-Dot’s part. But a new album three days later would be revolutionary. “DAMN.” is religious through-and-through, and releasing it on Good Friday might fit into Kendrick’s religious stance. But whether we get another release or not, we’ll be talking about “DAMN.” for a long time. I don’t think it’ll go down in the history books quite like “TPAB” probably will, but it’s still a powerful, volatile and demanding album.

-By Andrew McNally

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Rihanna – “ANTI”

(Photo courtesy of Roc Nation Records)Grade: C+

Key Tracks: “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” “Higher”

After months of teasing, delays (and rumored Adele delays), fights over the rights to the songs, and non-album singles, Rihanna’s long-awaited 8th album “ANTI” is finally here. It’s her first album since 2012 – by far the longest break in her career. Her first seven came out between ’05 and ’12, with ’08 the only year without a release. Even if it was delayed, the launch was haphazard; she dropped the Drake-duet “Work” as a single, and someone at Tidal accidentally put the whole album up. So this afternoon she released the whole thing for free. It was the same mistake that Kendrick Lamar went through with “To Pimp a Butterfly,” except that this album more relates to the haphazard way it was released.

The disparity between “FourFiveSeconds” and “Bitch Better Have My Money” hinted that “ANTI” might have a mixed feel to it. The former song was a somewhat tender and unexpected triplet with Kanye and Sir Paul McCartney. The latter was minimalistic, but brutal and throne-grabbing (and made our list of the ten best songs of 2015). And indeed, “ANTI” bathes itself in ideas, never fully committing to any of them. The album’s midsection is the weak point. “Desperado,” “Needed Me” and “Yeah, I Said It,” are all tracks that meander through basic rhythms, feeling unfinished and unrelated to anything else going on. Likewise, Rihanna’s lyrics don’t always complement her changing musical styles. They’re also relatively inconsistent, although she can still make simple drug songs sound exciting.

There are glimmers of greatness on “ANTI.” “Consideration” and “Woo” are both great scratchy, dancehall tracks. And the 6:37 “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” an unexpected cover of the Tame Impala song from last year, is a fully-realized, dreamy journey that improves on its source material. After that track, the album closes on four songs closer to ballads, most of which could have fit on earlier Rihanna albums, but all of which are great. Closer “Close to You” has a particularly affecting piano line.

There’s only two guests on the album, both effective. Rihanna plays off of SZA very well in opener “Consideration,” and “Work” is another notch in the Rihanna/Drake collab canon. Another note is standout “Higher,” which clicks in at just one second past two minutes, but is one of the best vocal songs she’s ever delivered. It’s a moment, a quick one, of sheer vulnerability from the normally zipped-up singer.

The problem with “ANTI” is that her intentions are unclear. At times, she wants to go in new directions and at others, she’s content doing what she’s been doing. The album would be stronger if it committed more fully to any of its ideas, but instead it meanders and becomes very inconsistent. The scratchy tracks are my personal favorites, but there are different takeaways from the album. It is as inconsistent in quality as it is tone, and although the production is great (with a long producer list), it feels like a partially-finished puzzle. Rihanna is trying to change her musical path, I think that’s been obvious for a little while, so whatever comes next could be more complete. But this album, her first without any real bangers, feels like a bad idea with many good, small ideas inside of it.

-By Andrew McNally

Future – “Honest”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “My Momma” “Benz Friendz (Whatchutola)”

Future’s second album isn’t entirely filled with winners, but it’s certainly unpredictable. Future, aka Nayvadius Cash, uses some brooding and synthy music to create a dark atmosphere around his music. But at the same time, it’s rhythmic and full of catchy hip-hop beats and occasional meaty samples. It matches the lyrics, which alternate between dirty and explicit to nods to personal struggles.

“Honest” could almost be described as “moody,” because of it’s seemingly inherent dark nature, but the title wouldn’t be right. The album is deceiving. Although it has many honest moments (hence the title), Future creates a unique and well-rounded atmosphere, one that’s human, with qualities both good and bad. The music’s dark but palpable nature not only reflects that, but it’s consistent throughout the album.

Future’s rapping remains the best part of his music, often frantic and unpredictable. He has a knack for dropping words in at select moments and creating his own vocal rhythms alternate to the music. It contributes to the trippy feel, with sometimes competing rhythms. Lyrically, Future is in complete control. He switches from explicit, like on opener “Look Ahead,” and on single “Move That Dope,” to tales of divorce settlements and upbringings (the affecting “I Won” and the personal “My Momma”).

He also has some A-list guest stars, who drop in for some inconsistent but sometimes great spots – Andre 3000 drops in on one the album’s best songs, “Benz Friends (Whatchutola),” and Wiz Khalifa guests on one of the most honest songs, “My Momma.” Drake and Kanye both show up, the former providing a memorable but short spot on an interlude, the latter contributing the album’s deepest story, “I Won.” Elsewhere, Pharrell, Casino and Pusha T are largely wasted on the overlong and tepid “Move That Dope,” but even securing their spots cements Future’s stance in the future of hip-hop. The only time the album sags is it’s midpoint, with a couple straight songs without guest spots, but it’s saved by the rich solo track “Covered in Money” and the collaboration with Andre 3000.

