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The Future Of Retail In The Age Of Amazon

The Mall of America’s terrazzo floors, glazed white like doughnut frosting, ribbon out in every direction, creating a vast mirror maze of consumerism with 520 glassy storefronts. Shoppers, who have escaped an endlessly gray Bloomington, Minnesota, sky on a Monday morning in October, drift through the largest mall in the United States like tourists at an Atlantic City buffet. A couple holding hands strolls into a Zales while buttery perfumes emanate from an Auntie Anne’s next door. Kids and some willing parents fling around on the SpongeBob SquarePants Rock Bottom Plunge roller coaster, one of 27 rides at the Nickelodeon-branded amusement park on-site. Distant echoes of saxophone Muzak clash with both elevator whirs and bubbly pop songs. Somewhere in this otherworldly commercial expanse are five Lids stores and four Sunglass Huts.

When the mall opened, in 1992, it represented the pinnacle of retail convenience and a mecca for young people to gather and spend. But the $650 million megamall was always “vaguely unreal . . . exuding the ambience of a monstrous hallucination,” as novelist David Guterson described it in a 1993 Harper’s article, calling it “monolithic and imposing.” Two years later, Jeff Bezos launched his online book marketplace, which quickly grew into a new type of Everything Store, one that fundamentally redefined the shopping experience and led some to argue that commercial centers like the Mall of America would become gaudy relics of an antiquated era.

Now, Wall Street analysts say, the retail apocalypse is upon us. Amazon dominates e-commerce and has gobbled up 5% of total U.S. retail sales. Some expect that the company will own half the online market within the next five years, a period during which, Credit Suisse predicts, a quarter of all malls will close. By the end of this year, more than 8,600 stores will have shuttered in 2017, the worst year on record.

But here’s the thing about the Mall of America: It’s fighting back. “I hear all this doom and gloom in the industry,” says the mall’s SVP of business development, Jill Renslow, with an upbeat, Midwestern delivery. “I’m like, ‘Folks! Keep your chin up! There’s so much opportunity!’ ” The mall completed a $325 million expansion in 2015, says Renslow, who started working there as an intern in the mid-1990s and has seen it endure recessions and upheaval before. A new 342-room JW Marriott has opened upstairs, and retailers like Zara and Anthropologie are being lured to the space. The mall is experimenting with new leasing models to attract pop-ups and younger players like Untuckit and Toms Shoes. Renslow, who is eager for people coming to Minneapolis for the 2018 Super Bowl this February to visit the mall and be surprised, doesn’t view Amazon as a competitor but as a partner; she recently worked with Amazon to install a set of pickup lockers at the mall. She believes retailers in general can “bring online shoppers to brick-and-mortar.” I ask her directly: Is physical retail dying? “Not at all!” she says.

Renslow isn’t feigning enthusiasm. Despite Wall Street’s pessimism, industry leaders sound downright bullish on the future of traditional retail. Why else, they argue, would Amazon spend $13.4 billion to buy Whole Foods? Sure, the competition is fiercer than ever, and icons such as Sears and JCPenney are dying. But they believe that the narrative has been oversimplified. “Amazon alone isn’t holding the knife,” says NYU Stern professor of marketing Scott Galloway, who studies the retail industry. Cultural tastes have changed. Malls grew too quickly, at twice the rate of the population, from 1970 to 2015. Many retailers succumbed to quarterly earnings pressures, invested in share buybacks rather than their stores, became saddled with private-equity debt, or failed to keep pace with digital trends. What we’re seeing now, industry executives say, is a rational, albeit painful, course correction. One study from retail-research firm IHL Group found that a mere 16 chains, including Radio­Shack and Payless, account for nearly half of all store closings, and that there will be a net increase of more than 4,000 stores in 2017 and 5,500-plus in 2018.

“Retail is under huge pressure, but the death of stores is greatly exaggerated,” says Galloway, who believes that while Amazon will continue to disrupt the market, an increasing number of competitors will discover new ways to respond. “In the age of Amazon, retailers must leverage assets that [Bezos] doesn’t have: When Amazon zigs, retailers must zag.”

This fall, Fast Company embarked on a journey to learn from those retailers that are flourishing in the age of Amazon. After all, more than 90% of retail sales still happen in the real world, and as relentless as Bezos is, it’s not likely he’ll swallow up all of brick-and-mortar on his own. The truth is that the bigger Amazon gets, the more opportunity it creates for fresh, local alternatives. The more Amazon pushes robot-powered efficiency, the more space there is for warm and individualized service. The more that people interact with Amazon through its AI-based assistant Alexa, the more they will crave the insight and personal connection of fellow humans.

“The idea that everybody needs to be terrified of Amazon is completely wrong,” says Brian Spaly, who cofounded two e-commerce-centric startups, Bonobos (menswear) and Trunk Club (a wardrobe-in-a-box service), which sold to Walmart and Nordstrom, respectively, for nine-figure sums. “Everybody needs to figure out what makes them special and use those weapons to compete.”

The faster Amazon delivers, the more cash it burns. Shipping losses soared to $7.2 billion in 2016 from $5 billion in 2015. [Illustration: Zohar Lazar]

Successful Retailers Will Feature Products That Customers Can’t Get Elsewhere

A 15-minute drive north from the Mall of America are the downtown Minneapolis headquarters of Target. The company’s $7 billion bet on its future is coming to life in a series of spacious rooms littered across several floors and filled with mannequins, racks of colorful apparel, and fashion magazines. It’s here that Target is designing its own goods, refocusing on the aesthetic sensibility that fueled its success in the early 2000s. “While others are shrinking their footprints, reducing head count, or trying to save their way to the next quarter, we think there’s opportunity for us to take more market share,” says CEO Brian Cornell, who launched the initiative last February.

On the fourth floor, at the studio for Cat & Jack, Target’s new children’s clothing line—which blew up in its first 12 months to become a $2.1 billion brand—mood boards display photos of smiling tots at a July Fourth block party and a family movie night. Julie Guggemos, Target’s SVP of product development, describes the spirit behind the design as “positivity, happiness, saving the world,” citing the adventurous tweens in Netflix’s Stranger Things as an inspiration for the team. “We listen to Mom and Dad, but we have these kids in mind when we’re designing,” says Guggemos, a 27-year Target veteran.

Guggemos and her team of 400-plus designers will be rolling out more than a dozen high-quality, affordable, Target-exclusive brands by the end of 2018. They have already introduced a boutiquey children’s decor line called Pillowfort, a modern furniture collection called Project 62, an athleisure apparel line for the post-yoga brunch crowd called JoyLab, and a dapper menswear brand called Goodfellow & Co, which even Esquire described as “elevated.” Guggemos has just come from a product review for a new line, slated to launch next year. “We’re designing everything from the bottom up, 100% original,” she says.

