When it was revealed that Kendrick Lamar‘s DAMN. album would feature a collabo with U2 people were understandably confused. What could the 29-year-old Compton rapper known for his viscerally personal, jazz-infused rhymes have in common with the middle aged Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Irish legends known for guitar-based arena rock anthems?
Just writing that sentence makes it seem weird all over again. Yet listening to the politically charged “XXX,” you’re struck by how smooth the unlikely meeting of the minds is, how jarring Bono’s dulcet voice sounds sliding into the song whose first half uses a police siren on loop amid lyrics about fame and violent revenge. “It’s not a place/ This country is to be a sound of drum and bass,” Bono croons, “You close your eyes to look around.”
Lamar then doubles down on themes U2 has mined for decades: faith, greed and the duality of America as a place that both welcomes and turns away. Like any musician whose ears are influenced by anything and everything they hear throughout their lives, Kendrick’s connection to rock is clearly not as distant as it may seem.
As far back as Lamar’s 2011 Section.80 album, the MC has laced his songs with classic rock, including a bit of the Alan Parsons Project’s “Old and Wise” (and Mountain’s “Long Red”) on the song “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain),” Love’s “Doggone” on “Hol’ Up” and Three Dog Night’s “I’d Be So Happy” on “Ronald Reagan Era.”
Lamar isn’t just beholden to the vinyl in his producers’ collections, either. His breakthrough 2012 major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d. City, went indie rock with a sample of Beach House’s 2010 track “Silver Soul” on “Money Trees” and Mr Twin Sister’s “Meet the Frownies” on bonus single “The Recipe.” A few years later, the MC famously went HAM with Imagine Dragons at the 2014 Grammy Awards with a mash-up of “m.A.A.d City” and “Radioactive.”
Dig around long enough and you will invariably run into someone who will argue that Kendrick’s Grammy-winning To Pimp a Butterfly has some eerie echoes of Pink Floyd’s landmark psychedelic rock classic The Wall (or Animals), from the deeply layered, theatrical production to the themes of alienation and the use of animals and metamorphosis to symbolize the potential for change in all of us. Meanwhile, DAMN.‘s heavy reliance on backmasking — laying a track backwards on a record that’s normally meant to be played forwards — is one of the oldest classic-rock tricks in the book, dating back all the way to The Beatles’ Revolver and Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced?
According to the WhoSampled site, Butterfly also samples the Sufjan Stevens track “All for Myself” on “Hood Politics” and his 2016 Kanye West collabo “No More Parties in L.A.” slips in a bit of Johnny Guitar Watson’s “Give Me My Love.”
Getting back to U2, though: Kendrick’s years-long deep dive into the heart of jazz also has parallels into U2’s Joshua Tree-era exploration of American soul and blues, their attempt to find a common thread that binds us and spans oceans and knocks down barriers between race and background. In looking backwards to sounds from a different genre and an earlier era for inspiration, Kendrick is seeking out the links that connect us even as he sings about the things that divide us.