Senegal's Good Friday Dish Is A Treat For Both Christians And Muslims

Marie-Victoire Sow Carvalho prepares ngalakh, a traditional Easter treat for friends and family of all faiths.

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Marie-Victoire Sow Carvalho is busy in the annex to her kitchen in Dakar, dishing out giant ladles full of a traditional Senegalese Easter treat.

It’s called ngalakh – a delectable mix of millet, groundnut (peanut) paste, bouye (the fruit of the baobab tree, which is also known locally as pain de singe or monkey bread), sugar, vanilla essence and orange blossom.

She says every year, Catholics make this special food for Good Friday and it’s savored over Easter weekend.

Sow Carvalho says she’s been enjoying the sweet porridge since she was a child and preparing ngalakh herself for decades.

Thiakry (millet), an ingredient in Senegal’s traditional Easter ngalakh porridge.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton/NPR

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It’s sweaty work, staying up late, mixing the ingredients together. But the slog doesn’t end there – part of this Easter tradition involves pouring the sweet golden-brown goodness into containers and delivering them all day Friday to family, friends and neighbors. After the Catholic Stations of the Cross mass on Good Friday, everyone breaks their fast with ngalakh.

But this dish isn’t consumed just by Catholics in Senegal. It’s a dish they share with their Muslim friends and family, too. Senegal is a majority Muslim country, with a small Christian minority. And the two communities celebrate their holy days together and share each other’s foods.

After the month-long Ramadan fast, Muslims and Christians celebrate Korite (Eid al-Fitr) together with special dishes. And during Tabaski (the feast of Eid al-Adha), Muslims distribute roast lamb to their Christian friends during their annual feast.

Sow Carvalho says she has both Catholics and Muslims in her family – and that’s the Senegalese way, religious harmony and togetherness, made tastier by the sharing of foods.

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Politics Of Respectability And A Dragged Passenger

Demonstrators protest United Airlines at O’Hare International Airport on April 11, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. The protest was in response to airport police officers physically removing passenger Dr. David Dao from his seat and dragging him off the airplane, after he was requested to give up his seat for United Airline crew members on a flight from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky Sunday night.

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The politics of respectability, that elusive set of guidelines that dictate how racialized Americans ought to conduct themselves in public, were complicated this week when a 69 year-old Asian-American doctor was forcibly dragged off an overbooked United Airlines flight.

The video of Dr. David Dao’s body being hauled off the plane provoked international outrage, especially from Asian-Americans, but some argued that race had nothing to do with the incident — that the same level of outrage would have followed regardless of the passenger’s race.

Two questions immediately come to my mind.

First, would this have happened to Dao if he was white? The politics of respectability would render a senior, white male doctor as worthy of deference and respect. Second, would cries of outrage have been as loud if the man dragged off the plane was African-American? The surge in violence against black people in the last decade, and the generalized indifference to it until recently, suggests that that would be unlikely.

In Dao, Asian-Americans like me could identify their own elderly fathers, and we shuddered at the thought that our family members could have been victimized in the same horrific manner.

But I doubt that non-Asian-Americans saw their fathers in Dao. Instead, what they may have seen is the personification of an Asian-American trope — the model minority. As an Asian-American doctor, Dao embodies the popular narrative that Asian Americans are highly educated, hard-working, committed, successful and deserving.

This facile veneer, however, obscures more than it clarifies about Asian-Americans.

Comprised of 24 detailed origins, Asian-Americans exhibit more socioeconomic diversity than any other U.S. racial group. Take educational attainment for example. On the high end of the spectrum are Asian Indians, Chinese, and Koreans who exhibit extraordinarily high levels of education, and graduate from college at higher rates than whites. At the other extreme are Asian ethnic groups like Cambodian, Laotian, and Hmong, who have higher high school dropout rates than African-Americans and Latinos. Forty percent of Hmong-Americans do not graduate from high school. In addition, the latter Asian ethnic groups have higher poverty rates and higher levels of welfare receipt than the national average.

