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New recordings: Kendrick Lamar, The Chainsmokers [The Philadelphia Inquirer :: BC-MUS-ALBUMS:PH]

Kendrick Lamar


(Top Dawg Entertainment (ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)1/2)

Kendrick Lamar keeps it elemental on his fourth album and first proper release since 2015's acclaimed "To Pimp a Butterfly."

All song titles on the album are stylized as one word in all caps. And though Lamar's rapid-fire, rhythmically intricate rhyming attack is very much in effect, the songs focus on essential, straight-to-the-point issues. "HUMBLE.," the first single, in which the 29-year-old rapper at once emphasizes his excellence and warns against the perils of hubris, is preceded by the cautionary "PRIDE." Elsewhere, "LUST." is followed by "LOVE.," and "FEAR.," is preceded by "GOD."

There's not a song called "FATE.," but the closing "DUCKWORTH.," produced by 9th Wonder, explores that concept with a story about how Top Dawg exec Anthony Tiffith once held up a fast-food franchise where Lamar's father worked. He talked the gunman down with an offer of free meals, thus making it possible for his son - whose full name is Kendrick Lamar Duckworth - to later rhyme "chicken incident" with "whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence?"

"DAMN." is very much a personal statement: It's marked by the seriousness of purpose and self-analytical streak that's present in everything Lamar does and informed the whole of "TPAB" and "Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City." But it also finds Lamar more comfortable working in the commercial rap realm than he's been. It moves around stylistically rather than leaning heavily on the organic jazz-funk-hip-hop sound that defined "TPAB," and brings in big-name producers like Miley Cyrus-enabler Mike Will Made-It, moody Brit producer James Blake, and Adele associate Greg Kurstin, along with rising stars like 18-year-old Steve Lacey, who made the "PRIDE." beat on his iPhone.

On "LOYALTY.," Rihanna teams up with Lamar for (surprisingly) the first time. Rather than provide a powerhouse vocal hook, however, she sing-raps along with Lamar on the verses on the effectively woozy track before taking the song out with a declaration suitable for both of them: "It's so hard to be humble."

The other extremely well-known act on "DAMN." is one who might seem out of place on an album in which too much hubris is considered a bad thing: U2. The hip-hop world was nervous when word got out that the Irish rock band would be featured on "XXX." The music site Stereogum wondered whether the track "would be the most self-righteous song of all time?"

It isn't. Instead, it's subtle and employs a sweeping Bono vocal in a way that never threatens to overwhelm the song. "XXX." does mean to say something serious about the state of the nation, education, and gun violence. "Johnny don't want to go to school no' mo' / Johnny said books ain't cool no' mo'," Lamar raps. "Johnny caught a body yesterday out hustlin' / God bless America, you know we all love him."

The Bono interlude comes in the second half of the song and adds to its ghostly, atmospheric feel. But rather than allow Bono to dominate the track, Lamar uses him as but one color in a many-hued musical palette on an album in which he can't help but demonstrate his supremacy no matter how hard he tries to be humble.

_Dan DeLuca


The Chainsmokers

"Memories ... Do Not Open"

(Disruptor/Columbia (ASTERISK)(ASTERISK))

The EDM-pop DJ/producer duo of Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall has turned all it touches into buzzing, methy, high-charting gold, starting with the dumb 2014 song "#Selfie" and 2016's dumber, lovelorn "Closer." That's the key to the Chainsmokers' success so far - dumb-headed, airy, contagious, synthetic pop with a glossy danceable vibe and self-serving emo-yearning lyrics.

It's both odd and emboldening then to see the Chainsmokers shifting their fast, furious hit-making sound from buoyant singles to something more soft-shoe-shuffling on this debut album. With the exception of the blip-electro-rocking "Break Up Every Night" (worst lyrics ever), the trap grooving "It Won't Kill Ya," and the densely chipper "Last Day Alive" (with the country duo Florida Georgia Line), Memories is atmospherically moody (lots of Satie-esque forlorn piano figures) and rhythmically cool with its weighty, emotional emphasis placed on doe-eyed narcissist romanticism. "Bloodstream," "Honest," and the gently carousing "Something Just Like This" (with Coldplay) are slower-in-tone, selfish love songs: love thyself and beware of strangers you can't sleep with then discard. But they're catchy - good, dumb, numb, and catchy.

_A.D. Amorosi


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