Archive for April 2017

My review of Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN.”.

When assessing “DAMN.”, Kendrick Lamar’s new album, I think that the late, great Guru said it best. Back in 1998, on the chorus of ‘Moment of Truth’, he observed that:

 

“They say it’s lonely at the top in whatever you do

You always gotta watch motherfuckers around you

Nobody’s invincible, no plan is foolproof

We all must meet our moment of truth”

 

On Lamar’s latest effort, he finds himself sitting upon hip-hop’s mountaintop, only to find that though the view might be pleasant the seat is distinctly uncomfortable. When he released the LP’s leadoff single, “HUMBLE.”, the impression most listeners may have had was that he was telling his fellow MCs to know their place; however, upon several listens to “DAMN.”, it is clear that he was reserving the firmest admonitions for himself. This is a furiously introspective record, largely devoid of the immediate radio hits that Lamar has liberally sprinkled throughout his previous outings. That is, of course, a conscious choice; here, Lamar is sitting somewhere with his head just above the clouds, carefully composing his memoirs and occasionally allowing us to listen over his shoulder.

 

Of recent releases, this album is closest in mood to Frank Ocean’s “Blonde”; like Ocean, Lamar has opted for complex song structures with two or three phases, such as the rousing U2-featuring “XXX”. On that tune, Bono provides a surprisingly fitting accompaniment, one which makes you wonder how good a full track and not a mere fragment might have sounded.  Like “Blonde”, too, “DAMN.” has a range of gorgeous soundscapes.  At the beginning of  ‘ELEMENT’, there’s the moodiness of early Wu Tang. “DNA” shapeshifts into a trap-edged dancefloor monster. ‘PRIDE.’ has the type of chords you’d have expected to find on Tame Impala’s “Innerspeaker”, whilst both ‘LUST’ and ‘YAH’ have similarly psychedelic elements. These beats lend themselves particularly well to the album’s reflective content, which is preoccupied with the biblical sins – mostly to be found in the album’s tracklisting that Lamar is grappling with. These concepts – vanity, humility, loyalty – recur throughout the LP’s 55 minutes.

 

Early on, firmly establishing “DAMN.”’s religious theme, Lamar refers to himself as an “Israelite”; the implication being that African-Americans are in their country’s (racial?) wilderness, casting about for freedom and maybe redemption. This is slightly contentious ground, since it seemed to suggest that black people, in order to elevate themselves, must first set aside their arrogance; as it says in James 4:10, “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.” On first listen, this was an unfortunate echo of the respectability politics to be found in “The Blacker The Berry”, but we eventually see that Lamar is talking about his own uniquely inspiring journey. He has apparently become so surrounded by jealousy and sycophancy that he has fallen back on the support of his close friends and family, and on “FEEL,” arguably the LP’s standout track, he lists a bewildering array of problems and adversaries that his fame has attracted:

 

I feel like I’m boxin’ demons

Monsters, false prophets schemin’

Sponsors, industry promises

Niggas, bitches, honkies, crackers, Compton,

Church, religion, token blacks, and bondage

Lawsuit visits, subpoena served in concert

 

This roll call is in addition to his feud with Fox News, one of the only opponents he calls out by name; and it is notable that Lamar is so successful that now he no longer battles mere rappers, but entire institutions within the US media. Yet while Lamar speaks of his yearning to be better, he is at times still too firmly wedded to some old and unsettling habits. Writing for Buzzfeed, the journalist Tomi Obaro noted Lamar’s succinct analysis of misogyny in hip-hop:

 

“You scream at the person that’s closest to you….coming towards the woman next to you, or the women around. Like, ‘We can’t wife you, you’re just a thot.’ It’s from lack of opportunity.”

 

Given this profound self-awareness, it is a little disappointing to see Lamar lapse into lyrics such as “See, in a perfect world…I’ll choose work over bitches” – particularly since so many of his other lines encourage the empowerment of black women. Having said that, even the mostly enlightened Andre 3000, as he notes on Solo (Reprise), still has some way to go.

 

Of course, Lamar’s technique is spectacular on this record. His musical experimentation is as thrilling and sustained as, say, Pharoah Sanders on Olé; he does things with the artform that few could even think of attempting, let alone pulling off successfully. His flows on the aforementioned ‘XXX’ are so good that he even sounds gleeful halfway through, so easy does it appear. Though no other MCs appear on this record, emphasising the sense that he is a rapper in a class of his own, he again shows that he is a skilled collaborator, dovetailing beautifully with Rihanna on ‘Loyalty’. The sheer scale of his talent, and the degree to which he has already honed it, can frequently leave you in awe. Nowhere is this better in evidence than on “FEAR.”, where we are reminded movingly of just how far Lamar is come in just a few years – through the trauma of extreme violence both at home and upon his doorstep, after which the battlegrounds of rap must have been a funfair by comparison. (Indeed, on “DUCKWORTH.”, the album’s closer, we are informed that Lamar – but for an extraordinary quirk of fate – would not even be alive today.)