When consumers can get seemingly anything and everything online, what can Target offer that Amazon can’t? That question was top of mind for chief merchandising officer Mark Tritton when he joined the company from Nord­strom in 2016. Target had fallen into a trap of licensing outside brands like Cherokee, which makes children’s apparel; even its in-house kids’ label, Circo, felt dated. “I thought, Wow, this stuff isn’t right,” recalls Tritton. “It feels tired and disconnected.”

In other words, Target had strayed from what made it “Tar-zhay.” Two decades ago, the company had distinguished itself from other big-box retailers by teaming up with celebrated architect and designer Michael Graves to craft a collection of mass-market housewares, partnering with high-end fashion designers like Isaac Mizrahi for custom fashion lines, and nurturing emerging brands such as Method through forward-thinking curation. “There would be no retail if it weren’t for merchandising, so why isn’t anyone talking about it anymore?” wonders Rachel Shechtman, founder of Story, the novel Manhattan concept store, which reinvents itself regularly (and collaborated with Target in 2014). “Merch assortments designed by spreadsheets and algorithms” is what’s killing department stores, she says.

When I meet Target COO John Mulligan at Target’s flagship, which sits just a block away from the Cat & Jack studio, he’s eager to compare the store’s $10 million renovation with printed-out photos of the old layout, which hadn’t changed much since the flagship was built in 2001. “It was gondola hell, right?” Mulligan says, referring to the basic shelving units you see in stores. “Just rows and rows of stuff. No sight lines.” Mulligan shakes his head as he points to a depressing image of the in-store Pizza Hut that used to greet customers.

The layout has been reorganized around Target’s new brands, and the presentation is crisp and contemporary. (Inexplicably, the company didn’t have a visual merchandising department until just two years ago; Cornell has since poached talent from J.Crew and the Limited.) As Mulligan ushers me through the store, he beams at the displays, each of which will now be refreshed monthly, which is double the previous rate: There’s an autumn-themed collection from Cat & Jack; sporty JoyLab leggings designed in partnership with Clique, whose Who What Wear line has been a hit at Target since it launched in 2016; and modern dining chairs and walnut tables from Project 62. “Before, it was a dead zone back here,” he says of the home-essentials area. Other parts of the store feature bright new arrangements of exclusive products from e-commerce upstarts such as Harry’s and Casper, and even the fitting room looks more like what you’d find in a Club Monaco. As for the Hut? It’s been replaced by fresh groceries and a liquor and craft beer shop. Target will remodel an additional 1,000 stores in a similar fashion by 2020, while also rolling out more localized stores with smaller footprints.

The redesigned “Tar-zhays”—there are around 110 of them so far—have delivered up to a 4% jump in sales at each location, but the more promising return from this investment has come from the house brands themselves. Cat & Jack customers, for example, spend 50% more in surrounding kids’ retail areas, Mulligan says, adding that their total basket size is 23% higher than other customers’. Most significantly, Target’s consumer research has shown that its brands have become a “trip driver”: People come to the store for Cat & Jack as much as they do for essentials like laundry detergent or bread or milk. “Target has always won with a spirit of design that their competitors didn’t have. I don’t see any other move for them: They’re not going to beat Amazon on e-commerce,” says a high-level retail expert who has advised the company on strategy.

Indeed, Target’s digital efforts continue to lag. When Mulligan takes me to the back to show off the redesigned storeroom, I don’t see any floor-roaming robots or automated conveyer belts, despite the fact that Target has stated that it plans to use its more than 1,800 stores as fulfillment centers (80% of the U.S. population lives within 10 miles of a Target). Instead, I find just one store clerk manually taping cardboard boxes for in-store pickup. Later, when I arrive to retrieve a $14.99 Goodfellow Henley shirt I purchased via Target’s app, the cashier asks for my ID because the flagship store’s smartphone scanner is broken. When I test Target’s new curbside-pickup service to buy paper towels, it fails at three consecutive outlets within the Minneapolis area. Ultimately, I give up.

The company needs to improve e-commerce and store pickup, but its future success does not depend only on these services. “Target is going to have to win on stuff that nobody else has,” the high-level expert says. “And that’s great retail, right?”

Successful Retailers Will Deliver A Satisfying Experience

A time zone away, in the sixth-floor showroom of Warby Parker’s SoHo offices in New York, cofounders Neil Blumenthal and Dave Gilboa are squinting at a backless shelving unit displaying their designer glasses. Customers mill about just steps from the co-CEOs’ desks, a dynamic that helps them relentlessly monitor and surgically adapt Warby Parker’s high-touch experience. Blumenthal is eyeing a wood shelf, which is missing a centimeter-tall lip, so that if a customer slides a pair of $95 Chamberlains too far back, they’ll slip onto the floor. “This does not make me happy,” he grumbles. Addressing these tiny details has proven crucial to the eyewear brand’s success. If they’re not fixed, “we’ll hear about it, like, ‘Fucking shit is falling off [the shelf]!’ ” Blumenthal says, with an effervescent laugh. “I don’t know if it’s right for policing, but broken-window theory definitely applies to retail.”

The 37-year-olds, who on this sunny Friday morning are both wearing slim-fitting button-downs, black sneakers, and patterned glasses—imagine the Black Keys as merchant princes—visit a Warby Parker store each day, hunting “for anything that needs to be refreshed, anything that’s out of place,” Gilboa says. This could be off-kilter frames or neglected customers. As much as the two consider themselves disrupters of competitors like Luxottica (Warby Parker’s $10.5 billion rival, which owns everything from LensCrafters to Ray-Ban), they’re students of retail history and find inspiration in such leaders as hospitality guru Danny Meyer, Apple Store legend Ron Johnson, and Mickey Drexler, the merchandising titan famous for reviving Gap in the 1990s and J.Crew in the 2000s.

Drexler, an early Warby Parker investor and board member, taught them that good experiential design is about solving customer problems. Gilboa describes how Drexler would walk into stores, zoom by Warby’s managers, and head straight to associates to interrogate them for unvarnished feedback. “He’ll isolate them, ask each of them the same questions, and then triangulate: Is he hearing consistent or conflicting answers? Then he really digs in, surfacing nuggets of wisdom hidden even by stores with great numbers,” Gilboa remembers.