Moreover, at 35 percent, Asian-Americans have one of the highest rates of “limited English proficiency” (LEP) among all U.S. groups, and are on par with Latinos. This figure, however, masks the heterogeneity among Asian-Americans; 53 percent of Vietnamese are LEP, as are 46 percent of Chinese, and 45 percent of Koreans and Thai. By contrast, rates of LEP are as low as 22 percent among Asian Indians and Filipinos.

These differences are critical because they affect life outcomes like health, earnings, and civic participation, including voting. The model minority trope, however, masks these differences and erases the ethnic, economic, and social diversity among Asian-Americans. More importantly, the model minority myth creates an unofficial value pyramid with the most educated, affluent and successful Asian-Americans at the very top.

So, how, exactly can the politics of respectability and diversity among Asian-Americans help us understand our collective outrage of United’s inexcusable treatment of Dao?

In early news reports of this story, there was no mention of Dao’s race or ethnicity. As the video began to circulate, however, one could easily discern that the passenger was Asian-American, and based on first sight, people assumed that he was Chinese-American. That Dao is a Vietnamese refugee did not diminish the outcry, nor did it change our view that he is deserving of our outrage, empathy and support. But would it change if Dao was Hmong, whose group position in the unofficial value hierarchy is lower than that of Chinese and Vietnamese?

Moreover, would we have been just as outraged and empathetic if Dao were African-American or a recent immigrant from South America?

Imagine the possibility if we were just as vociferous about the recent videotaped deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police officers, or the forced deportation of undocumented immigrants with no criminal record who are separated from their U.S.-born children. Indeed, there is outrage from certain segments of the population, but nothing that matches the immediate, unwavering, and uniform support for Dao. Even when the media began a smear campaign against him, the pubic rejected it as irrelevant.

Without question, Dao deserves our outrage, empathy, and support, and kudos to the masses that demanded it. But just as deserving are individuals of other racial and ethnic backgrounds, ages, and socioeconomic statuses who lack the protection of visible status markers that deny them the same degree of public respectability.

Jennifer Lee is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine.

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Woman Returns To Her Slave Cabin Childhood Home In The Smithsonian

Emily Meggett (left) and Isabell Meggett Lucas sit together at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in front of a slave cabin on display that they grew up in.

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The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C, has many artifacts connected to slavery. For one woman, visiting the museum this week was a literal homecoming.

Isabell Meggett Lucas was born and raised in a wooden house in coastal South Carolina. Slaves lived in that house during the 1800s.

The Smithsonian bought the structure and moved it plank by plank to the new African-American museum where it is now on display.

NPR’s Ari Shapiro spoke with Meggett Lucas, who is now in her 80s, and her sister-in-law, Emily Meggett, about what it was like to revisit Meggett Lucas’ childhood home. Eleven people lived in the wooden two-bedroom house that had no running water, no electricity and a wood-powered stove.

Meggett Lucas says that growing up they didn’t know their house was a slave cabin.

“I guess it was a rough time for [the slaves] because it was rough for us, too,” Meggett Lucas says. ” ‘Cause my mother had to work … they had nothing to do but farm work, no education. … I don’t think that [my parents] ever thought that they lived in a slave cabin. I don’t think that. I think that that was they home, and they felt comfortable there, and they felt happy there.”

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Outgoing 'New Yorker' Cartoon Editor Says 'Being Funny Is Being Awake'

The world is just.

Bob Mankoff/Condé Nast

Throughout the day, New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff jots down ideas that strike him as funny: A door lies on a couch in a psychiatrist’s office, and the psychiatrist says, “You’re not crazy, you’re just unhinged.” Or, two guys crawling through a desert encounter one of those orange cones that says: “Caution Wet Floor.”

For a man obsessed with humor, Mankoff found the perfect job — he’s served for 20 years as the magazine’s cartoon gatekeeper. He’s stepping down from his post in May, but will continue to draw his own cartoons.

Mankoff has spent decades thinking about what makes things funny, and has even taught college courses on the subject. Over the years he has edited cartoonists with different styles, but he thinks of his own style as intellectual, drawing heavily on personal experience.

“My targets are either myself, or people like me,” he says. “I don’t punch down, I don’t punch up, I elbow to the side.”

Mankoff’s most famous cartoon shows a man in a suit standing at a desk, with skyscrapers in the window behind him. He’s consulting his calendar and saying into the phone: “No, Thursday’s out. How about never — is never good for you?”

