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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Beyonce – “Lemonade”

(Photo Credit: honourmymystique.com)Grade: A

Key Tracks: “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” “Freedom,” “Formation”

Beyonce’s previous album, one of the only albums that I’ve felt deserved a self-title, was a masterpiece ode to love, sex, celebrity and family. And it’s release was revolutionary, the kind previously reserved to more predictably innovative acts like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails. So expectations were high coming in to her next album, and although we’ve gotten an entirely different album than what we expected, it’s every bit as good, if not better, than expectations.

“Beyonce” felt like she was opening the doors into the private life of her and Jay-Z, into a world we shouldn’t really be hearing. The album was like we were all the winners of a Golden Ticket, getting a brief look inside the magic world of music’s most powerful couple. Well, this album also feels like something we shouldn’t be hearing, but for the opposite reason. “Lemonade” is full of personal clapbacks aimed at Jay, with the lyrics stopping just short of specifically telling us he’s cheated, and with whom (it was Becky with the good hair, who is supposedly Rita Ora). It is an emotional and personal roller coaster, with as much revenge as regret. Jay-Z might be one of the richest and most powerful men in entertainment, but no one can wrong Bey and get away with it.

There are memorable lines across nearly every song on “Lemonade.” She wastes no time in addressing the issue, on the ballad opener “Pray You Catch Me,” singing “You can taste the dishonesty / It’s all over your breath.” On the follow-up “Hold Up,” she laments being in her position, saying “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy?” before deciding that she’s already been jealous, so she’s choosing crazy. Indeed, the album might feel a little crazy, with nearly every song serving as a very public response to a very private issue. But it also serves as part of the album’s identity, as an ode to black women. Anyone can – and should – listen to “Lemonade,” but it isn’t an album designed for everyone. There’s no proper radio bangers, and it’s intentional. If there were, we wouldn’t all be listening to the message. By developing her own marital problems, she addresses issues of women, occasionally black women, and puts them in a context that’s often pushed against in media. It’s been an interesting trend over the years, as Beyonce has voluntarily become a voice for black pride. This continues here in just about every context – musically, lyrically, historically and visually.

If she sounds frustrated on the first two tracks, then she’s totally over it on the next two. “Don’t Hurt Yourself” has some of the album’s most blatant lines – “You ain’t married to no average bitch, boy / You can watch my fat ass twist, boy / As I bounce to the next dick, boy” – that quell any notion that she has been singing from a fictional POV. She wrote a diss track about her own husband. I mean c’mon, that’s incredible. And it drags onwards into “Sorry,” which is not an apology for anything (nor should it be). “Now you wanna say you’re sorry / Now you wanna call me crying” she sings, holding it over Jay’s head. Elsewhere, on “Sandcastles,” she laments, “I know I promised that I couldn’t stay / Every promise don’t work out that way.” The album’s best line goes to “Love Drought”: “Nine times out of ten I’m in my feelings / But ten times out of nine I’m only human.”

Musically, the album is kind of all over the place. It needs to be, it highlights Bey processing a terrible thing and going through a range of emotions. What this album successfully tries to show is that, at the end of the day, she’s as human as the rest of us. She might sound justified, only to come off as too angry or too forgiving, because she’s not perfect.

The collaborators and co-writers are key to understanding the diverse music. She often reflected the styles of her collaborators on her self-titled album, namely Drake and Jay. It was done then because of the album’s secrecy. On “Lemonade,” it is done out of appreciation. The album is about appreciation – of yourself but more so, of others. And if the lyrics are multi-faceted, so are the collaborators. Jack White nails an appearance on “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” a blues-rock tune. “Freedom” is about black pride and is easily the most intense track, unsurprisingly featuring Kendrick Lamar. James Blake pops up on an interlude that is really just a James Blake song. The Weeknd turns “6 Inch,” a song about identity, into one of the album’s smoothest. She reflects all of their styles out of appreciation for their own work. Animal Collective and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs get songwriting credits for lyrics taken from their songs (on “6 Inch” and “Hold Up,” respectively). And “Hold Up” features co-author credits from EDM superstar Diplo and indie singers Ezra Koenig and Father John Misty. Going even further, Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, Jerome “Doc” Pomus & Mort Shuman, Burt Bacharach and “Prisoner 22” show up in the sample credits.

