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Reviews: Kendrick Lamar's 'DAMN.,' Gorillaz's 'Humanz' cement their status as visionaries

Need a festival headliner this summer? Call Kendrick Lamar or Gorillaz.

Lamar's slate includes gigs at Coachella and Miami's Rolling Loud Festival on May 5. Gorillaz will play Outside Lands and Miami's III Points in October.

They've earned top-of-the-poster billing by being two of this century's most innovative hip-hop acts (yes, even Gorillaz), with each new project bringing a fresh round of eyeballs and acclaim.

They also dropped new albums in April to prepare the world for their summer victory marches. After a few spins of both, it's clear the festivals that booked them got their money's worth.

• • •

Where do you go after creating one of the most stylistically ambitious rap albums of the decade?

If you're Kendrick Lamar, you polish. Whereas 2015's To Pimp a Butterfly was abrasive and raw, its official followup DAMN. feels toned and tightened, offering a crisper, if not necessarily condensed, version of the rapper's sprawling worldview. This might not make DAMN. better than Butterfly, but it does suggest Lamar isn't concerned about that. His craftsmanship here is what matters.

Kung-Fu Kenny works dense, packing complex observations on politics, theology, philosophy and identity into 14 tracks whose one-word, all-caps, emphatically punctuated titles evoke sensations greater than self: PRIDE. LOVE. LUST. FEAR. GOD. He does it through verses as structurally intricate as any in rap, laden with internal rhymes and delivered with such distinctive elocution they feel like poetry.

This isn't to say Lamar is totally avant-garde. HUMBLE. bounces all over a punchy piano-based beat; LOYALTY. simmers and sizzles thanks to Lamar's chemistry with Rihanna; and LOVE. is the warmest, purest love song he has ever written.

But Lamar and his producers play with tempo and texture across DAMN., swerving from booming beats to moods more downbeat and despondent, occasionally within the same song. DNA., a forceful screed targeting critics like Geraldo Rivera (whose voice is sampled), begins with an explosive beat that slows and blurs until it feels like a new song, ending with a nearly minute-long barrage of breathless syllables. XXX., a collaboration with U2, veers from throbbing rap to narcotized trip-hop as Lamar examines violence and inequity from Compton Boulevard to Wall Street. The autobiographical DUCKWORTH. spreads its bars across an array of similar but distinct soul-noir samples. At times, the music and lyrics spin backward, "Paul is dead"-style, emphasizing DAMN.'s disorienting vibe.

As on Butterfly, these frequent tonal shifts reflect the complexity of everything Lamar is trying to address. Consider FEAR., a 7 1/2-minute head trip that sees Lamar rapping about what keeps him up at night. At one point, he raps as his despondent 17-year-old self, pondering all the ways he might die ("because these colors are standing out," "from one of these bats and blue badges, body slammed on black and white paint, my bones snapping"). Then he shifts to the perspective of an A-list artist afraid of being ripped off by financial advisers, or losing his creativity or confidence. ("How many accolades do I need to block denial?"

"I can't take these feelings with me, so hopefully they disperse within fourteen tracks, carried out over wax," he raps.

They're as clear here as they were on 2012's Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, and even clearer than on To Pimp a Butterfly. Those are two of the best rap albums this decade. That DAMN. stands proudly with them is no small feat. And it leaves you wondering where Lamar can go next.

• • •

It's hard to believe Gorillaz has been around since 2000 — or even longer, if you factor in the laborious conceptualization process between Blur's Damon Albarn and visual artist Jamie Hewlett. However big they expected their gruff but giddy cartoon side project to become, they likely didn't imagine they'd be at it nearly 20 years later.

Nothing on Humanz, the first Gorillaz album in seven years, grabs you like the sugar rush of early singles Clint Eastwood or Feel Good Inc., but that happens when you evolve — you get more ambitious, you reach a little higher, you cast a wider net. Indeed, Humanz feels like Albarn feeling out what's still possible for his animated doppelgangers, luring his most creative cast of collaborators to date.

A host of hip-hop figures show up on Humanz, making it feel a bit like a mixtape. De La Soul rhyme like madmen on the itchy Momentz, as does a manic Danny Brown on Submission. Soul icon Mavis Staples lets loose and lends Let Me Out a protest-anthem feel as Pusha T rhymes about the state of the streets and power in America. ("Obama is gone, who is left to save us? ... They say the devil's at work and Trump is calling favors.") Likewise, R&B singers Anthony Hamilton and Benjamin Clementine bring the spirit of American uprising to Carnival and Hallelujah Money.

Thanks to all this talent, Albarn's weary voice drifts deeper into the background here than ever before. Even on the grinding, industrial-tinged Charger — shades of The Fragile-era Nine Inch Nails — where he sings lead throughout, it's Grace Jones who snaps into frame with a series of witchy snaps and shout-outs: "I am the ghost! I am the soul!" Albarn's one solo song, Busted and Blue, is by far Humanz's sleepiest, a foggy interruption of its otherwise madcap roll.

At its core, Humanz is futuristic party music. The outstanding Strobelite, featuring Peven Everett, is a glorious slice of roller-rink disco soul, the sort of song that, if people are paying attention, should be everywhere this summer. The flinchy Ascension, featuring Vince Staples, skitters atop a tense, paranoid beat. Andromeda, featuring D.R.A.M., and Sex Murder Party, featuring Jamie Principle and Zebra Katz, glisten with the icy sheen of an after-hours fashion party.

That Humanz insists on making a few urgent points about the corrosive effects of power, politics and technology is more than a bonus — it shows the cartoons are watching us, rather than the other way around. That'll give Albarn and Hewlett plenty to chew on for years to come.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

Rank the contenders

1. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.: Three albums, three classics: The intense, focused DAMN. stands proudly alongside Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and To Pimp a Butterfly, cementing Lamar's status as the premiere rapper of his generation.

2. Gorillaz, Humanz: Party music for the 22nd century, with a cast of intriguing rappers and singers bringing Damon Albarn's vision to madcap life.

Reviews: Kendrick Lamar's 'DAMN.,' Gorillaz's 'Humanz' cement their status as visionaries 04/28/17 [Last modified: Monday, May 1, 2017 4:39pm]
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