“Y’all got ’til April the 7th to get y’all sh–—t together,” raps Kendrick Lamar in his first single of 2017, “The Heart Part IV.” This line, and the entire song, sent the world into chaos in anticipation of a new Lamar project. Since the beginning of his career, Lamar has been known for his powerful lyrics and dense, conceptual albums.
With Section.80, Lamar introduced himself as an artist in a troubled community. He explored more deeply his struggles in Compton that listeners first heard in the instant 2012 classic, good kid, m.A.A.d city. With To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015, Lamar did the opposite of what rappers do today. The rapper avoided capitalizing on his successes with a mainstream project, releasing the jarring, jazz-influenced record, a commentary on racism in modern America and the corrupt relationship between label and artist.
Lamar’s impressive work only increased hopes for his latest project, DAMN., which was released on April 14. Unsurprisingly, Lamar exceeds expectations with an album unlike any he has ever released before. DAMN. features a much more straightforward and familiar approach to its production. The narrative is more loosely constructed than that of his previous albums, but the record is still cohesive. It delves into several issues the Compton rapper has discussed before but in a new, creative way. Additionally, it discusses new issues faced by the rapper in the current peak of his career.
The album opens with the calm introduction, “BLOOD.” Lamar tells a story of himself on the street approaching a blind woman, attempting to help her. The blind woman then shoots the fictional Lamar. Her blindness parallels that of the ignorant people in America today. The track concludes with an excerpt from a FOX News broadcast in which Lamar’s previously released single “Alright” is criticized for glorifying violence.
The track segues into the album’s first full track, “DNA.,” in which Lamar celebrates his heritage and the qualities of a rapper today. The song sets the tone for the rest of the record, and it establishes the complexity of the record and Lamar himself. The next track, “YAH.,” continues Lamar’s criticism of FOX News. He claims the news show manipulates Lamar’s name in order to gain ratings from viewers. Kendrick Lamar struggles with his star presence in the media because he feels it fails to accurately represent his artistry.
The next track, “ELEMENT.,” is another response to the criticism thrown at Lamar throughout his career. Lamar raps that he will never be taken away from his craft and will continue to focus solely on his art despite the distractions. The chorus suggests that if Lamar must call out his peers and indulge in the pettiness of “beef” with other artists, he will do so in his signature style. One line in the song, “I don’t do it for the ’Gram, I do it for Compton” implies he makes music for his community, not for social media consumers.
“FEEL.” is the next track on DAMN., and it is a self-aware analysis of Lamar and the world around him. His status as a star makes him feel isolated, but in a way, he wants this isolation.
The following song, “LOYALTY.,” shows Lamar and superstar Rihanna rapping about remaining true to friendships and romantic relationships. Of course, Lamar takes this a step further and questions the audience, asking them if they are loyal to honest ideals or simply materialistic things. Rihanna closes the track by stating the difficulty of remaining humble with so much success, directly bridging this track with the next one, “PRIDE.” This track reveals Lamar at odds with himself, further emphasized by the shift in his voice from a high to low pitch throughout the track. This track delves into the overall concept of duality throughout the album — the conflict between indulging in self-promotion and doing the right thing.
The next track, “HUMBLE.,” picks up the pace of the record, directly opposing “PRIDE.” It shows Lamar satirically boasting his successes, while urging his peers to be humble about their accomplishments. Continuing on the duality theme, the next tracks, “LUST.” and “LOVE.,” complement each other.
“LUST.” discusses the monotony of a rapper’s lifestyle, and Kendrick’s tired voice implies this throughout the track. The lust refers to that of sex, wealth, and fame and success. “LOVE.”, one of Kendrick’s most beautiful tracks, shifts from the idea of lust and gives an ode to Kendrick’s fiancé, Whitney Alford. The soft tone remains for the political “XXX.”, but an abrupt beat change parallels the themes of the track. Kendrick addresses the ideals of youth in the hood, describing “Johnny”’s desire to be a rapper. The surprise guest Bono provides a chorus in which he describes America has a “sound of drum and bass”, a place filled with gunshots and violence.
The last few tracks of the record continue to maintain the themes of religion, pride and discontent with the world. “FEAR.” is a seven-minute epic that takes listeners through his life. At age seven, Lamar feared being beaten for misbehaving or showing any weakness. At 17, he was afraid of being yet another kid in a body bag. At 27, his self-doubt and fear of being judged overpowered him. The fear of judgment continues in “GOD.,” in which Lamar equates himself to God, only to be humbled by Him. This relates to earlier in the album, when he tells his peers to be humble.
The final track “DUCKWORTH.,” tells Lamar’s amazing origin story. Its narrative follows the young lives of Anthony, the head of Lamar’s record label Top Dawg Entertainment, and Lamar’s father, Ducky. Ducky worked at KFC and gave Anthony, known for shooting up establishments, extra food to get on his good side. Because Ducky survived the encounter, Lamar is able to fulfill his prophecy as the greatest rapper alive today.
DAMN. is yet another conceptually fascinating album from Lamar. It has a more mainstream production than that of To Pimp a Butterfly, but that only helps the album. Because the production is not complex to comprehend in and of itself, listeners can focus more on the bars in each song. The lyrics are some of Lamar’s best, and the diversity of the tracks is impressive. As he said he would, Lamar has created yet another classic.