When Warby launched its first store, in SoHo in 2013, the mission was to eliminate everything annoying about buying glasses. Blumenthal hated the “little shit vanity mirrors” at optometry shops, while Gilboa couldn’t stand the merchandise locked away in glass cases and the awkward interactions with often-pretentious store associates. They wanted approachable store greeters, an ask-us-anything reference desk, and a warm aesthetic, which they modeled after Sweden’s Stockholm Public Library, complete with its dark-wood shelving. Anthony Sperduti, cofounder of design studio Partners & Spade, who helped Warby Parker conceive its early stores, says they needed to feel like an authentic extension of the e-commerce brand. The high-quality materials of its eyewear products, he says, are reflected in “the brass details, marble counters—this incredible weight, this classicism.” To transform an intimidating experience into a fun and social activity, Warby Parker added photo booths and full-length mirrors so groups can check themselves out together. “If you’re born online, you better have a really good reason to do brick-and-mortar,” Sperduti says. “You better come out swinging.”

Warby now operates more than 60 stores, and on this particular day, it’s opening three new locations simultaneously—in Milwaukee; Fort Worth, Texas; and Harvard Square. Analysts estimate that the company will generate around $250 million in 2017 revenue. As the operation grows, it only gets harder for Blumenthal and Gilboa to keep this experience fresh. Before committing to risky new territories, the company often tests low-cost pop-up shops, rather than get stuck in the kind of expensive, long-term leases that have suffocated many traditional retailers and led them to try to save costs by building out one-size-fits-all stores. The Warby Parker team has developed modular components so that each store shares an identity but there’s room for local flourishes. Vernors ginger ale, a Michigan favorite, is on tap at the Detroit store, honoring the 151-year-old soda maker that once operated a pharmacy at the same location. The Miami store, which opened in 2015, features floors painted to look like swimming lanes, so that photos taken from the ceiling-affixed cameras make customers in sunglasses look like they’re floating in a pool—images that shoppers can then share on social media.

Big retailers and digital-native consumer brands alike cite Warby Parker as an inspiration and seek to mimic, even reverse engineer, what they believe is the core of its hip but inviting store experience. But refashioning stores with a certain wood finish or outfitting employees in a distinctive smock doesn’t make you Warby Parker any more than painting your store white makes you Apple. Piling on frivolous attractions in an attempt at authenticity, as Brooks Brothers did by opening a Stumptown at one of its Manhattan locations, drives the Warby Parker team bonkers. “The way people are defining experience today is way off,” Blumenthal says. “The idea of adding coffee shops to every store is ridiculous,” because it’s driven not by solving a customer problem or introducing a novel experience tied in some way to a brand, but by a hackneyed attempt to boost foot traffic. Equally jarring to them is Amazon’s new Go store in Seattle, which Gilboa recently explored, in which an array of sensors and computer-vision technology enable the ultimate in grab-and-go shopping. “Play that [concept] forward and you can imagine this dystopian experience where you have no human interaction at all,” he says.

Warby Parker is just as maniacally focused on efficiency as Amazon: Its next big initiative is a $15 million optical lab, in upstate New York, which enables greater quality control and faster product delivery. But the company knows that its true value lies in its elevated and personal experience, and Blumenthal and Gilboa never want to stray too far from what Drexler taught them. “We want to reinvent, but we sure as shit don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” Blumenthal says. “Startups sometimes take it too far, like, ‘Oh, we’re an innovator! We’ll just ignore what [traditional] retailers have done!’ Ignore best practices, get crushed.”

The best retailers are embracing what makes them special to counteract Amazon’s quest to dominate commerce. [Illustration: Zohar Lazar]

Successful Retailers Will Challenge The Fundamental Assumptions Of Commerce

What does the store of tomorrow look like? Amazon Go is certainly one experiment, and seemingly every big brand, from Mastercard to Sephora, is dreaming up its own vision of the future inside whiz-bang concept labs. Ask around the retail industry and you’ll hear endless, breathless predictions about the potential of in-store augmented reality, drone delivery, or bitcoin payments.

So far, these technologies have amounted to little more than gimmicky distractions. “Customers don’t want stupid disco balls with lasers and holograms,” says Healey Cypher, founder of Oak Labs, which, yes, makes an interactive “smart mirror,” but is more focused on customizing the dressing-room experience. Target, too, seems to have come to this realization. Earlier this year, the company shuttered its much-ballyhooed “store of the future” project built on glitzy tech. “Ultimately, we didn’t want to build a Jetsons-like store just because we can,” COO John Mulligan says.

Vibhu Norby and Phillip Raub, cofounders of B8ta, a San Francisco–based consumer-electronics retailer that has raised $19.5 million to reimagine brick-and-mortar, are thinking different. Rather than depend on a cut of sales from products, like Best Buy does, their company charges brands for the privilege of being featured in B8ta’s 10 stores. By selling only a limited selection of trendy gadgets, B8ta’s store associates act as ambassadors for the products—the true stars—educating consumers on their features and offering white-glove service.

Norby and Raub believe that all physical retailers—Amazon included—need to rethink the business entirely. Norby, B8ta’s CEO, argues that historic metrics for success are completely irrelevant today. Who cares about sales per square foot when products reach customers via Uber and Prime Now? Why do year-over-year same-store sales comps matter when 56% of customers test products in-store but buy online? “Designing stores for throughput is how we ended up with 10-by-10 walls of Tide at Safeway,” Norby says. Perhaps most radical is the new idea that retail can be unbundled from transaction. Bonobos’s “guideshops,” for example, offer fittings and fashion advice, with the assumption that customers will order their apparel online afterward. Decide to buy in-store? Bonobos will ship it for free. “I’m starting to see it more, where retailers are not expecting you to walk out with a bag of their stuff,” says Partners & Spade’s Sperduti.

Some of these ideas might strike industry veterans as heresy, but B8ta’s cofounders view it merely as a shift in thinking about how physical space can be monetized. On a recent Saturday afternoon at B8ta’s downtown Palo Alto location, store associates demonstrate Boosted electric skateboards out front on the sidewalk. Inside, the store has a relaxed vibe, with homey carpets and armchairs occupied by gadget-shoppers’ patient loved ones, though it takes obvious inspiration from Apple’s minimalist stores. Customers sipping bubble tea toy with unboxed gadgets set up on long tables—Oculus Rift VR headsets, August door locks, Onyx walkie-talkies—while B8ta staff politely chats them up. These associates are not pushy at all, because they’re not pressured to sell units. They’re happy to answer questions and are knowledgeable about everything from the Nebia ionizing shower (“It turns your droplets into even smaller droplets,” an employee explains) to the finer points of four different Bluetooth trackers. B8ta’s market advantage is its well-trained staff. The cofounders, who met at the smart-thermostat company Nest, know firsthand how difficult it is to get customers interested in, let alone grasp, the benefits of new hardware products.