The music is as much of a journey as the lyrics, with all of the above artists contributing their own sounds. “6 Inch” is sultry, “Forward” is an electro-ballad, “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is a blues-rock kicker, and “Hold Up” sounds like what a Beyonce song written by indie singers would sound like. “Daddy Lessons,” one of the only songs about something other than her husband’s infidelity, starts with a New Orleans jazz sound before transitioning into an ode to her father, with a country-esque backdrop (taking in her Houston heritage). It sits right at the album’s midpoint, a standout that shows how divisive the album’s feel can be. And early single but visual-album afterthought “Formation” sounds (and looks) like New Orleans.

This was an album that no one was expecting, about an incident that we had only ever speculated about. But it’s an album we need – an affirmation for women who have been cheated on, and a call to arms for black women around the world. It’s not like black pride and feminism are new topics for Beyonce, far from it. But it’s the personality she’s decided to mold herself into that has allowed her to become such a powerful force in the world socially. The music has helped that, too. We don’t know what’s in store for the Jay/Bey marriage, but given the quality and rapidity of his music lately – or lack thereof – she may have just driven a nail into the coffin of his music career. And she did it with one of the albums of the year.

-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

Jay-Z – “Magna Carta Holy Grail”

Photo Credit: hypetrak.com

Grade: C-

Key Tracks: “Jay Z Blue,” “Oceans”

“Watch the Throne,” the rap experiment from Jay-Z and Kanye West in 2011 must have left a mark on both performers. Both Jay and Kanye released albums this summer that showed growth and change as performers. But where Kanye’s “Yeezus” was a tormented work of introspective loyalty and political consciousness, “Magna Carta Holy Grail” is just an album of basic beats and repetitive lyrics about Jay-Z’s wealth. Jay-Z is said to be worth about $500 million alone, plus the wealth of his equally-famous wife, Beyonce. His ‘change’ is a further disconnect from his own fans, where his constant rapping about European vacation destinations sounds more like bragging to an audience than typical lyrical boasts. Rap & hip-hop is typically a young man’s game, and with Jay’s 43 years bringing him twelve platinum albums and partial ownerships in a nightclub chain and a professional basketball team, he is officially too far into the entrepreneurial world to sound fresh and real in the hip-hop world.

The album is not all bad. “Part II (On the Run)” features typically amazing work from Beyonce, and “BBC” is a fun song because of it’s guest spots: Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, Nas, Pharrell, and Swizz Beatz. “Jay Z Blue” is a brutally honest song about his daughter, and how he fears comparisons to his own father who was never around but for very different reasons. And “Oceans” features a well-placed guest spot from Frank Ocean, on a song about the film “Ocean’s 11″ being a metaphor for Jay’s accumulation of wealth.

Some tracks are just bad. The opener “Holy Grail” which also features Timberlake, is a bombastic call for receiving a legendary status, as Jay and JT channel Kurt Cobain and harmonize on an amended version of the chorus to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Not only does it sound bad, and not only does Jay already have the legendary status that he is attempting to claim to himself, but it is that kind of fame that led Cobain to suicide in the first place. The song is a dramatic misreading of Nirvana. “Somewhere in America” is the album’s worst track. Hova raps about how he’s good at math because he can count his money and than randomly mentions Miley Cyrus twerking. The song sounds like Jay freestyling a joke song in the studio and adding serious beats to it to make it a real track.

Other than the feeble Nirvana reference, there are some delightfully surprising references and soundclips on the album. Sinatra and Johnny Cash get reworkings that work much better than Cobain’s. M.I.A. and R.E.M. also get references. The most surprising, and haunting, is a soundclip from “Mommie Dearest” that leads in to “Jay Z Blue.” Where the album has some interesting references and clips, it is lacking in guest spots. A majority of the songs are just Jay-Z, and with the repetitive lyrics, it starts to get pretty old pretty quickly. Overall, “Magna Carta Holy Grail” is a very safe album that takes no chances whatsoever and sounds disconnected and pointless because of it. Hova is just too far out of reality to relate to any listener besides those that already appear on the money-drenched album.

One final note: the album was famously released to Samsung Galaxy users a week ahead of time. This irked me in two ways. As a Galaxy user who downloaded the album, I had to sign away the rights to all of my personal privacy in order to get the album. I’m personally expecting a bodyguard to show up at my door soon after I publish this and question why I didn’t like the album. With the NSA leaks and Hova’s past songs against privacy concerns, this didn’t even make sense. Also, I didn’t even get the album until Saturday, something like four days after I was supposed to, which almost negated the point entirely. Even then, the app died twice throughout playing the album. The album is already platinum and Jay already has millions because of it, but at what cost to his fans?

In conclusion, here’s a screenshot from the commercial that advertised the album that accurately sums up the problems:

Jay-Z is, at the end of the day, an adult father. And at the end of the day, this was an album that was advertised on television.

-By Andrew McNally