No, Thursdays out. How about never — is never good for you?

Bob Mankoff/Condé Nast


Interview Highlights

On humor being useful

How do we engineer humor so that it is more useful in life? … The most important part of it is not entertainment. Jokes are the pornography of humor. The most important part is: It enables us to get along with other people, to cope with difficulties, to diffuse tensions, and just simply to make life in general more enjoyable. And by having a sense of humor, it means we have a perspective on the quotidian, everyday absurdity of it all. … Being funny is being awake.

Robert Mankoff/Condé Nast

On the process of editing a cartoon

It might be something as simple as compressing the words. I will try to suggest other ideas that might be better. For instance, let’s say it’s a hippo and there are two of the little birds on it, and one of the birds is saying: “We can only see so far because we stand on the shoulders of giants.” That’s a [Isaac] Newton quote. And then I’ll say, you know, that’s just sort of a word gag … I think it would be interesting if whatever they’re standing on is very, very small in itself, but they are even smaller.

[Or] I’ll say: Oh, that sort of relates to other cartoons we’ve done in which the snail’s on the turtle’s back and one snail is saying: “Watch out, here we go!”

So, it’s partly because I have a background of all these associations. I’m brainstorming a little bit with them and then I’ll edit a word, sometimes I’ll write another caption.

Uh-oh, your coverage doesn't seem to include illness.

Bob Mankoff/Condé Nast

On making sure they don’t duplicate cartoons

We check the cartoons against all the New Yorker cartoons that have ever run in the magazine so that we don’t have any duplicates. … You can’t drive yourself completely crazy about it. One of the things you realize is pretty much all ideas are variants of similar ideas. And then you have to decide: Is this different enough?

Hamlet's Duplex

Bob Mankoff/Condé Nast

On tropes vs. clichés

Life raft survivors, lightbulb ideas, lion and mouse, Little Engine That Could, Little Red Riding Hood, lover hiding in a closet … Clichés — or, let’s say tropes, that sounds better — are the engine in which you make new out of old. I mean, pretty much everything in the culture is something that’s been remixed. … Originality is not only overrated, it doesn’t really exist.

On what he’d tell young, aspiring cartoonists

STOP. … No, no, keep it up! Excuse me, I meant: DON’T stop.

You can see more @newyorkercartoons on Facebook and Instagram.

Radio producer Sam Gringlas, radio editor Jeffrey Katz and web producer Beth Novey contributed to this report.

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Aaron Hernandez Acquitted On Double Murder Charges

Aaron Hernandez stands at the defense table Thursday. On Friday, the former New England Patriots tight end was found not guilty of two counts of murder in a 2012 drive-by shooting. Hernandez is still serving a life sentence for a previous murder conviction.

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Aaron Hernandez was acquitted Friday on charges that he murdered two men in a drive-by shooting outside a Boston nightclub in 2012. The jury found the former New England Patriots tight end not guilty on most of the eight counts he faced, including murder and armed assault.

The jury did find him guilty of illegal possession of a firearm, for which he was sentenced to serve four to five years in prison.

Hernandez, once a rising star in the NFL, is already serving a life sentence in prison for killing the boyfriend of his fiancee’s sister. That first-degree murder conviction was handed down by unanimous jury decision in 2015.

Though Friday’s verdict has no impact on that conviction, the Associated Press reports that emotions still ran high in the Boston courtroom. The wire service notes Hernandez wept quietly at the jury announcement, while relatives of the two victims, Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado, sobbed before they were helped from the courtroom.

The prosecution’s case rested on the testimony of Hernandez acquaintance Alexander Bradley, a convicted felon himself, who alleged Hernandez killed the two men at a stoplight for spilling a drink on him earlier that night in the club, CNN reports.

Hernandez denied the allegations, and the Boston Globe says his defense team effectively hammered away at Bradley’s credibility on the witness stand.

“He was charged for something somebody else did, and that is a weighty burden for anyone to shoulder,” defense attorney Ronald Sullivan said, according to CNN.

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Four Besieged Syrian Towns Are Being Evacuated In Reciprocal Swap

Buses carry Syrians as they leave on Friday from Madaya, an opposition-held town near Damascus, Syria.