For electronics brands, B8ta stores are an excellent (and relatively inexpensive) marketing portal, and an even better data tool. “The real magic happens behind the scenes,” says Raub, the company’s chief business officer, who previously worked at Gap and Nintendo. Every product featured in the store is wired to track how customers play with it. Store associates, called “B8ta testers,” also gather qualitative feedback on why a shopper did or didn’t buy a product. “Why did they look at it? What didn’t they like?” says Raub, listing off a couple of common data points, which he compares to how e-commerce players monitor checkout cart abandonment. “Now brands can know that customers may have liked a product, but gave up once, say, they found out it wasn’t compatible with Android.” In a world where consumer products often end up languishing on shelves at Best Buy or forgotten amid Amazon’s catalog of an estimated 350 million–plus items, this data is more valuable than the sale itself. Traditional retailers now want what B8ta can offer: In late October, the startup announced that 70 Lowe’s locations will add a smart-home-focused B8ta, and Macy’s will soon feature B8ta outposts in its flagship stores.

Successful Retailers Will Resurrect The Art Of Selling

During my reporting, I quizzed each person I spoke with about which stores get retail right. People picked one place more than any other: MartinPatrick3.

An extravagant, 17,000-square-foot cathedral of high-fashion menswear in Minneapolis, MartinPatrick3 looks like what would have happened if Willy Wonka had gone to Parsons School of Design. At once boundless and intimate, the store’s colorful rooms naturally transition to the next, each its own pristinely wrapped Christmas present. In one, a collection of hand-stitched bow ties lie near $5,500 Brunello Cucinelli suits, a shiny black Vespa, and a modern steel cocktail table by a local designer. Down the hall, a white-accented men’s grooming shop stocked with shaving creams and bottled fragrances practically glows. There’s an in-store tailor, a barber, a full-time jewelry designer, and sharply dressed store associates, all with bouquet-like pocket squares blooming from their blazers.

Eleven years ago, Greg Walsh, an upscale interior designer who also sold home furnishings from his studio in the city’s hip North Loop neighborhood, began showcasing men’s accessories he’d collected during his travels: cuff links, watches, wallets. Customers loved them. Walsh brought on his better half, Dana Swindler (they’re “partner partners,” as Swindler puts it, smiling), to build out a stand-alone store in 2008. “The rule was that nothing could have sizes,” Walsh says. “That totally went out the window,” he laughs, explaining that the scope quickly grew to include apparel and much more.

Local Heroes: Five independent retailers who get it right, through curation, service, and offering something you’ll never get at Amazon

Walsh and Swindler approach retail drastically differently from any merchant I encountered. Each display in MartinPatrick3, no matter how exquisite, is designed to be ephemeral. “We’re constantly reinventing. We can completely remodel a room within 24 hours,” Walsh says. They pride themselves on always paying vendors within 30 days—uncommon in the industry—and rushing new products into store collections often within days. (“This would take nine months at Nordstrom,” Walsh remembers one vendor telling him.) Whereas the traditional rules of brick-and-mortar dictate that sales matter above all else, store associates at MartinPatrick3 are encouraged to dole out sincere fashion advice, and if it means counseling a guest away from a higher-priced item or directing him to competitors’ shops, so be it. The payback comes in the lasting relationships such honesty builds. The company hosts events for free—even weddings—which it sees as a natural arm of its service, particularly if it has helped outfit the groomsmen. (There are shelves stocked with prosecco in a cozy VIP lounge.) In April, Walsh and Swindler even took down their e-commerce site. “It’s been funny. People in the industry keep saying, ‘You did what?!’ ” Walsh says. “But we decided we’re all about brick-and-mortar—that’s what we do really well—so let’s focus all our energy there.”

The self-financed retailer is growing fast. Walsh and Swindler guide me through back doors into 4,000 additional square feet of empty, brick-walled warehouse space adjacent to the store. This unfinished part of the 131-year-old building they moved to in 2010 is what Walsh is targeting as the company’s fifth addition. Down the hall, in their design studio, where MartinPatrick3’s “board of directors”—Cole and Ella, finely groomed poodles—lounge about on a green-mohair dining settee, Swindler cracks open a thick three-ring binder full of store statistics. (Swindler, who previously ran an engineering firm, is as meticulous about data as Walsh is about design.) Revenue has jumped an average of 40% annually since the company’s founding, with some years reaching triple-digit growth. “We work our asses off,” Swindler says proudly.

The pair can’t quite articulate their secret, but they know other retailers don’t have it. Others move too slowly, they feel, and simply aren’t creative enough. “We started in the recession. We’re used to hustling,” Swindler says. “The retailers we meet, they don’t do anything all day! Their give-a-shit factor is way down; they’re not on the floor every day like we are. Now that they’re making less [money], what do they do? The same thing as before, over and over and over again.”

MartinPatrick3 (the name comes from the ones Walsh’s father almost bequeathed him) offers sophisticated taste, expert curation, and a concierge-like, almost old-fashioned level of service that’s increasingly hard to find. Yes, it’s a store mostly for the 1%, but there is much here that Amazon can’t copy, time-honored lessons of merchandising and customer attention.

Retailers don’t need to chase a futuristic version of themselves that they might never attain; they first need to remember what made them special in the first place. The answers are all here. The talent, too. If Wall Street is right and the industry continues to decline, then this will be what we lose: the art of selling. MartinPatrick3’s store manager once worked at Nordstrom. The self-described concierge, who welcomed me to the store, made helpful recommendations, and even offered to assist with dinner reservations while I was in town, is an expat of Neiman Marcus, another shrinking department store trying to find its footing in the age of Amazon. You don’t need to sell mid-four-figure Cucinelli suits to offer this level of hospitality—Warby Parker does it with $95 frames—you just have to care enough to treat customers with the consideration and cordiality they deserve.

I roam through MartinPatrick3 by myself for a while, and eventually end up at Marty’s, the in-store barbershop with a classic candy-cane pole out front. Christopher Hernandez, my stylist, is dressed in a black vest and a gray flat cap like a 1920s newsboy. He previously worked at the barbershop inside the downtown Minneapolis Macy’s. Last March, Macy’s shuttered the location. “Most of us have a background in some big department store that’s closed,” he says as he snips away. “We’re all orphans here.”

via Fast Company

Kid Cudi’s Limited “MR. RAGER” Tour Merch Is Available Online Until Cyber Monday


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Kid Cudi announced on Black Friday that his limited edition “MR. RAGER” merchandise will be available online until Cyber Monday.

The collection is designed by Virgil Abloh and was previously only available during Cudi’s North American tour for Passion Pain & Demon Slayin. This release marks the first time that the collection will be made available to those who missed out on the tour.

You’ve still got to be quick though, because, as mentioned above, the collection will only be available until Cyber Monday, after which it will be pulled from the online store again.

The 4-piece capsule is made up of four long-sleeve T-shirts that feature bold and colorful graphics on both the front and the back of each design.

Shop the collection via the link below.

