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

Wale – “The Gifted Season”

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “The Curse of the Gifted,” “Gullible (feat. Cee-lo Green)”

Washington D.C.-based rapper Wale is showing a lot of promise on his third official full-length, “The Gifted.” There is a feeling of maturity on the album, a sense that Wale wants to be taken seriously as a musician, which is a tough barrier for a young rapper to overcome. He is still young though, and a fun-loving sense of immaturity bleeds through the record, in really enjoyable ways. While some tracks are tight and serious, some are loose club jams, and they all blend together to make a diverse album where nearly every track stands out from the previous, even if some are not overly creative.

Wale toys with a few rap cliches on the album, all of which are gleefully effective. The album’s leadoff single, “Bad,” is the last track of the album. But a remix of the song (featuring Rihanna), shows up seven tracks earlier, and even though the two versions sound very similar, the remix serves as an actual track and not something tagged on the end to extend the album’s running time. The album’s title – “The Gifted” – is a play on egotism in rap (and the album dropped only one week after Kanye West’s “Yeezus”), as Wale’s goal for the album is to try to establish himself as a musician, not to gloat about his previous work and success. The album’s best cliche is the second-to-last track, where Wale teases at his next project. But instead of teasing at a proper duet, like Watch the Throne, he teases at “The Album About Nothing,” an album – that’s actually happening – that he is recording with Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld appears on the tease, showing up to the wrong recording. It’s a great moment that sets up an album that will probably be a great and glorious mess.

At seventy minutes, the album does feel long. It takes some effort to make it all the way through. Some fat could have been trimmed, and maybe one or two of the less mature tracks could have been cut. Getting to the track with Seinfeld and “Bad” is a pay-off at the end, but the album does not need to be as long as it is. Still, it is a solid and creative effort from a man trying to prove his place in the music world. I think he succeeds.

-By Andrew McNally