Kendrick Lamar is back with DAMN and damn, it’s a masterpiece. Though originally rumored to be released on April 7th via the cryptic “Y’all got ’til April 7th to get your shit together” line on his first single “The Heart Part 4,” the extra week was definitely worth the wait. A follow up to 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly and its 2016 companion untitled unmastered, DAMN is religious, political, relevant, introspective, and unapologetic in classic K. Dot fashion. Clocking in at 14 tracks, DAMN takes aim at right-wing networks, police brutality, and our Commander-In-Chief, all while weaving a narrative of damnation and redemption in just under 55 minutes.
K. Dot accomplishes all of this with some help from supporting artists, from upstart first timers to megastars. Kendrick finally got work with Rihanna on “LOYALTY,” and my opinion of a song exponentially increases when I see Rihanna’s name listed. The standout “LOVE” features Zacari, an up and coming R&B artist, who, like Kendrick, is a native Californian. The most surprising of the features is U2’s appearance on “XXX,” a first for the rap world. The surprise continues when pouring over the credits: James Blake co-produces “ELEMENT” and Adele’s producer Greg Kurstin makes an appearance too.
There is so much to unpack from this album, so here is a song by song breakdown of K. Dot’s masterpiece:
Track 1: “BLOOD”
The album opener tells the story of Kendrick being shot by a blind woman he was trying to help. This is the introduction of the life and death themes that characterize DAMN as whole. The outro is a sample from a Fox News clip that was criticizing Kendrick’s performance of “Alright” at the 2015 BET Awards.
Favorite lyric: “She replied: ‘Oh yes, you have lost something. You’ve lost your life.'”
Track 2: “DNA”
This track is a celebration of Kendrick’s black heritage and culture, while condemning those that profit from and exploit it. This track samples the same Fox News segment featured on “BLOOD,” specifically targeting Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera who said that “hip hop has done more damage to young African-Americans that racism in the recent years.” Unfortunately, this was not fake news.
Favorite Lyric: “I got hustle though, ambition, flow inside my DNA / I was born like this since one like this Immaculate Conception”
Track 3: “YAH”
This track is infused with religious references, beginning with the title of “YAH,” which may be referring to the Hebrew word for God, “Yahweh,” and continuing with mentions of Israelites and Deuteronomy. Kendrick keeps taking shots at Fox News, and now calls out Geraldo directly in his lyrics.
Favorite Lyric: “I’m an Israelite, don’t call me Black no mo’ / That word is only a color, it ain’t facts no mo'”
Track 4: “ELEMENT”
On this track, Kendrick substantiates his claim as the greatest rapper alive, and dares his contemporaries to call him out. He delves into a narrative of self-sacrifice and family tribulations, and how these struggles have made him who he is today.
Favorite Lyric: “I got ’em by a landslide, we talkin’ about races / You know this’ll never be a tie, just look at their laces”
Track 5: “FEEL”
On “FEEL,” Kendrick catalogs the feelings, mostly negative, that his rise to stardom has elicited. He feels like he is on his own, but also cites a desire for self-isolation out of paranoia. Though he has achieved critical and commercial success in the recent years, he speaks of ongoing emotional struggle.
Favorite lyric: “I feel like debating on who the greatest can stop it / I am a legend, I feel like all of y’all peasants”
Track 6: “LOYALTY” feat. Rihanna
On this track, Kendrick and Rihanna muse over the value of unconditional loyalty and honesty in platonic and romantic relationships (both taking shots at Drake perhaps?). This song marks the first collaboration between K. Dot and RiRi, and it is a winner.
Favorite lyric: “On your pulse like a CDM / Gas in the bitch like it’s premium”
Track 7: “PRIDE”
“PRIDE” is an introspective track that further explores the religious themes established earlier in the album. Kendrick considers how his own pride in being recognized as one of the greatest rapper alive conflicts with his ideals.
Favorite lyric: “I don’t love people enough to put my faith in men / I put my faith in these lyrics, hope I make amends”
Track 8: “HUMBLE”
Originally released as a single, “HUMBLE” takes on a new meaning when it immediate follows its antithesis in “PRIDE.” This song debuted at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, making it one of the highest-charting songs for Kendrick and one of the highest debuting hip-hop singles.
Favorite lyric: “Pull up on your block, the break it down: we playin’ Tetris”
Track 9: “LUST”
This track is Kendrick’s perspective on the repetitive lifestyle of being a “rap star.” He speaks on the unquenchable thirst people in his position have for luxury and lust in all forms.
Favorite lyric: “Room full of clothes, bag full of money: call it loose change”
Track 10: “LOVE” feat. Zacari
On “LOVE,” Kendrick reflects on his romantic relationship, presumably with his fiancée, Whitney Alford, with whom he has been in a relationship since high school. The smooth, R&B-infused vocals from Zacari are a juxtaposition to the previous song, “LUST,” which is more abrasive.
Favorite lyric: “Give me a run for my money / There is nobody, no one to outrun me”
Track 11: “XXX” feat. U2
Kendrick teams up with rock legends U2 on “XXX.” On this track, Kendrick tells the story of a friend calling him for advice upon the devastating death of his son. Usually meditative, Kendrick encourages him to take violent revenge. This track also has political undertones, speaking on gun control, having Trump in office, and losing Obama.
Favorite lyric: “Hail Mary, Jesus, and Joseph / The great American flag is wrapped and dragged with explosives”
Track 12: “FEAR”
This track is a delineation of three terrifying encounters Kendrick had at ages 7, 17, and 27. The first verse explores the fear experienced by a child living in a home with domestic violence. The second verse expresses fear of dying at a young age, especially with widespread gang violence and police brutality in his neighborhood. The third verse explores the fear born out of insecurity and lacking confidence in his abilities, and losing the life he has built for himself.
Favorite lyric: “Wonderin’ if I’m livin’ through fear or livin’ through rap”
Track 13: “GOD”
On this track, Kendrick flaunts his successes and explains why he works so hard. On the first verse he talks himself up with his achievements, only to be humbled by God from the second verse on.
Favorite lyric: “Everything I write is a damn eight ball / Everything I touch is a damn gold mine”
Track 14: “DUCKWORTH”
Duckworth is Kendrick’s legal surname, and this track tells the story of how Anthony “TopDawg” Tiffith nearly killed Kendrick’s father, Ducky, when the latter was working at a KFC drive-thru. Tiffith would later become the CEO of TopDawg Records and sign Kendrick 15 years after the encounter.
Favorite lyric: “Then you start reminding them about that chicken incident / Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence?”
On this album, Lamar pieces together another opus that is incredibly relevant, meaningful, poignant, and raw. Thanks for coming back Kenny; we’re all better for it.