In other news, 6LACK took over Wish ATL for a “6LACK FRIDAY” pop-up.

via Highsnobiety

Kanye West Goes Black Friday Shopping in Unreleased YEEZY Boost 350 V2


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Kanye West was spotted taking part in some Black Friday shopping yesterday at Maxfield in Los Angeles while wearing an unreleased colorway of his popular YEEZY Boost 350 V2 silhouette.

The unreleased YEEZY Boost 350 V2 colorway has already been dubbed “Lime” by various Instagram accounts, however, this particular YEEZY may be a colorway we’ve already seen, more specifically during the presentation of YEEZY Season 3 in February 2016.

The Instagram picture below shows what looks to be the same colorway Kanye is rocking. Keen observers will notice the Belugas in the top left, as well as various colorways of the YEEZY Boost 950 boot that have already released.

Lit

A post shared by ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀SZN 3 (@yeezyseason3) on

With paparazzi shots like these it’s hard to say whether the sneakers will ever release. Kanye has been known to wear new colorways of his YEEZYs before they come out to help build the hype but he also has worn (and has access to) countless models and colorways that still have not, and maybe never will see release.

Whether these are just old samples or an upcoming colorway, we’re definitely digging the “Semi Frozen Yellow” vibes on this pair.

Cop or Drop? 🍋 Kanye was wearing new "Lime" 350 V2 SAMPLES recently!

A post shared by YEEZYSEASON (@yeezyseason2) on

With “Frozen Yellow” set to be the hottest color next year, Kanye could be capitalizing on the hype early with this new pair – if it ever releases.

To stay informed about new releases, be sure to follow Highsnobiety on Twitter, and Instagram, as well as our sneaker chatbot on Facebook to receive lightning quick updates on release dates, sneaker street style, shopping tips and more.

via Highsnobiety

The Air Jordan 9 Gets Retooled in New Winterized Boot Model

Jordan Brand is set to release yet another sneaker rework — taking the current cold weather season into consideration. This time around, we see the iconic Air Jordan 9 take on full winterized boot-style modifications, including metal eyelets, a sturdy leather-constructed upper and a rugged outsole — ideal for optimal traction of varying terrain types.

The sneakerboot hybrid takes on a black and olive color scheme, with hits of red landing on the midsole and heel branding. Look for the Air Jordan 9 Boot NRG at select Jordan Brand retailers come December 6.

In other footwear news, Reebok recently debuted the 58 BRIGHT ST DMX BETA10.

Read more at HYPEBEASTClick here to view full gallery at HYPEBEAST



via Hypebeast

The A$AP Nast x Converse Collaboration Is Set for an Online Rerelease

Towards the tail end of September, we took a look at A$AP Nast’s collaborative project alongside Converse, as the duo looked to reinvent the sportswear giant’s One Star and Chuck Taylor All Star 70 models, respectively. The A$AP Mob member drew inspiration from heritage design elements — an aesthetic he has publicly shown a keen interest in — as the low top model took on a soft corduroy finish, while the All Star received an old-school plaid pattern.

For those who missed out on the initial drop, not to fret, as the man himself recently hit up Instagram to provide rerelease details. According to Nast’s social media post, both models will hit Foot Locker’s online shop at 9 am EST come November 27.

In other footwear news, Fear of God will bring back its Military Sneakers for Cyber Monday.

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The adidas Ultra BOOST 4.0 “Core White” Receives an Official a Release

After being available for pre-order, the "Core White" colorway of the adidas Ultra BOOST 4.0 recently received an official release date. This time around the updated popular BOOST model features a reworked white Primeknit upper accented by a matching TPU heel counter and side cage. While a full-length BOOST midsole and contrasting Continental outsole rounds up the design of the shoe. Retailing at $180 USD, is set to release at adidas.com and select adidas retailers November 30.

For more adidas news, Kanye West was recently spotted wearing an unreleased YEEZY BOOST 350 V2 model on Black Friday.

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Here’s How to Buy the Nike Air Max 97 “Country Camo” Pack in Late December


Visit the original post to see all 8 images from this gallery.

Brand: Nike

Model: Air Max 97

Key Features: This pack sees the Air Max 97 dressed up in various military patterns from around the world, including Germany, France, Italy, and the UK.

Each variation will come with interchangeable velcro patches on the tongue that feature either the flag of the country of origin, or a classic Nike logo. Three of the four colorways sit atop a white sole, while the “Italy” version features a black mid- and outsole.

Release Date: Late December

Price: Not yet confirmed, but will most likely range anywhere between $160 and $170.

Buy: Nike

Editor’s Notes: The Nike Air Max 97’s 20th anniversary has been a big one with hyped collaborations such as the UNDEFEATED pack, Virgil Abloh’s take on the silhouette in his “The Ten” collection, and Skepta’s Morrocco-inspired version, making 2017 a strong year for the much-loved model.

Perhaps as a final farewell to the 97 in 2017, Nike is releasing a “Country Camo” pack which will reportedly be available in late December. Much like the original military-inspired Air Max pack released in 2013, this one sees the Air Max 97 dressed up in various military patterns from around the world.

While the original “Country Camo” pack was made up of various Air Max models, Nike is highlighting the Air Max 97 by only using one model throughout the pack.

No word yet on how limited this release will be but make sure to check back here for updates.

Next, find out how to sign up for the black KAWS x Nike Air Jordan 4.

To stay informed about new releases, be sure to follow Highsnobiety on Twitter, and Instagram, as well as our sneaker chatbot on Facebook to receive lightning quick updates on release dates, sneaker street style, shopping tips and more.

via Highsnobiety

Here’s How to Buy the Nike Air Max 97 “Country Camo” Pack in Late December


Visit the original post to see all 8 images from this gallery.

Brand: Nike

Model: Air Max 97

Key Features: This pack sees the Air Max 97 dressed up in various military patterns from around the world, including Germany, France, Italy, and the UK.

Each variation will come with interchangeable velcro patches on the tongue that feature either the flag of the country of origin, or a classic Nike logo. Three of the four colorways sit atop a white sole, while the “Italy” version features a black mid- and outsole.

Release Date: Late December

Price: Not yet confirmed, but will most likely range anywhere between $160 and $170.

Buy: Nike

Editor’s Notes: The Nike Air Max 97’s 20th anniversary has been a big one with hyped collaborations such as the UNDEFEATED pack, Virgil Abloh’s take on the silhouette in his “The Ten” collection, and Skepta’s Morrocco-inspired version, making 2017 a strong year for the much-loved model.

Perhaps as a final farewell to the 97 in 2017, Nike is releasing a “Country Camo” pack which will reportedly be available in late December. Much like the original military-inspired Air Max pack released in 2013, this one sees the Air Max 97 dressed up in various military patterns from around the world.

