Thinkin’ things through: Angaleena Presley and Kendrick Lamar

Angaleena Presley – Wrangled

To denounce the state of country music, Nashville rapper Yelawolf rasps, “Just a crazy load of these country posers/I supposed a couple are real, but they’ll never make it/So Thank God for Sturgill Simpson/cuz Music Row can fuckin’ save it” in cadences familiar to fans of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” The song, imaginatively called “Country,” begins with what sounds like a sampled sports car revving up, a prelude to Angaleena Presley’s gettin’ all fired up reciting her own subterranean homesick blues over a twangy riff. It’s not “Accidentally Racist,” the 2013, LL Cool J collaboration that made Brad Paisley a laughing stock, but it is irrelevant.

On her second album Wrangled, Presley offers a dozen tunes that sometimes flirt with, if not irrelevance, redundancy. Stories about teenage misery (“High School”) and mean girls (“Bless Your Heart,” whose chorus sports a neat inversion) sit beside admissions of swagger. (“Outlaw”), the most novel of which takes Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” around the block to pick up gunpowder and lead (“I painted my face like a rodeo clown” – damn). Despite the songwriting help from Guy Clark and Chris Stapleton, and first-rate guitar work, Presley lacks expressive range. When her Pistol Annie comrades run out of material, they can always sing: Ashley Monroe has her pained, dulcet alto, and Miranda Lambert compensates with range and dynamism. Although I’ve no evidence for this claim, Presley reminds me of Brandy Clark,  a songwriter who had to learn to sing the songs she wrote — and did. Presley’s not there yet. Folk rock verities with country accents – what Wrangling offers, no more.

Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

Expressive range Kendrick Lamar’s got. Psychological and moral range too. As a listener who thought To Pimp a Butterfly was often too busy, I recoil too from “LUST” and “HUMBLE,”the arrangements devoid of their predecessors’ colors and tones. But there’s nowhere to hide from “DNA,” a series of upper cuts and KOs expected from classic Marley Marl or Pete Rock, not Mike WILL. At the moment when career patterns require the sick-soul-of-success album (“How many accolades do I need to block the now?” he raps at one point), Kendrick understands that form is what affirms; he insists on musical correlatives for monologues that dissolve into narratives, on autobiography broadening into biography. Whether citing Deuteronomy and sampling Beanie Sigel’s “Die” or interacting with a sinister piano line by The Edge that would spook Chris Martin, Kendrick goes from subject to object and back again, using and being used, noting enemies everywhere from the back streets to Wall Street and in the Oval Office, whose occupant puts Barack Obama’s flaws in context; he might even die walking home from the candy house. As on the fiercest tracks on To Pimp a Butterfly, “I” and “he” dissolve. After two weeks living with DAMN, I’m convinced it’s not a great album, but it’s an exciting one. I understand how kids can love Drake and Kendrick: in Drake they hear echoes of their dumbest thoughts, expressed or private; in Kendrick they hear their thoughts contextualized, a way of knowing they’re not alone.

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