Kendrick Lamar has always told stories through his music, creating a bridge between spoken-word and visual narratives. With DAMN., however, the rapper challenged his audiences to glean understanding through disciplined listening.
Released on April 14, 2017, DAMN. emerged from a tense political climate in which simmering tension gave way to a cathartic and masterful release. Throughout the album, Lamar instills the need for restraint, self-reflection, and the preservation of ideals that enable people to fight for themselves during crushing times.
DAMN. was never intended to be overtly political, but more of a continuation of Lamar’s growth and response to the world around him. He brings his sharp-edged narrative skills to the album, employing a different method of storytelling in which the listener is encouraged to engage with the tracks repeatedly in order to uncover the balance and execution behind each verse.
A very economical album, DAMN. finds Lamar succinctly balancing his novel wordplay, embedding every verse with a clear intent. There’s no spoon-feeding here, either, as K-Dot consistently delivers skillful, categorically “conscious hip-hop” that is worthy of careful dissection.
When Lamar released To Pimp A Butterfly in 2015, the themes of police brutality, racial inequality, and political outrage were evident; he addressed trauma within the black community, financial turmoil, and gun violence from a poetic approach. Two years later, Lamar unpacked these issues with the same maturity but a deeper scope, intertwining themes of religion to question one’s life path. Instead of being a call to action, DAMN. posits introspection and assessment of what one can take and use from the world.
Advancing the narrative
The album opens with a choir on “BLOOD.,” with Kendrick employing his cutting narrative flow, telling the story of an old blind woman who shoots him when he attempts to help her.
From here, DAMN. jumps and runs into “DNA.,” a booming track that takes to task America’s oppressive views on people of colour while reasserting Lamar’s own black pride. “This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years,” Geraldo Rivera spews on a Fox News segment, while Lamar fires back: “I know murder, conviction/Burners, boosters, burglars, ballers, dead, redemption/Scholars, fathers dead with kids and/I wish I was fed forgiveness.”
The album continues with Kendrick bobbing and weaving on tracks like “ELEMENT.,” an unforgiving battle-rap on which he insists he’s willing to “die for this s__t” over a James Blake-provided piano loop. “Last LP I tried to lift the black artists,” he raps, referencing To Pimp A Butterfly, adding, “But it’s a difference ’tween black artists and wack artists.”
His confidence is a siren for black people growing up disproportionately affected by police brutality and brazen racism. The brevity of the track is punctuated with the refrain “If I gotta slap a pu__y ass ni__a, I’ma make it look sexy,” while Lamar at one point lifts his flow from Juvenile’s 1998 single “Ha,” before the track slows down and eases into “FEEL..”
Many of the tracks on DAMN. allude to the seven deadly sins. While each individual song stands on its own, they come together to create a scripture-inspired collection that fits tightly together. This philosophical concept gives way on “LOYALTY.,” one of the few radio-ready tracks on the album, featuring Rihanna. DAMN. is noticeably light on guest features, but Rihanna’s appearance (with a rare instance of her rapping) adds extra star power to the album. Though “LOYALTY.” refers to romantic relationships, Lamar is fixated on notions of loyalty and honesty throughout his work.
“HUMBLE.,” the album’s lead single, peaked at No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and serves to bind DAMN. together. The standout track sees Kendrick with one foot in the past and the other in the present, serving as a reminder of what life used to be like before he was catapulted into superstardom. The throbbing beat by Mike WiLL Made-It was originally reserved for Gucci Mane after he got out of prison, which explains the urgency of the production.
Returning to the album’s religious undercurrents, “FEAR.” speaks of suffering and talking to God while recalling intensely traumatic experiences. The track ends with a voicemail from Kendrick’s cousin, who quotes The Book Of Deuteronomy and warns Lamar about God’s vengeful tendencies. On “GOD.,” you can sense a looming finality, as Kendrick wrestles between flaunting his achievements while staying humble, reminding himself that he’s just a fallible human.
Just as DAMN. begins with a chorus of voices on “BLOOD.,” so it ends with “DUCKWORTH.,” the track that underlines the cyclical nature of the album. A reference to his legal surname, “DUCKWORTH.” imagines an alternate reality in which Kendrick never existed in the first place, telling the story of how Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith could’ve killed Kendrick’s father in a robbery long before the two ever met and came to work together. It’s a startling reminder that one decision can affect the entire trajectory of one life and the lives of those around it.
A “distinguished musical composition”
Kendrick Lamar has chosen to live as an artist focused on self-examination, tying up the loose ends of his life within his work, and DAMN. shows him in his prime, learning from himself and growing as a black man navigating the world and pushing against it when he needs to.
Even as it trolled the hip-hop mainstream, DAMN. was a critical and commercial smash. The album debuted at No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100, was certified triple-platinum and scooped up the Grammy for Best Rap Album in 2018. DAMN. also made history as the first non-classical and non-jazz album to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize. The committee praised its “distinguished musical composition,” calling the album “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”
While Lamar has always steered clear of the hip-hop gossip ring, he’d clearly been paying attention to the culture at large. DAMN. is both a reaction to the mainstream media’s perception of both Kendrick and hip-hop, and an interrogation of the self.