While the original “Country Camo” pack was made up of various Air Max models, Nike is highlighting the Air Max 97 by only using one model throughout the pack.

No word yet on how limited this release will be but make sure to check back here for updates.

Next, find out how to sign up for the black KAWS x Nike Air Jordan 4.

To stay informed about new releases, be sure to follow Highsnobiety on Twitter, and Instagram, as well as our sneaker chatbot on Facebook to receive lightning quick updates on release dates, sneaker street style, shopping tips and more.

via Highsnobiety

Here’s How to Buy the Nike Air Max 97 “Country Camo” Pack in Late December


Visit the original post to see all 8 images from this gallery.

Brand: Nike

Model: Air Max 97

Key Features: This pack sees the Air Max 97 dressed up in various military patterns from around the world, including Germany, France, Italy, and the UK.

Each variation will come with interchangeable velcro patches on the tongue that feature either the flag of the country of origin, or a classic Nike logo. Three of the four colorways sit atop a white sole, while the “Italy” version features a black mid- and outsole.

Release Date: Late December

Price: Not yet confirmed, but will most likely range anywhere between $160 and $170.

Buy: Nike

Editor’s Notes: The Nike Air Max 97’s 20th anniversary has been a big one with hyped collaborations such as the UNDEFEATED pack, Virgil Abloh’s take on the silhouette in his “The Ten” collection, and Skepta’s Morrocco-inspired version, making 2017 a strong year for the much-loved model.

Perhaps as a final farewell to the 97 in 2017, Nike is releasing a “Country Camo” pack which will reportedly be available in late December. Much like the original military-inspired Air Max pack released in 2013, this one sees the Air Max 97 dressed up in various military patterns from around the world.

While the original “Country Camo” pack was made up of various Air Max models, Nike is highlighting the Air Max 97 by only using one model throughout the pack.

No word yet on how limited this release will be but make sure to check back here for updates.

Next, find out how to sign up for the black KAWS x Nike Air Jordan 4.

To stay informed about new releases, be sure to follow Highsnobiety on Twitter, and Instagram, as well as our sneaker chatbot on Facebook to receive lightning quick updates on release dates, sneaker street style, shopping tips and more.

via Highsnobiety

Here’s How to Buy the Nike Air Max 97 “Country Camo” Pack in Late December


Visit the original post to see all 8 images from this gallery.

Brand: Nike

Model: Air Max 97

Key Features: This pack sees the Air Max 97 dressed up in various military patterns from around the world, including Germany, France, Italy, and the UK.

Each variation will come with interchangeable velcro patches on the tongue that feature either the flag of the country of origin, or a classic Nike logo. Three of the four colorways sit atop a white sole, while the “Italy” version features a black mid- and outsole.

Release Date: Late December

Price: Not yet confirmed, but will most likely range anywhere between $160 and $170.

Buy: Nike

Editor’s Notes: The Nike Air Max 97’s 20th anniversary has been a big one with hyped collaborations such as the UNDEFEATED pack, Virgil Abloh’s take on the silhouette in his “The Ten” collection, and Skepta’s Morrocco-inspired version, making 2017 a strong year for the much-loved model.

Perhaps as a final farewell to the 97 in 2017, Nike is releasing a “Country Camo” pack which will reportedly be available in late December. Much like the original military-inspired Air Max pack released in 2013, this one sees the Air Max 97 dressed up in various military patterns from around the world.

While the original “Country Camo” pack was made up of various Air Max models, Nike is highlighting the Air Max 97 by only using one model throughout the pack.

No word yet on how limited this release will be but make sure to check back here for updates.

Next, find out how to sign up for the black KAWS x Nike Air Jordan 4.

To stay informed about new releases, be sure to follow Highsnobiety on Twitter, and Instagram, as well as our sneaker chatbot on Facebook to receive lightning quick updates on release dates, sneaker street style, shopping tips and more.

via Highsnobiety

Here’s How to Buy the Nike Air Max 97 “Country Camo” Pack in Late December


Visit the original post to see all 8 images from this gallery.

Brand: Nike

Model: Air Max 97

Key Features: This pack sees the Air Max 97 dressed up in various military patterns from around the world, including Germany, France, Italy, and the UK.

Each variation will come with interchangeable velcro patches on the tongue that feature either the flag of the country of origin, or a classic Nike logo. Three of the four colorways sit atop a white sole, while the “Italy” version features a black mid- and outsole.

Release Date: Late December

Price: Not yet confirmed, but will most likely range anywhere between $160 and $170.

Buy: Nike

Editor’s Notes: The Nike Air Max 97’s 20th anniversary has been a big one with hyped collaborations such as the UNDEFEATED pack, Virgil Abloh’s take on the silhouette in his “The Ten” collection, and Skepta’s Morrocco-inspired version, making 2017 a strong year for the much-loved model.

Perhaps as a final farewell to the 97 in 2017, Nike is releasing a “Country Camo” pack which will reportedly be available in late December. Much like the original military-inspired Air Max pack released in 2013, this one sees the Air Max 97 dressed up in various military patterns from around the world.

While the original “Country Camo” pack was made up of various Air Max models, Nike is highlighting the Air Max 97 by only using one model throughout the pack.

No word yet on how limited this release will be but make sure to check back here for updates.

Next, find out how to sign up for the black KAWS x Nike Air Jordan 4.

To stay informed about new releases, be sure to follow Highsnobiety on Twitter, and Instagram, as well as our sneaker chatbot on Facebook to receive lightning quick updates on release dates, sneaker street style, shopping tips and more.

via Highsnobiety

Robinhood stock trading app confirms $110M raise at $1.3B valuation

Zero-fee stock trading app Robinhood has joined the unicorn club thanks to reaching 2 million users and 17% month-over-month growth of its revenue-driving Robinhood Gold subscription product. The startup confirmed to TechCrunch that it’s raised $110 million at a $1.3 billion valuation led by DST Global, with participation by existing investors NEA, Index Ventures and Ribbit Capital, plus new investors Thrive and Greenoaks.

Today’s announcement confirm’s TechCrunch scoop from last month that Robinhood was raising at $1.3 billion from DST. The 80-person, 4-year-old startup has now pulled in $176 million in total funding.

“But How Are You Going To Make Money?”

“Our investors are saying ‘we haven’t ever seen a finance company that’s managed to grow like an internet company’” Robinhood co-founder Baiju Bhatt tells me. It’s hit 2 million users, up from 1 million in October, and it’s now adding around 140,000 accounts per month.

Other online brokerages like Scottrade and E*trade charge $7 to $10 per trade. But by making trading free, Robinhood has saved its users a half billion dollars in commissions on the $50 billion in transactions its processed. Bhatt beams, “We pulled a half-billion dollars out of the finance industry and redistributed it to average young Americans. That’s something I’m personally very proud about.”