*One small issue I want to address with the album is that “Look Ahead” samples Amadou & Mariam’s “Dougou Badia,” and the duo seems to be getting no credit for their sample. I usually don’t pick up on things like this, but the sample is used as the whole basis of the song. They might have chosen not to get credit, I have no idea, I just want to put credit where credit is due because I defend Amadou & Mariam at all costs. Otherwise, “Honest” is a great album that creates a whole world without getting stuck in it, and helps to prove that Future’s name is well-chosen – he seems to be ahead of everyone else right now.

-By Andrew McNally

Beyonce – “Beyonce”

(Photo Credit: thisisrnb)

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Mine” “Flawless”

Long live the queen. Beyonce caused an internet explosion the other night by nonchalantly dropping sixteen new songs (and videos) on iTunes, with no promotion or even any announcements. How no one knew it was going to happen is still astounding. Magazines and websites have taken down their year-end lists and re-tooled them accordingly. She is in no way the first to do it, Death Grips did the exact same just a few weeks back (also with video – and there’s was free), but this album is different. Its lack of a title and unannounced release back up the album’s theme of self-confidence and self-realization. At sixteen songs and a few minutes past an hour, it doesn’t always keep the listener interested, but it’s diverse sonically and consistent thematically.

This album is a little tough to classify. It’s pop, it’s R&B, it’s hip-hop. But unlike most genre-mixes like this, “Beyonce” has a mission statement, bringing lessons about mixing fun and family with a feminist touch. Beyonce has been married since ’08, and she sings a message about being independent within a marriage. There’s tracks about partying, tracks about a strong, independent composure and still, on “Drunk On Love,” lines about remedial marriage chores like doing the dishes. “Beyonce” is devoted to teaching feminism as an internal motivator, teaching that it is as much about self-confidence as it is equality. The album’s lyrics don’t always hold up, but when she is upfront (especially in the album’s latter half), they’re very strong.

There’s only five guest spots across sixteen songs on the album, cementing the album as a Beyonce effort – she’s front and center (as if we were unsure of it at all). Frank Ocean’s majestic talent is again wasted in a meaningless role, as it was on John Mayer’s recent album. But Drake shines in the very respectful song “Mine,” where he takes both a rhythmic background and a strong forefront in his verses. The other three guest spots hardly constitute as “guest spots” – Jay-Z gets a verse in “Drunk On Love,” as song about their marriage, Blue Ivy Carter’s voice is mysteriously droned in a finale song about Blue Ivy Carter, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gets sampled reading her poem, “We Should All Be Feminists” on “Flawless.”

So Beyonce establishes herself as the queen we already saw her is. The promotion works, the well-placed guest spots work, and her lyrical narrative is largely strong. Is the music actually good? Yes. Of course it is. Bey raps on “Drunk On Love,” and raps well. She boasts “I sneezed on a beat and the beat got sicker” on “Yonce.” She’s alternately sweet, on “Superpower,” booming on “Rocket,” pained on “No Angel,” and funky on the Pharrell-produced “Blow.” In other words, she’s human. She has a bunch of inconsistent and complementing emotions, that come through in a set of consistent beliefs. She believes in herself; she believes in all of us. “Beyonce” isn’t so much an album as it is a reflection of Beyonce as a person. Which is probably why the nameless album has been dubbed “Beyonce.” In a world filled with celebrity feuds, drama and boasts, Beyonce and Jay-Z have established themselves as the power couple – rich, powerful, respectfully boastful, and talented, while remaining focused on family and marriage. But Jay-Z’s 2013 contribution was a forgettable release, while “Beyonce” is not. It’s doubtful that they’re competing at all, but if they are, then Beyonce is winning.

-By Andrew McNally

Eminem – “The Marshall Mathers LP 2”

(Photo Credit: http://www.hiphopdx.com)

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Rap God,” “Evil Twin”

Sequels are bold claims. Sequels can seem like an easy way to grab an audience. “Hey, you liked it the first time, how about we do it all again?” But sequels demand the same quality as their predecessor, and rarely deliver. For every “Terminator 2″, there’s three “MIIB”s. You could argue that this is Em’s third sequel – “Recovery” followed “Relapse,” “The Eminem Show” was followed by “Encore.” But this one’s different, for two reasons. The first LP came out in 2000, and it’s been a long 13 years since then. Also, there’s the title – fans were expecting another messy and jaw-dropping album of Eminem rapping about himself and how he is about to fly off the rails. And, well, he delivers. In fact, he delivers almost completely consistently in what’s one of the best rap albums of the year, hands down.

