“So I was takin’ a walk the other day…”
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So begins (and ends) Kendrick Lamar’s new album “DAMN.,” which dropped on Good Friday. While it’s not quite as long or theatrical as 2015’s “To Pimp A Butterfly,” this latest LP is as packed with social commentary and rich storytelling as his fans have come to expect, and its production is, as usual, near flawless.
Like he did with his last album, Lamar ties “DAMN.” together with an overarching narrative; this time about a blind woman he sees in the street, visibly struggling and tries to help. I won’t spoil what happens next, but once the image comes full circle and repeats at the end of the last track, its effect is striking.
Lamar isn’t shy with the themes on this album—each song’s title carries a pretty blatant stamp of meaning. But on the wide scope, he seems primarily concerned with contradictions: humbleness versus pride, love versus lust, wickedness versus weakness. The first full-length song on the album, “DNA.,” is a good example of this. He follows the line “I got royalty, got loyalty inside my DNA” immediately with “I got dark, I got evil, that rot inside my DNA,” using the track to look at both the positive and negative roots of his heritage.
Similarly, “HUMBLE.,” which premiered with a trippy music video on April 7 as the album’s first single, first condemns other rappers for boasting their own success and then argues Lamar is the best at what he does. It’s another example of the irony that pervades a lot of this record. Entire songs, not just lyrics, act in contrast with one another; both in how they sound and in the ways they address specific concepts. On the closing track “DUCKWORTH.,” Lamar says, “It was always me versus the world / Until I found it’s me versus me.”
The genres Lamar plays with on this album are as wide-ranging as these huge ideas he raps about. For the most part, he’s left the jazz influences that shaped “Butterfly” for more rock and pop-inspired beats.
After the midway point he provides some ear candy in the form of a love song—aptly called “LOVE.”—which fills the spot “Poetic Justice” and “These Walls” held on his previous two albums. This track features perhaps the most memorable guest feature, with Zacari delivering a smooth falsetto chorus similar to what we might normally hear from The Weeknd or Majid Jordan.
The only big-name features here are Rihanna and U2, and while they fit in seamlessly, they don’t claim the spotlight. Rihanna’s vocals are a great compliment to Lamar’s monotone on the “LOYALTY.” hook, and Bono’s short coda to “XXX.” is a powerful transition as the album nears its end. Still, Lamar is in control—everything else is instrumental.
A clear highlight is the eight-minute “FEAR.,” in which Lamar switches from his own perspective to that of his mother’s, reminiscing on his childhood and religious upbringing.
With songs like “FEAR.,” “DAMN.” feels more introspective than “Butterfly.” Lamar’s raps have always been intensely personal—often inspired by the harsh realities he faced as a teen in Compton—but now more than ever, he’s considering his massive personal successes and how fame has altered his life. Despite this more inward focus, he continues to address the injustice of systematic racism in America, and creates music as a voice for the city that raised him. In his own words: “I’m not speaking of the community, I am the community.”
One of the biggest achievements of “DAMN.” is its total uniqueness in comparison to the rest of his discography. If someone had wondered two years ago after the release of
“Butterfly”—or even last week—what Lamar’s next project would sound like, I doubt the prediction would have come close to what we hear on this album. He’s experimenting with new sounds, new concepts and even new vocal styles (this is the most straight- up singing I think he’s ever done). Most artists struggle in trying to make complete a departure from previous material, but somehow Lamar pulls it off every two years.
Fully dissecting his work is a slow process, but it’s clear from a few listens that this new album will be among the best of the year. “DAMN.” also proves that even with more than one masterwork under his belt, Lamar is still not out of ideas—not even close.
Jenna may be reached at