Deeply Personal ‘DAMN.’ Finds Kendrick Lamar in a State of Introspection

While it’s not surprising that Kendrick Lamar’s new album leaked hours before it was set to hit streaming services, “DAMN.” sent the internet into a frenzy with listeners praising the Compton rapper. It’s not hard to imagine fans screaming from their computers that “DAMN.” is the greatest thing to hit shelves since Lamar’s last album, the Grammy Award-winning “To Pimp a Butterfly.” This is the effect Lamar has on both fans and critics alike. His indomitable ability to craft music so culturally relevant and topical that it’s impossible not to wholly embrace his message.

“DAMN.” continues the saga from K-Dot’s last record and that becomes obvious within the first few minutes. The intro (“BLOOD.”) quite literally sets the motif for the rest of the record which tackles the heavy issues of life and death via Kendrick himself and the world around him. The end of the intro features a FOX News clip wherein a talking head criticized a line from his last album when Lamar described his dislike for the police. Track number two is a direct response. “DNA.” drops hard and abruptly on your senses. This Mike Will Made-It production sees Lamar meticulously breaking down his personality and the situations that have made him who he is. He’s essentially asking, how can someone who doesn’t know me make judgments about my intentions? “This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to African-Americans than racism in recent years,” continues the FOX News pundit during the bridge. Responds Kendrick, “I live a better life, I’m rollin’ several dice, fuck your life.”

There’s a lot to unpack from “DAMN.” so a review is best served by deconstructing just a few of the most notable points. First and possibly most surprising, U2 makes a feature on this record. Bono provides a sincere intro and chorus for “XXX.” where he describes America as “not a place”, continued by Kendrick via lines such as “But is America honest, or do we bask in sin?” and “The great American flag/is wrapped and dragged with explosives.” Bono is known for his social consciousness and do-goodedness for those of lesser fortune, so he fits nicely on a track of this nature. “XXX.” was produced by Sounwave, the purveyor of such hits as “King Kunta” and arguably K-Dot’s most famous tune “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe.”

Rihanna makes an appearance on track six. “LOYALTY.” is sultry as the two muse on themes of allegiance in romance and friendship. “10-4, no switchin’ sides/Feel somethin’ wrong/You actin’ shifty, you don’t ride/With me no more, I need/Loyalty…” A lot of Kendrick’s tunes are either too explicit or too controversial for mainstream radio listeners, “LOYALTY.”, however, could easily find its way to the airwaves. The two rappers sing both simultaneously and separately throughout three-and-a-half-minute track, creating a symbiotic give and take that truly makes “LOYALTY.” stand out.

British chill-pop experimental singer James Blake helps provide one of the nastiest hooks on “DAMN.” which finds Kendrick taking issue with his fellow rappers. A playful cold war? Perhaps, but regardless of the reasons, which honestly are irrelevant unless you’re into celebrity gossip, K-Dot takes them to task in the only way he knows how. “If I gotta slap a pussy-ass n*gga, I’ma make it look sexy/If I gotta go hard on a bitch, I’ma make it look sexy…/They won’t take me out my element.” One can’t help but laugh at how absurd, playful and just damn fantastic this hook is. Fans know Kendrick doesn’t obsess over such inconsequential nonsense, but why not throw some shade for the hell of it.  

We all know “HUMBLE.” as this was the first taste of this album the public received. There’s plenty of quotable lines to take away from here such as “My last stroke just went viral”, “I let my soul speak, you let them meds talk” and the chorus “Bitch sit down, be humble”. The beat, produced once again by Mike Will Made-It, is very much in the vein of contemporary hip-hop with its bouncy, trap-esque vibe.

The hard rapping, and at times angry, MC shows his sweet side on “LOVE.”. As yet another heavy topic tackled, K-Dot flows effortlessly over this slow-jam that also features LA soul-pop singer Zacari. With tinges of Drake, “LOVE.” is vocally driven and free of anxiety and fear, but sees Kendrick submit to the feeling of love and infatuation, a side of his not often seen in today’s tumultuous world he feels compelled to write about.

“DAMN.” feels like an art project of Kendrick’s design, which of course it is, but compared to his last album it’s far less experimental and in-your-face. While he may not prefer his works being compared to one another, it’s hard not to, due to the prolific and historic nature of “To Pimp a Butterfly.” That said, “DAMN.” is more introspective (see track twelve, “FEAR.”, where he runs through over seven minutes of his anxieties from both past and present). Throughout the album, K-Dot compares himself to Jesus, delves even deeper into his past and invites listeners into his contemplations on love, trust and his new-found celebrity. What can we surmise from “DAMN.”? K-Dot’s got plenty to say, and he’s nowhere near finished.

DAMN.” is available on Apple Music April 14.