Kendrick Lamar has an iconic discography — so iconic that it somehow manages to stay unmarred by his shaky collaboration history. Taylor Swift, Adam Levine, Robin Thicke and Imagine Dragons all successfully recruited him for their tracks — we couldn’t have composed a more unfortunate list if we tried.
However, on “DAMN.” Lamar has total creative control of his collaborations and the results are anything but embarrassing as he somehow incorporates U2 into a siren-heavy banger, unknown Zacari into a heartthrob and Rihanna into her best self.
The best evidence for Kendrick Lamar’s dominance is that his perfect foil is Rihanna. Not only has she been a bona fide pop star for more than a decade, she followed her best album yet with appearances on the year’s biggest rap projects. Her presence on “DAMN.” goes beyond the romantic counterpoint of “Selfish” and “Too Good.” She is referenced as a cautionary tale on “FEAR.,” an example of a young black star exploited by accountants. On “LOYALTY.,” she goes bar-for-bar with Kendrick over the thumping beat. The G-funk homage of the “24k Magic” talkbox overture is chopped up, pitched up, and reversed as bedrock for the heir to Dr. Dre’s legacy. Rihanna didn’t write her lyrics, but she sounds amazing spitting knotty brags like “I’m established, hundred carats on my name, run the atlas, I’m a natural.” The two rappers test each other. Rihanna was a “bad b—- way before any cash came,” so Kendrick asks if she’s still unconditional when the sports car won’t start. Riri only truly sings on the hook in tandem with Lamar, the repetition of the title ascending in pitch and excitement. It’s thrilling like driving too fast in a too nice car, the apex of a hill feeling like the top of the world. With “DAMN.,” Lamar has solidified his stardom alongside Rihanna. With any luck, this won’t be their last collaboration.
Sometimes you see a guy walk across the quad and can’t help but think “Who is he??” Usually it’s based on appearance, confidence or a nice printed shirt, not his vocals — so to feel immediately drawn to a voice based on a chorus without previous exposure, that’s an effective feature at its purest.
Sure, Lamar has done a few collaborations that seem solely based on exposure and profits, but Zacari is a spot of pure bliss, similar to Kanye West’s intro to Chance the Rapper on “Ultralight Beam.” Zacari is like a mix between Miguel and Justin Bieber, his lyrics are saturated and syrupy but somehow innocent. Zacari’s vocals could almost seem understated, but Lamar’s relentless cadence keeps them elevated. In an interview with Pitchfork, Zacari called “LOVE.” the beginnings of a “whole new genre,” even if that take is a bit too hot, it definitely introduces us to a new artist to watch.
U2 is featured on “DAMN.” over two-and-a-half minutes into the hard-hitting record-scratch and siren-ridden “XXX.” after Lamar announces it’s time to talk about gun control. No, really. The fact that this works proves Lamar’s knack for tight features when he is in charge. He rapped about tater-tots on Imagine Dragon’s “Radioactive,” but here he supremely matches croony dad rock to thumping beats and slumping drums.
Bono’s chorus raises a few questions about why Lamar chose to feature U2: Are the lyrics “this country is to be a sound of drum and bass” meant to represent U2’s popularity and over-arching, if outdated, discography? Was Bono chosen because he sang about violence and “murder in the street” both in the U.S. and Ireland in the 80s? I don’t have the answers, but I do have a new respect for U2 and Lamar’s collaboration tactics.