Of all the characteristics that set Kendrick Lamar apart — his blazing verbal gifts, his determined cultural politics, his resolute aesthetic modesty — perhaps the most unusual, especially in this era of hyper-connectedness, has been his particular blend of assuredness and indifference. Excepting the occasional sidelong shot at a peer — one that’s fired down from the top of the mount, really — it often sounds as if he needed to hear only his own ticktock for guidance.
But he has been listening all along, watching how others perceive him, feeling the shifts in their energy. That’s the Mr. Lamar who shows up on the tart and punchy “DAMN.,” his fourth studio album. This is a work of reactions and perceptions, a response to the sensations that come when the world is creeping in and you can’t keep it at bay any longer without lashing back.
Two of the most striking examples of this recur throughout “DAMN.” In one, Mr. Lamar samples Fox News commentators responding to his 2015 uplift anthem, “Alright,” with derision, including Geraldo Rivera’s suggesting that hip-hop is worse for black youth than racism (and Mr. Lamar addresses Mr. Rivera directly on “YAH.”).
In the other, Mr. Lamar repeatedly laments that those close to him have forsaken him: “Aint nobody prayin’ for me,” he intones several times on “FEEL.,” a sentiment he revisits elsewhere, and “FEAR.” is driven home with the use of a voice-mail message from a cousin of Mr. Lamar’s, who locates that feeling of isolation in biblical terms.
Taken in total, it’s clear — for Mr. Lamar, there’s nowhere to turn for trust, safety, peace.
And so on “DAMN.” he’s biting back, something that begins before the music even starts. The album and song titles are rendered in caps, with a period at the end. Defiant, controlled jabs. Exclamations without exclamation points. Mr. Lamar peers out from the album cover, focused and wary.
That continues on this sometimes boisterous, sometimes swampy, rarely fanciful album — it’s Mr. Lamar’s version of the creeping paranoia that has become de rigueur for midcareer Drake.
And yet this is likely Mr. Lamar’s most jubilant album, the one in which his rhymes are the least tangled — on several songs, he returns to the same phrase, for emphasis — and his stories here are the most pointed. On “FEEL.,” he’s watching his carefully stacked walls of protection begin to crumble:
I feel like friends been overrated
I feel like the family been faking
I feel like the feelings are changing
Feel like my daughter compromised and jaded
Feel like you wanna scrutinize how I made it
He trudges a similar path on “PRIDE.,” which begins with a harrowingly beautiful intro by Steve Lacy, of the group the Internet, which Mr. Lamar follows with a low, groaning flow as he details the misery of doubt:
See, in the perfect world, I would be perfect, world
I don’t trust people enough beyond they surface, world
I don’t love people enough to put my faith in men
I put my faith in these lyrics, hoping I make amend
Mr. Lamar’s belief in music may well be the only faith left unshaken here. His songs limn classic Los Angeles gangster rap, but also that city’s kinetically inventive progressive independent scene of the early-to-mid-1990s. He sprinkles in a couple of gestures to classic hip-hop, including a callback to the signature clipped cadence from Juvenile’s “Ha” on “ELEMENT.,” and the recurrent use of the celebrated New York mixtape DJ Kid Capri, whose excited yelps are peppered throughout. Mr. Lamar also recruits high-profile guests: There’s a smooth collaboration with Rihanna, “LOYALTY.,” and “XXX,” which features some reassuringly understated singing by Bono, of U2.
“DAMN.” is also a bit of an exhale after a few years of high-intensity balancing of social and aesthetic concerns. On “ELEMENT.” Mr. Lamar reinforces that his concerns are interior, especially coming off his last album, “To Pimp a Butterfly” from 2015, which became a flash point for black political awareness and activism. “Last LP I tried to lift the black artists,” he raps here, “But it’s a difference ’tween black artists and wack artists.”
And taunting — an underappreciated Kendrick Lamar skill — is the core of “HUMBLE.,” one of the album’s most fiery songs: “I don’t fabricate it, most of y’all be fakin’/ I stay modest ’bout it, she elaborate it/This that Grey Poupon, that Evian” It’s an approach he returns to often here, more than his usual knotty parables.
Well, there is one knotty parable: “DUCKWORTH.,” the album’s finale, which tells the apparently true story of how, decades ago, his label boss crossed paths with his father in near-violent fashion, in an incident that could have ended with bullets and tears. But everyone walked away unscathed: At least in one moment in time, in one specific place, someone was praying for Mr. Lamar.