“But ‘how are you going to make money long-term?’ has been a question mark” Bhatt says. Gold has answered that question.” A Gold subscription lets users borrow up to double the money in their account to trade on margin with leverage, plus skip the three-day waiting period for deposits and make trades instantly. Gold costs $6 to $15 per month for smaller account sizes and less borrwing power, while higher prices up to $200 per month let people borrow up to $50,000.

Robinhood also earns money from rebates its gets for directing its order flow to broker dealers, though Bhatt insists “We do not sell data to anyone. We have never sold data to anyone. We just do not do that.” There have been misconceptions that Robinhood sells high-frequency traders its data to help them trade against the startup’s customers. But Bhatt says “The rules around this stuff as so tight. We’re not a social media company. If we even step slightly out of line with anything we all go to jail.”

Meanwhile, Robinhood earns money on the interest of cash sitting in its users’ accounts, which could get a boost if the Fed raises the interest rate.

“It’s gone from ‘we want to see where the revenue is going’ to wow that’s really strong’” Bhatt relays.

Referralhood

Robinhood is also launching a new referral program today, designed to lure new users but also teach them how to use the app. Co-founder Baiju Bhatt tells the company was trying to figure out “how do we build a referral program where when the person signs up, they get a unit of our service for free, like with Uber you get a ride for free so you immediately know what Uber does.”

Now when one user refers someone else who signs up, both get one share of a randomly selected company from a set that includes Facebook, Apple, RiteAid, Ford, and General Electric. “Most people who don’t invest in the stock market, their biggest hangup is they don’t know which stock to buy their very first time” Bhatt says. But he insists people should dive in to start learning.

Robinhood has plenty to keep learning itself. It will have to continue to clamp down on fraud to minimize its costs. Meanwhile, it will have to compete with the big brokerages like Charles Schwab that are responding to its invasion of their market by lowering trading fees.

But if the startup can continue to make a historically expensive service free through a lean engineering team instead of a giant brick-and-mortar footprint, it could shake up the finance industry in a big way.

via TechCrunch

Kendrick Lamar Announces the ‘DAMN.’ Tour


Kendrick Lamar has just announced that he is to embark on a tour of his exceptional album DAMN. Taking place in North America through July and August, the 17-stop tour will also feature his “goosebumps” collaborator Travis Scott alongside D.R.A.M. Check out the full tour dates and artwork below.

July 12 – Phoenix, AZ @ Gila River ArenaJuly 14 – Dallas, TX @ American Airlines Center
July 15 – Houston, TX @ Toyota Center
July 17 – Duluth, GA @ Infinite Energy Arena
July 19 – Philadelphia, PA @ Wells Fargo Center
July 20 – Brooklyn, NY @ Barclays Center
July 21 – Washington, DC @ Verizon Center
July 22 – Boston, MA @ TD Garden
July 25 – Toronto, ON @ Air Canada Centre
July 26 – Auburn Hills, MI @ The Palace of Auburn Hills
July 27 – Chicago, IL @ United Center
July 29 – Denver, CO @ Pepsi Center
August 1 – Seattle, WA @ Tacoma Dome
August 2 – Vancouver, BC @ Rogers Arena
August 4 – Oakland, CA @ Oracle Arena
August 5 – Las Vegas, NV @ T-Mobile Arena
August 6 – Los Angeles, CA @ STAPLES Center

Tickets for The ‘DAMN.’ Tour will go on sale to the general public on Friday, April 28th at Ticketmaster, with an American Express pre-sale starting Tuesday, April 25th.

‘The DAMN. Tour’ announcement follows up on the news that Kendrick surpassed Drake’s More Life in first week sales, incredibly shifting over 600,000 units – way above what forecasters initially suggested. You can purchase Kendrick’s DAMN. T-shirt right here, and watch the “goosebumps” video with his upcoming tour-mate below.

Missed out on attending this year’s Coachella? Make sure check out all the best action from this weekend’s performances right here.

via Highsnobiety

Listen to Migel and Dua Lipa Team up on New Single “Lost in Your Light”

Miguel has joined forces with UK-based singer Dua Lipa on new single "Lost in Your Light." The song is from Lipa’s upcoming album and is a chance for Miguel to showcase his power pop credentials. The uplifting single is listenable via Apple Music and you can hear a snippet of it below. This song is the only feature on the self-titled LP, which is due to be released on June 2.

There hasn’t been an album release from Miguel this year, but he’s still keeping busy: he was last seen on the DJ Premier-produced "2 LOVIN U."

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Kendrick Lamar’s ‘DAMN.’ Beats Drake’s ‘More Life’ as Largest Debut of 2017

Last week, it was incorrectly forecasted by Billboard that Kendrick Lamar‘s DAMN. would lose to Drake‘s More Life as the largest debut of 2017. DAMN. was projected to move 475,000 equivalent album units in its first week, slightly behind Drake’s 505,000 units moved. However, the numbers are in: K-Dot’s latest full-length studio album moved a whopping 603,000 album units opening week, with 353,000 of that in pure sales, according to Nielsen Music. DAMN. is the largest sales week since Drake’s VIEWS moved 1.04 million units in its launch week last May. The album is also Kendrick Lamar’s biggest sales week ever, outperforming 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly which moved 324,000 units.

Unfortunately, even with convincing rumors circulating the Internet, Kendrick does not plan to release another new album anytime soon. Stream the album below again and let us know if you think Kendrick’s project deserved top spot over Drake’s album.

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Supreme & Nike Finally Confirm 3 Collaborative Air Uptempos Dropping This Week


Visit the original post to see all 10 images from this gallery.

After we reported on a number of leaked images (the likes of A$AP Bari and Barcelona forward Neymar Jr. were gifted early pairs), Supreme has finally confirmed a collaborative Uptempo alongside Nike.

The pack includes three colorways, with gold, black and red versions included, all featuring reflective lettering. Diverging from the basketball sneaker’s classic design, Supreme’s versions now read “SUPREME” in chunky bubble letters instead of the classic “AIR” lettering. The sneakers are rounded out with nubuck uppers, Air-Sole units, and elastic gores across the tongues.

Watch for availability to begin online only in US & Europe on April 27th, then in Japanese stores on April 29th.

via Highsnobiety

Quavo and KeKe Palmer Share New Beat-Heavy Track “Wind Up”

KeKe Palmer links up with MigosQuavo on a banger called "Wind Up." The track follows KeKe’s 2016 EP Lauren, which dropped last November. Supported by the Honcho’s verse which features the lyrics, "Quavo tune it, I got grind ya (grind ya)/But you cross the world like find ya (find ya)/I like your style, who designed ya? (Style)/Now bring that ass back, rewind ya/Quavo fire like arson (ayy)/Shoot her down like marshals/She don’t do this often (no)/But she know it’s poppin’/I’m goin’ to find her/I found her on the island/She look like she from China/Her best friend her stylist (her best friend).”