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Thousands of people are evacuating four besieged Syrian towns on Friday after rebels and the Syrian government reached a population swap agreement.

“In northern Syria, residents of Shia minority villages, long besieged by rebels, are leaving,” NPR’s Alison Meuse reports from Beirut. “Hundreds of miles away, two towns besieged by Syrian troops and their allies are also evacuating.”

According to Reuters, “the opposition says the deals amount to forced demographic change and deliberate displacement of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad’s enemies away from the main cities of western Syria.”

Assad denied that claim, Alison adds, calling it temporary.

The government siege of Madaya, one of the rebel-held towns that was evacuated today, gained international attention early last year after reports that residents were “eating leaves, grass and pets to survive,” as The Two-Way reported.

The residents of Madaya had an option to stay there, though Alison reports that “many say they’ll leave to avoid mandatory service in the Syrian army.”

A video posted Friday on Facebook shows an woman weeping and embracing her son as he prepares to get onto a bus to leave Madaya. “Be careful,” she tells him.

Some 2,200 people from the town, including about 400 fighters, headed toward Idlib province in northern Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group. Government forces later entered the area, it added.

The nearby town of Zabadani, which had also been under government siege, is “to be depopulated,” the Associated Press writes. “Rebel gunmen were expected to leave Zabadani on Saturday,” the wire service said, adding that there are only about 160 and all are “believed to be fighters or medical workers.”

About 5,000 people from two pro-government towns in Idlib province, Foua and Kefraya, were bused out to an area on the outskirts of Aleppo, according to Syrian state media.

“Those villages were besieged for two years by rebels, often used as a pressure card,” Alison added. During that time, the towns have received sporadic airdrops of aid from the government, as we have reported.

Syrian Red Crescent paramedics wait on Friday for the buses evacuating civilians from the government-held villages of Fuaa and Kafraya, on a highway in eastern Aleppo.

George Ourfalian /AFP/Getty Images

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Episode 381: When Business Loves Regulation

Jestina Clayton, former hair braider.

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Note: Today’s show originally ran in June 2012.

A few years ago, Jestina Clayton started a hair braiding business in her home in Centerville, Utah. The business let her stay home with her kids, and in good months, she made enough to pay for groceries. She even put an ad on a local website. Then one day she got an email from a stranger who had seen the ad.

“It is illegal in the state of Utah to do any form of extensions without a valid cosmetology license,” the email read. “Please delete your ad, or you will be reported.”

To get a license, Jestina would have to spend more than a year in cosmetology school. Tuition would cost $16,000 dollars or more.

On today’s show: Why it was illegal to braid hair without a license in Utah. And why hundreds of licensing rules in states all around the country are a disaster for the U.S. economy.

Music: “Destroy Me.” Find us: Twitter/ Facebook.

Subscribe to our show on iTunes or PocketCast.

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Basking In Sin: Some Initial Thoughts On Kendrick Lamar's 'DAMN.'

Kendrick Lamar at Music Hall of Williamsburg on December 16, 2016, in Brooklyn, New York.

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The period of anticipation preceding the release of Kendrick Lamar’s fourth album, DAMN., was intense, brief but methodically built. Three weeks ago, Lamar gave us the non-album track “The Heart Part 4,” a warning shot to the rest of the game and an announcement of ambition; the following Friday saw the release of its single “HUMBLE.” One week ago he announced the album’s title and its release date. When DAMN. arrived last night, we were ready to dive in. This is an album that will take time to digest, but it’s also one that offers pleasures and themes without delay. Here are our first thoughts.


“Ain’t nobody prayin’ for me,” muses Kendrick Lamar on “FEEL.,” the track that jumped out during my first pass through DAMN. He fashions the line into a refrain — a cry of isolation that anchors an unfurling scroll of insecurities. This is King Kendrick in Book of Lamentations mode, exhausted and exasperated, stacking intricate rhymes in a way that conveys both lyrical mastery and mounting anxiety. Sounwave is the producer of the track, which features Thundercat on electric bass, extending a sonic tether to Lamar’s masterpiece, To Pimp a Butterfly. There’s also a lyrical tether: “I feel like this gotta be the feelin’ what ‘Pac was / The feelin’ of an apocalypse happenin.'”

