U2’s Cameo On The New Kendrick Lamar Album Is Very Un-U2-Like (In A Good Way)

04.14.17 1 week ago 5 Comments

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When word came down that Kendrick Lamar’s highly anticipated new album, DAMN., featured a U2 collaboration called “XXX,” fans and bloggers predictably revolted. Just as there is no contemporary artist who engenders more goodwill than Lamar, there’s no other rock band that provokes more knee-jerk dislike than U2. (Even Nickelback hate has more or less burned out by now — U2’s critics have been violently rolling their eyes at the venerable Irish rockers going as far back as 1988’s Rattle & Hum.) What would a union of these spiritually-minded, socially-conscious, and somewhat messianic artists sound like? Would it involve a sample from one of U2’s stadium-proven anthems, or would Bono and The Edge whip up some new grandiose flourish to complement Lamar’s lyrics?

Either way, the expectation was that Lamar was utilizing U2 to go big, perhaps perilously so. Days before DAMN.was released, there was speculation that “XXX” would be nothing less than “the most self-righteous song of all time.” But in actual fact, “XXX” is neither grandiose nor particularly self-righteous, but rather an uncertain and deeply troubled mini-suite about the nature of American self-destruction.

“XXX” is really two songs in one. The first half is a revenge parable with Old Testament overtones, scored with reptilian 808’s, churning synths, and stark sirens. Lamar hears from a friend that his only son has been murdered — a resonant reference on Good Friday — and it sends Lamar spinning into fantasies of retribution that verge on blasphemy. (“Ill catch a n**** leavin’ service if that’s all I got.”) Like the rest of DAMN.,“XXX” is a pronounced departure from the sumptuous soul-jazz symphonies of Lamar’s previous album, the 2015 masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly, instead favoring a sparse soundscape that puts the emphasis on Lamar’s virtuosic lyricism and the mournful fury of his delivery.

U2 doesn’t enter “XXX” until the second half, though it’s hardly the grand Joshua Tree-style fanfare that many anticipated. Instead, this is U2 in Zooropa mode, in which extra emphasis is placed on the interplay between drummer Larry Mullen and bassist Adam Clayton. The Edge’s distinctive guitar, meanwhile, is M.I.A. (Is The Edge playing those spare gospel piano chords? If not, then he must have been relegated to joint-rolling duty during the session.)

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