In other Migos news, their album C U L T U R E just hit Platinum status.

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Frank Ocean Premieres “Lens” and a Travis Scott Remix on ‘Blonded Radio’

On the latest episode of Frank Ocean’s Beats Radio 1 blonded RADIO show, the enigmatic artist surprised fans with the abrupt premiere of "Lens." As if that weren’t enough, near the end of the show Ocean played a remix of his new track "Lens" featuring Travis Scott. The remix features La Flame assisting with vocals over the slow and somber track before throwing it back to Frank Ocean. Listen to Frank Ocean’s "Lens" on Apple Music and the Travis Scott remix below.

Also, make sure to listen to Frank Ocean’s track "Biking" featuring JAY Z and Tyler, The Creator which he debuted on the third episode of blonded RADIO.

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Nike Air Max 97 “Metallic Gold” Official Images & Release Date


Visit the original post to see all 4 images from this gallery.

Brand: Nike

Model: Air Max 97 “Metallic Gold/Team Red-Black-White”

Key Features: The model’s metallic accenting, leather ridge upper, and large, visible Air unit.

Release Date: Spring 2017

Price: Approximately $170 USD

Availability: Nike

Editor’s Notes: With the Nike Air Max 97 “Silver Bullet” having caused a massive stir in the worldwide sneaker community, following stunts such as numerous re-releases and Italian exclusives, the official unveiling of the model’s golden colorway would appear to be the next logical step.

Despite having been made aware of the sneaker’s eventual return for some months now, it is nice to get a detailed look at the colorway before its planned release on Thursday, May 18.

Stay tuned to Highsnobiety for further updates on the aforementioned silhouette, and be sure to check out ten of the best user-submitted sneaker shots in this week’s Instagram round-up.

via Highsnobiety

Kendrick Lamar’s ‘DAMN.’ Is Introspective And Unforgiving

Kendrick Lamar performs a DAMN.-heavy set on Sunday at the 2017 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images


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Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Kendrick Lamar performs a DAMN.-heavy set on Sunday at the 2017 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Spoiler alert: DAMN. opens with Kendrick Lamar narrating his own shooting death at the hands of a blind assailant. This seems to be a tradition amongst Los Angeles rappers: Lamar’s most obvious predecessor, Ice Cube, rapped about dying at least three times on his first two albums. The shared message from both artists is that violent ends can arrive unexpectedly, especially if you’re young, black and male.

It’s no coincidence that Lamar decided to release DAMN. on Good Friday, a day meant to mark the death of the righteous at the hands of tyrants. Lamar isn’t a Christian rapper in the conventional sense — his songs aren’t in explicit exaltation of His glory — and though DAMN. is redolent with Biblical references, the temperament is decidedly Old Testament, filled with cold wrath and righteous punishments owing to the wages of sin and the blood of innocents. The tone on DAMN. is a stark contrast to the funky exuberance on Lamar’s much-lauded To Pimp a Butterfly from 2015: There, he seemed to revel in a torrent of creative intensity that some found exhilarating, others indulgent. If that album was like billiard balls scattering after the break, then DAMN. wraps its focus inward, tight and layered, like a bundle of rubber bands.

Its 14 songs, all titled with brief concepts such as “FEEL.”, “LOYALTY.”, and “DNA.”, explore dualities within both the soul and American society. In some cases, the fractures are made obvious between songs — “LUST.” and “LOVE.” or “PRIDE.” and “HUMBLE.,” for example — but even within a track, Lamar is constantly exploring conflicts and contradictions. On “DNA.,” the album’s first fully fleshed-out song, he raps back-to-back: “I got millions, I got riches, buildin’ in my DNA / I got dark, I got evil, that rot inside my DNA.” Likewise, on the nearly eight-minute marathon “FEAR.,” he invites us into his anxious mindset, where there’s a thin line between confidence and venality, and any hint of success also carries with it the threat of loss.

This introspection is also reflected in the mostly somber production, which departs from the meaty P-Funk influences of Butterfly in favor of more minimalist moods. At times, there’s perhaps too little there; I’ve had the album on nonstop since the minute it came out and I still can’t remember what “GOD.” or “LOYALTY.” sound like. But in other places, especially on “FEAR.” and “PRIDE.”, the soulful spareness works well with the song’s themes and Lamar’s understated performance. To put it a different way, Butterfly felt very music-forward, whereas DAMN. is built out of bars.

On the pre-album single “The Heart Part 4,” he boldly proclaimed himself to be this era’s “greatest rapper alive,” and DAMN. aims to secure his hold on that title belt. Lamar’s wordplay has always been intricate, but he’s finding new ways to push its limits: The way he super-stacks rhyming couplets rivals Eminem in his prime, while his constant modulation of voice and pacing allows him to play different characters within a single song. The stunning closer, “DUCKWORTH,.,” also burnishes his reputation as one of hip-hop’s most vivid storytellers, as he tells the supposedly true tale of how his label boss, Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, once came close to killing Lamar’s own father 20 years ago.

Perhaps nothing suggests his position atop hip-hop’s leaderboard more than the fact that, almost as soon as DAMN. came out, there was an internet-fueled rumor that since he “died” on Good Friday, it followed that he’d be resurrected on Easter Sunday via a surprise second album. (That’s less outlandish a thought than it would have been a year ago, before Frank Ocean dropped Endless and Blonde on consecutive days and Future went No. 1 with two albums released a week apart — but Easter came and went with no follow-up LP.) The collective desire, if not greed, for another full-length LP right after DAMN. captures how much Lamar has electrified the music community. There’s a real yearning for artists of his stature to speak truth to power, especially at a time when the powerful seem to brazenly revel in untruths.

There’s a danger in putting too much weight on any entertainer to serve as a proxy for collective action. Indeed, Lamar’s own fans sometimes feel moved to keep him in check — most recently in response to “HUMBLE.,” in which he rolls out a lazy cliché about wanting women to be less “Photoshop.” But though he can be preachy at times, he doesn’t suggest he’s above reproach. Rather, his songs constantly offer him up as a sacrifice to a vengeful God: never an innocent lamb, always a conflicted sinner. That’s the feeling his work asks us to confront within ourselves. He’s not here to provide relief or distraction. His anxieties and unease around his own foibles are meant to mirror our own — and likewise, his struggles towards salvation and redemption are lead-by-example exhortations for us to do the same work, lest we risk perishing in a damnation of our own making.

via Music : NPR