Kendrick Lamar's DAMN.

TDE/Interscope

Lamar seems to be recalling his beyond-the-grave conversation with Tupac on “Mortal Man,” the closing track of Butterfly — specifically a chilling section that augurs “bloodshed, for real.” Or maybe that’s not precisely what he’s saying here. A quick pass can only get you so far with a new album by Kendrick Lamar, and DAMN. is especially dense with signs and symbols, as if made for our annotative age. What to make of the fact that “HUMBLE.,” the album’s first single, comes juxtaposed here with “PRIDE.”? What’s the implication of the cover illustration, which frames the word “DAMN.” like the logo for TIME magazine? (How about the fact that the points of the “M” form devil’s horns over Lamar’s head, just as they did for a certain president-elect named Person of the Year?) Then there’s the recursive elegance of the album’s two bookends, and the way that the closing track (“DUCKWORTH.”) loops back to the prelude (“BLOOD.”).

As always, Lamar is obsessed with human consequences — systemic and individual, global and hyperlocal. When he puts a name to that new president in “XXX.,” and also names his predecessor, Lamar doesn’t let anyone off the hook: “But is America honest or do we bask in sin?” he asks, setting up one of the crucial dualities on this album. Even when he’s exulting in his own prowess, crowing “This is what God feel like,” Lamar seems painfully aware that there’s no position more isolating than deity, and that the higher you fly, the harder you fall. Ain’t nobody prayin’ for that. —Nate Chinen, WBGO


“This what God feel like.” Kendrick Lamar may be the greatest rapper alive and the most celebrated male musician on the planet, but K-Dot’s not confusing praise with worship. He’s imagining omnipotence, not claiming it. After three masterpieces (plus a damn fine debut), that humility inside his DNA hasn’t gone anywhere. I may have to eat these words if he rises from his Good Samaritan death in “BLOOD.” and releases a second album on Easter Sunday, but those internet rumors say more about us than they do about Kendrick. Humans have a checkered history of finding salvation in God complexes. But if DAMN.‘s atavistic tracklist and impeccably crafted wordplay is any sort of indicator, Kendrick will be reflecting on his mortality on Sunday morning, not courting genuflection like another certain rapper we live to analyze. Frankly, it’s hard to listen to Kendrick’s heartfelt hand-wringing and not think about Kanye West on “I Am A God” or even “Ultralight Beam,” where he donned the garbs of gospel with all the subtlety of his friend in the White House. The dilemmas on DAMN. seem less concerned with channeling the Holy Spirit and more with the reasons we invented it in the first place. —Otis Hart, NPR Music


Kendrick Lamar’s faith is front and center on DAMN.

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Courtesy of the artist

It’s certainly no coincidence that Kendrick Lamar dropped DAMN. at 12:00 midnight to kick off Good Friday. (I refuse to entertain the rumors — conspiracy theories, really — of a potential second LP to be released by K.Dot on Easter Sunday. As if we don’t have enough red-lettered scripture from this man to decipher already.) It’s almost what you don’t hear that tells the story here. No desperate attempts at radio hits. Not even Rihanna or U2 sound like themselves. He uses other artists like instruments — of his peace? his pain? his purpose? Whatever it is, we can relate. And that’s what matters. When he bares his soul, it’s an invitation to join him on the journey. Somewhere between his exploration of sin and virtue, he’s hitting on something. It’s not as simple or dismissible as a morality tale, thank God. I haven’t been to church in years and I hate gospel music. But a narrative steeped in the ironies of the living gospel, that’s something wholly different. Kendrick’s on one. —Rodney Carmichael, NPR Music


