Kendrick Lamar’s first album in five years didn’t need hyping. All the Compton rapper did was announce the release date and that intriguing title a month ago, then put out one song last weekend, The Heart Part 5, which isn’t among these 18 new tracks. The cover, revealed on Wednesday, offered more clues to the themes: Lamar with his family (the new baby is called Enoch, he says on Worldwide Steppers), a crown of thorns on his head and a gun tucked into his trousers.
The 34-year-old has been a Christian since his teens and often seems serene, monk-like, next to the jostling egos of his peers. Some level of detachment must be essential when he is standardly called the greatest rapper of his generation, spoke the pain of all black America on his extraordinary 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly, then became the first musician outside the jazz and classical worlds to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music with the follow-up, Damn.
Here, he avoids the pressure of worldwide expectation, and all those imminent eyes on him when he finally headlines Glastonbury next month, by turning his focus deep, deep inwards. The noise of clicking shoes follows him across the album, because at one point a female voice orders him to “Stop tapdancing around the conversaton,” but in reality it feels like there is no subject he avoids.
From the opening song, United in Grief, he’s recalling murders he has known and admitting to regular appointments with a psychologist over stark, urgent beats and mournful piano. Father Time features a swooning chorus sung by Sampha (one of two reclusive Brits Lamar has unearthed on this album, alongside Beth Gibbons of Portishead) and sees the rapper confessing to “daddy issues” thanks to a tough, unsympathetic father.
The sound is less jazzy and restless than …Butterfly, and more varied and often softer than Damn. There are moments that qualify as poppy, especially on Die Hard, with its sweet chorus from Barbadian singer Amanda Reifer, and the crisp, lighter beats on Silent Hill. But there are also some tough listens.
We Cry Together depicts a furious argument between Lamar and his partner, played by actress Taylour Paige[CORRECT], during which she blames him for Donald Trump, R Kelly and Harvey Weinstein. Mother I Sober is an extraordinary exposure of emotion, exploring a family story of a child abuse accusation and expanding out to “The devastation haunting generations and humanity.”
There’s also likely to be a lot of attention given to Auntie Diaries, in which he talks through his gradual acceptance of two transgender family members. It’s light years away from the usual concerns of the hip hop world, and once again, Lamar is that far ahead of everyone else in the game.