 

It is, I think, highly arguable that that this record does not represent as great a leap forward as did “Good kid, mAAd city” and “To Pimp A Butterfly”.  To draw an analogy with Radiohead, if these albums were Lamar’s “OK Computer” and “Kid A”, then perhaps “DAMN.” is his “Hail To The Thief” – not his very best record, but still hugely accomplished. If this criticism seems unfair, then it is also a sign that Lamar’s primary competition is no longer with his peers – it is with history.  So much has he excelled that, at this point, each of his new releases should be judged against, say, Outkast’s “Aquemini”, and Lauryn Hill’s “Miseducation”. With this record, he remains at the summit of his art – but, crucially, there is a sense that there may yet be other musical peaks for him to climb.

On David Moyes and misogyny.

Following the news that David Moyes had threatened to slap a female reporter in return for questions that he found uncomfortable, I read an article on the subject by The Independent’s Ian Herbert, a writer whose work I regularly enjoy and share. His article began by noting that this was the not the first time that Mr. Moyes had acted this way, but then quickly took a disappointing direction. I quote in full:

It was in the 2012/13 season, in Moyes’ Everton days, that a woman had the temerity to ask a question which went against the grain of how he wanted a pre-match press conference to go, during the initial broadcasters’ section of the conversation. Moyes cut her down. There was a very uncomfortable moment, after the cameras and broadcasters had cleared and we got down to the more detailed untelevised discussion, when Moyes tried to break the ice in all-male company with a joke at the now departed woman’s expense. No-one wanted to be impolite but everyone stared at the floor.” (My italics.)

I have highlighted the above section because that section is unfortunately what people mean when they refer to the “boy’s club” of football. Football is a particularly insular sport, where access often is a journalist’s lifeblood, and some might argue that speaking out about misogyny in this context might see them barred from the club. Yet this does not negate the argument that to remain silent about Moyes’ remarks is to enable them.

Mr. Herbert continues:

That was not the only incident. He lost his temper with another woman journalist towards the end of his Everton time, though it was smoothed over. This correspondent didn’t report any of this, of course – just a reference to the conduct of a “top flight manager” a few seasons later. ” (My italics.)

The two words here, “of course”, are interesting. I don’t think it follows that a journalist, particularly not one as successful and respected as Mr. Herbert, would naturally ignore Moyes’ behaviour. He is a writer with the platform to have made a much bigger deal of this incident, but chose not to. I think that this article reads as a form of mea culpa – that the journalist could have done more to raise awareness about this at the time, but didn’t. The fact that he made a reference to the conduct of a top-flight manager shows that his conscience was clearly piqued – he clearly disapproved of Moyes’ conduct – but he and others did not take the risk to their own careers of speaking out as fully as they could.

Mr. Herbert, referring to another incident involving the former France international Laurent Blanc, describes the scenario thus:

Just a laugh, a flustered press officer, a woman who wants to be anywhere but that room, and the gilded football world packs up and moves on.

This, I think, is the problem. Mr. Herbert is a part of that football world, an integral part; he has worked his way up the precarious ladder, and taking too bold a stand would see him sent toppling from it. But nothing changes if we as journalists – particularly male ones – are not more forceful in our critiques. Mr. Herbert seems to drawing this conclusion when he writes that:

You only have to play back the footage of Moyes to hear something infinitely more threatening and deeply unpleasant about his words and their escalating sense of menace…Since when does a football manager threaten to slap one of the vast male majority? The unwritten message was “because you’re a woman.” And it didn’t stop there. “Careful the next time you come in,” he told Sparks.

This paragraph, on the face of it, is utterly damning. Physical violence is apparently something with which Moyes would only threaten a woman. The message seems to be clear – that football is essentially a man’s game and a woman speaks out of turn at her peril. Come into the club and try that again, and you’ll get what’s coming to you.

With this in mind, I find Mr. Herbert’s closing thoughts extremely confusing.

So now we reach the question of whether this episode should bring Moyes the sack and the answer, despite all of the above, is surely: ‘No.’ Women journalists despise the conduct of an individual like this but they want to be involved in the same cut and thrust as every male journalist who goes up against managers with as little self-control as Moyes. Dismissal will make many other managers inclined to make women a special case. Nobody wants thatDismissal is not necessary to demonstrate that Moyes is yesterday’s man.

I can’t speak for female journalists. What I can say is – based upon Mr. Herbert’s own writing, just a paragraph before – that no matter how bad the cut and thrust a male journalist might face against Moyes, it is not a cut and thrust which involves the threat of physical violence.  It is a danger that Mr. Herbert, and I, and my other male peers will never have to face – if anything, Moyes has made a special case for men like us, because we know that as much as we annoy him he will not suggest striking us. Put simply, a male journalist doesn’t have to go into work facing the fear of being assaulted by a football manager. Why, then, should a female journalist be exposed to that risk?

In short, I think that Mr. Herbert has actually made an excellent case for David Moyes’ dismissal. He just doesn’t seem to realise it.