Preach Kendrick, preach! Some of the song titles alone — “ELEMENT.,” “LUST.,” “LOVE.,” “GOD.” – evoke a honest spirituality that add a weighty layer to the musical experience. Religious themes weave through all 14 songs including a reference to the bible’s Deuteronomy in “YAH.” and “FEAR.” What makes this work so great is not just the meaningful lyricism we’ve come to expect from Kendrick, but also the clean and simplistic arrangements make this album supreme — no heavy layered sound, just commanding vocals, intentional bass lines (shout out to Thundercat on “FEEL.”) and sparse keyboard effects that perfectly complement the melodic narrative. Power beats anchor every single song. “LOYALTY.” will actually bust your speakers if you play it too loud. Musicality aside, the verses suggest a nostalgic take on the past. A reminder of the constant struggle and conflict in every stage of life. That life is a journey filled with both reflection and hope, and that God is leading the way. In “FEEL.,” Kendrick raps, “Ain’t nobody prayin’ for me.” Oh, but Kendrick, we are. We appreciate you, and the musical blessings you continue to bestow on us. —Suraya Mohamed, NPR Music


That shouted introduction to “LOVE.” — “Another woooorld premiere!” — is funnier every time I hear it. Just when Lamar and his producers are doing all they can to soften the mood, that goofy throwback toast comes screaming across the stereo field, as though Forrest Gump wandered into the studio and tripped over a sample-loaded MPC at just the right, history-making moment.

Kendrick Lamar performs in Brooklyn in December 2016.

Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for American Express

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“LOVE.” is a lot of things. Functionally, it’s a B-side to “LUST.,” the neighboring track that plays like Curtis Mayfield reworking “Tired of Sex.” Contextually, it’s a sensory respite in the final act of a bracing work of art; DAMN. may not be as depleting as To Pimp a Butterfly‘s jazz-funk marathon, but it is bone-rattling in its precision. And referentially, it feels like best Drake song Drake never wrote, with Zacari filling the space normally reserved for The Weeknd or The-Dream on a gorgeous, gliding hook. Really, it’s just stunning to hear Lamar sound this earnest and unguarded, his voice this smooth and taut, weaving around synth swells and gated snares that bloom and fade without irony.

There’s a lot more to explore (and to interrogate) on this album, but “LOVE.” is the revelation I keep coming back to. The best hip-hop ballads tend to hit their targets at an angle, their message couched in body worship or outlaw fantasy or wry insecurity. Here, a generation’s most uncompromising voice keeps his message simple for once: “Don’t got you, I got nothing.” —Daoud Tyler-Ameen, NPR Music


Like To Pimp A Butterfly and good kid, m.A.A.d. City before it, the first listen is overwhelming. The second too. Like pressing on closed eyelids then snapping them open, a whole begins to slowly fizzle in from the edges. Kendrick has already proven he’s a renaissance cosmonaut, pushing the sound of hip-hop out towards the same moon where Sun Ra summered. Now he illustrates that a floor-tipped banger can do the same. How? Every passage here that furrows the brow in limbic pleasure takes a left turn, as the last minute of hyper-single and song of the summer “DNA” demonstrates. His handwriting is everywhere here. We know that every note of the Butterfly sessions was guided by his hand. That he’s done the same with the modern palette of rap proves his point. “My resume is real enough for two millenniums.” —Andrew Flanagan, NPR Music


Kendrick is an album artist. We know that. But man oh man, the payoff on listening to DAMN. start to finish is colossal. Album opener “BLOOD.” frames some heavy questions: “Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide. Are we gonna live or die?”. Then Kendrick drops us into one small moment — “So I was taking a walk the other day.” Our narrator tries to help a blind woman find something she’s lost. And (spoiler alert) she shoots him. Snap out of that moment and into an existential trip rife with paranoia, pulse and compact cadence. Kendrick questions everything — from the patriotic on “XXX.” (“Is America honest or do we bask in sin?”) to the profound on “FEAR.” (“Why God, why God do I gotta suffer?”) to the profane on “LUST.” (“I just need you to want me, Am I askin’ too much? Let me put the head in.”). He grapples with the state of his identity on “YEAH.” (“I’m a Israelite, don’t call me black no more. That word is only a color it ain’t fact no more.”) and the trappings of newfound fame and money (“The shock value of my success put bolts in me”). Musically, DAMN. is just as far-reaching: There’s the acid jazz and paranoid distortion on “XXX.” (featuring an appropriately disorienting cameo by U2), the rattlesnake R&B of “FEAR.,” the Curtis Mayfield falsetto feel of “LUST.” and the sheer beauty of “LOVE.,” featuring Zacari.