What made Eminem so popular (and controversial) in the ’90′s was his mixing of humor and very, very violent lyrics. And this LP, nostalgia or not, is full of both. He comes out of the gate on a 7+ minute opening track “Bad Guy” threatening to bury two different people alive in a song where he twice gets to a screaming level. There’s a sound effect of him killing people in a skit that follows. On one of the better tracks, “Brainless,” he laments on how if he had been smarter growing up, he would’ve become a criminal (and namedrops plenty of famous ones). And in the intense and affecting finale, “Evil Twin,” he raps about growing up with his wild anger tendencies. Even at 41, his internal anger issues still sound horrifyingly believable.

But it’s not all violent – there’s humor, both dark and laughable. The deliriously enjoyable “So Far…” sees him rapping about being approached by fans when he’s trying to do remedial tasks like take out the trash (not clean his closet, unfortunately), all set over a sample of Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good.” He raps like Yoda over a sample of the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” on the song “Rhyme or Reason.” And the namedrops and references are as on par as they were in the 90′s. He quotes the famous magnets line from Insane Clown Posse’s “Miracle.” There’s just an endless supply of clever lines. “I’m Lysol / I’m household” is one of my favorites.

The album is not without it’s faults – two major ones. The first is the length. This album is 16 songs and 78 minutes. I can see why it was never cut down, nearly every song is gold and not a single moment is wasted, but it still feels far too long. A premium edition of the album runs at 21 songs. This may actually warrant a double album, because none of these songs should be cut out. The other problem lies, surprisingly, in the production. It’s slick, of course, but the music behind Eminem is often just loud enough that it’s tough to actually hear the man himself. With Dr. Dre’s (still alive) and Rick Rubin’s names all over the album, it’s pretty disappointing that the balance is off so frequently.

One six-minute track on this album is called “Rap God.” That’s a boastful claim, but that’s what this album is – it’s Eminem. He’s running the show. His rapping sounds better than it ever has, even in his early years. There’s one point in the song where he’s rapping so fast that Twista is being put to shame (remember him?). Em’s name is on the album’s title for a reason. There’s only a handful of guest spots – two from Skylar Grey, one from Nate Ruess (of fun.), a forgettable re-pairing with Rihanna, and one with Kendrick Lamar. Lamar – who is seen as a rapidly rising star – is the only other rapper here, and he’s kept in place by a more wild Eminem. We may have written Em off, or even forgotten about him, but there’s no denying he’s back. And he’s still rap royalty. “The Marshall Mathers LP 2″ isn’t perfect, but as far as sequels go, it’s bordering on “Godfather Part II” in a world of “Police Academy 6″s.

If you like this, try: Kanye and Jay-Z have abandoned their throne – it’s open. Em’s return was surprising, but one of the other viable candidates, Drake, is just as moody, shocking and thought-provoking. I recommend his very recent “Nothing Was the Same.”

Drake – “Nothing Was the Same”

(Photo Credit: defpenradio.com)

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Tuscan Leather,” “Own It”

Contrary to Drake’s previous albums, and most albums by any known rapper, there is only one major guest spot on “Nothing Was the Same”. And it feels very, very deliberate. Jay-Z shows up on the album’s last track, “Pound Cake / Paris Morton Music 2″ for a lengthy guest verse. This placement signifies something, a very boastful claim. With Kanye West’s “Yeezus” outcasting him from Top 40 radio and commercial hits, and with Jay-Z’s “Magna Carta Holy Grail” being a massive and unpopular stumble, this leaves the throne at the top of hip-hop suddenly open. Drake, already immensely popular, has laid claim to it. It’s a bold risk for a young musician, but the combination of emotions displayed across 2011′s “Take Care” and “Nothing Was the Same” prove that he might just be the next hip-hop king. Jay-Z’s verse feels like a bowing out, relinquishing the throne while still promising not to fade away.

The album’s first track, “Tuscan Leather,” is over six minutes long and self-aware about it’s length. Twice he raps, “How long this n***a gonna spend on the intro?” His self-parodying is dripping with boldness – he acts as a critic, gawking at Drake’s unconventional song structures. The rest of the track is mainly claims about wealth and luxury, fairly typical claims but ones that are made believable just by sheer effort on Drake’s part. And this song sets the album’s tone – unconventional song structures, and surprisingly effective effort and emotion from Drake. The complex man that we know – half sad and misunderstood, half rich celebrity – is the same man that comes through on “Nothing Was the Same.”

Boasts about having millions come alongside musings to figuring out your true friends on an album that’s often slightly unsettling. Love songs are honest and devastatingly poetic, and the boast songs always come close to overboard without ever reaching. Songs blend together instead of standing alone. When “Own It” ends and “Worst Behavior” starts, whisperings of the words ‘Own It’ continue in the background. And Drake knows when to take rapping to the backseat – slower songs are half-sung, decently. And an occasional guest spot from relative unknowns break up the tone. Jhene Aiko is more of a presence on “From Time” than Drake is, his rapping coming secondary to her singing.

Drake has a strong personality, and it helps to add depth to what might be an otherwise average rap album. It suffers from typical tempo issues, but it is lyrically original and honest, as Drake becomes the semi-reluctant heir to the hip-hop throne. Kanye and Jay-Z seem willing to step aside, at least for the time being, and leave their throne to their younger prodigy.

-By Andrew McNally