By the time you’ve reached DAMN.‘s end, Kendrick has packed in so much thought and sound that the deadly encounter from the opening track is nearly knocked out of your memory. And then the last track “DUCKWORTH.” drops and we meet two more strangers, Ducky and Anthony. No spoilers here, suffice it to say Kendrick echoes the imminent danger he set up on the opening track with the line, “You take two strangers and put ’em in random predicaments, give ’em a soul so they can make their own decisions and live with it.” When it was over, I found myself going back to the start of “BLOOD.” to listen to Kendrick ‘s opening question again: “Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide. Are we gonna live or die?” The conclusion? If the result is the same, the intent is irrelevant. Danger is imminent from without and within. But that’s just how I feel after the first couple listens. This is an album so thick, so stacked, that it begs many, many more. —Talia Schlanger, World Cafe


Rapper Kendrick Lamar performs onstage during the 58th Grammy Awards.

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When Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. leaked last night and everyone else was busy making GIFS of heads bursting into flames, I was listening to Jermaine Dupri at a Recording Academy-sponsored panel discussion in Nashville. Dupri talks with his whole body, even while sitting in an uncomfortable studio chair; he moves musically, as if listening back to the myriad hit tracks he made, swaying, raising his arms, leaning into imagined beats. Of course he does. He was made by music – a dancer in a Whodini video at twelve, a mogul crafting a new sound in rap at nineteen, an artiste who had the audacity to sing the parts he wanted to Mariah Carey to emulate when he was 23. As he told stories, his energy filled the whole room, as if the unforgettable music he’s made emanated from him even when the handy playlist the moderator had created was off.

Coming home, I started streaming DAMN., and a similar sense of the self overflowing its limits overwhelmed me. The album begins with a choir of voices provided by producer Bekon. Kendrick Lamar’s cuts through effortlessly, telling a story that seems to end in his death at the hands of a blind woman he encounters in the street. Overinterpreters could read the rest of DAMN. as the last gasp of Kendrick’s soul as it leaves his body – a lyrical take on someone’s life passing before his eyes (or really, our ears). That swirl of memories, boasts and questions presents a version of what bell hooks has called “radical black subjectivity,” a person confronting his essence, which itself emerges in fragments. Listening to DAMN. is overwhelming because Kendrick allows, needs, listeners to pick up and seriously confront every piece he scatters.

DAMN. ripples with stories, of family love and violence, deprivation and excess. But it’s the voice, inseparable from the music, that startles, cajoles, alienates, suprises. Lamar’s elastic tenor becomes Silly Putty, stretching into singsong, wrapping around patois, merging with synths and vocoders and then pulling away from them as if to reassert an essence that came before pop’s mechanisms made him famous. At times he sounds like Andre 3000, his drawl psychedelicized. Elsewhere he spits bullets the way Tupac did. On the track he shares with Rihanna, “Loyalty,” their voices almost merge. (The same fluidity characterizes the album’s two other featured collaborations, with U2 and the young bedroom auteur Zacari) Always, though, Kendrick returns to his vocal essence, light-toned and limber, an urgency matched with playfulness.

The stories he tells also surface at the boundaries of the self. Lamar consistently presents himself as inhabiting contradictions: the violent shooter and the innocent victim; the sensation junkie who tells his girl “just let me put the head in” and the constant lover whose main concern is earning trust; the winner who becomes a God when he goes to the bank and the child who had to eat syrup sandwiches, who never leaves the grown man alone. Kendrick injects these tales with fragments penned by other rappers, from ODB to Jay Z to Juvenile. He’s not simply quoting, he’s showing how those other rappers’ sensibilities rest within his DNA.

The elemental titles on DAMN. – “BLOOD.,” “DNA.,” “LOVE.” – tell us that, despite the album’s lush feeling of experimentation, this is a kind of stripping away: of the present moment and of the pressure to stand for anything but oneself. Kendrick stands alone in all his complexity here. “Opposition is not enough,” bell hooks writes of the need for radical black subjectivity. “In that vacant space after one has resisted there is still the necessity to become – to make oneself anew.” DAMN. is Kendrick Lamar showing us how to do that. —Ann Powers, NPR Music

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