Kendrick Lamar made a lot of listeners say DAMN. last week, when he dropped his third major label studio album. The 14-track project is an analysis of everything from faith to family, from “PRIDE.” to humility, from “LUST.” to “LOVE.” And that’s just a portion of its complex depth.
DAMN. is also an interconnected journey filled with parables in the form of bangers and lessons in the form of lyrics. It’s a reflection of what he promised last month, when he spoke with The New York Times’ T Magazine. “We’re in a time where we exclude one major component out of this whole thing called life: God,” he said. “Nobody speaks on it because it’s almost in conflict with what’s going on in the world when you talk about politics and government and the system.”
But Kendrick isn’t scared to speak on any of that and thus, DAMN. is a candid exploration of God, karma, conflict, chaos, and of the balance in between. It’s Kung Fu Kenny’s kwoon — a martial arts training hall — in his ongoing battle to understand the world through self-realization. Here’s a look at how K-Dot made us say DAMN. while listening to his latest LP.
1. “She replied, ‘Oh yes, you have lost something. You’ve lost…Your life.'” — Kendrick Lamar, “BLOOD.”
Kendrick poetically opens DAMN. with “BLOOD.” Here, he approaches a blind woman who’s struggling to find something. After politely asking if he can help her, she informs him that he’s the one who’s lost something—his life. A gunshot is followed by Fox News pundits criticizing “Alright” for addressing police brutality.
Could the blind woman be Lady Justice? If so, her blindfold has historically represented impartiality, but “BLOOD.” seems to ask whether she’s actually blind and heartless, a question that’s been underlined by headlines for years, as men and women of color have been killed by law enforcement officials and have been jailed at shockingly disproportionate numbers. “BLOOD.” is enough to make one say DAMN. but even more, it begs the listener to further analyze the flawed system it dissects.
2. “Peace to the world, let it rotate / Sex, money, murder, our DNA.” — Kendrick Lamar, “DNA.”
“DNA.” is one of the album’s hardest-hitting tracks. Perhaps that explains how, at press time, it’s No. 2 on Spotify’s United States Top 50 Chart (right behind “HUMBLE.”). But beyond the track’s slapping production, Kendrick’s message is also potent. It goes from assessing the good and the bad in his bloodline to dissing an unnamed foe’s DNA as “an abomination.” Then, it takes a dramatic turn for a closing line that looks at the globe at large, something we’ll see more of later on.
When he does this, by saying “our DNA,” Kendrick’s internal struggle becomes external. This is where he makes it clear that these temptations are universal and that we’ve got to do some soul-searching in order to avoid those seemingly predetermined trappings. DAMN., indeed.
3. “My cousin called / My cousin Carl / Duckworth / Said know my worth / And Deuteronomy say that we all been cursed.” — Kendrick Lamar, “YAH.”
For the most part, K-Dot has shunned interviews in recent years but he allows listeners into his inner thoughts on “YAH.” with this connection to family. He begins with a heartwarming boast about his niece (“See me on TV and scream, ‘That’s uncle Kendrick!’ Yeah, that’s the business”). From there, he mentions Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera, a tie back to the soundbites on “DNA.” Then, he goes back to family — another connection to “DNA.” — through his cousin Carl Duckworth.
Carl gives Kendrick a message from the Book of Deuteronomy, which is rhymed about here, but later explained on “FEEL.” and later, played on “FEAR.” “We are a cursed people,” said Carl. “Deuteronomy 28:28 says, ‘The Lord shall smite thee with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart.’ See, family, that’s why you feel like you feel, like you got a chip on your shoulder. Until you finally get the memo, you will always feel that way…Until you come back to these commandments, we’re gonna feel this way, we’re gonna be under this curse.”
Through all of this, “YAH.” acts as a DAMN. clever connector between various themes, including family, God, police brutality, and temptation. This is also a theme that will continue to play out from song to song.
4. “We ain’t goin’ back to broke / Family sellin’ dope / That’s why you maney-ass rap ni**as better know / If I gotta slap a pussy-ass ni**a, I’ma make it look sexy.” — Kendrick Lamar, “ELEMENT.”
The family connections continue on “ELEMENT.” as Kendrick explains why he would be willing to slap somebody. Earlier in the song, he reveals that he’s also willing to “die” or “take a life” for this. While the harsh honesty is clouded by darkness, it’s juxtaposed by a more melodic and infectious hook: “If I gotta slap a pussy-ass ni**a, I’ma make it look sexy.” It’s this balance between introspection and fun that makes DAMN. such an enjoyable, well-rounded listen.
For lyrical analysts, there’s already rampant speculation over who the hook is about. Could it be Drake, Big Sean, or Jay Electronica? Though all of that’s possible, it also sounds like he’s not just talking about one MC because the track ends with a message to “most” of his envious contemporaries. “Most of y’all ain’t real,” he raps. “Most of y’all gon’ squeal.” If that wasn’t enough stuntin’ on a fellow MC, he finally adds this DAMN.-inducing third verse closer: “Last LP I tried to lift up black artists / But it’s a difference between black artists and wack artists.”
5. “I feel like a chip’s on my shoulders / I feel like I’m losin’ my focus / I feel like I’m losin’ my patience / I feel like my thoughts in the basement.” — Kendrick Lamar, “FEEL.”
The first line of “FEEL.” helps explain why Kendrick needed his cousin Carl to address the “chip” on his shoulder. But this is more than just a connecting piece on the album’s quilt. It’s another peek into Lamar’s psyche, one that was previously showcased masterfully on To Pimp a Butterfly’s “u.” It’s another example of K-Dot’s uncanny ability to divulge his deepest and darkest thoughts over drums, a skill that’s made him one of the genre’s most evocative and relatable artists.
While the song begins by connecting “FEEL.” to Carl’s voicemail, it ends by connecting “FEEL.” to other tracks, as well. “I feel like the whole world want me to pray for ’em,” he raps. “But who the fuck prayin’ for me?” On “ELEMENT.” he said that his grandmothers were dead so “nobody praying for me.” Later, on “XXX.” he’ll receive a phone call from a friend who’s looking for Dot to be a spiritual advisor. “But who the fuck praying for me?” DAMN. That’s quite the question to ponder.
6. “You can tell your ni**a he can meet me outside / You can babysit him when I leave him outside.” — Kendrick Lamar, “LOYALTY.”
With Rihanna rapping beside him, “LOYALTY.” is already one of the album’s early standouts. The track once again shows that K-Dot can make an infectious, radio-ready jam without losing his creative freedom. RiRi makes a perfect collaborator, particularly because she’s referenced on “FEAR.” adding to the LP’s intertwined narrative.
Bad Gal’s appearance also adds to the umph with which Kendrick rhymes. “You can tell your ni**a he can meet me outside / You can babysit him when I leave him outside.” With talk of a Drake feud brewing, some fans will surely take this as another jab, particularly with RiRi ad-libbing. But it’s more than likely just another example of King Kendrick asserting his dominance on the game in general, of Kung Fu Kenny showing he’s willing to fight, if need be.
7. “In a perfect world, I’ll choose faith over riches / I’ll choose work over bitches / I’ll make schools out of prison / I’ll take all the religions / And put ’em all in one service / Just to tell ’em we ain’t shit, but He’s been perfect.” — Kendrick Lamar, “PRIDE.”
Throughout “PRIDE.,” Kendrick grapples with the notion of humility and pride. “I understand I ain’t perfect,” he acknowledges. But that doesn’t mean he downplays his greatness, so later, he adds: “I can’t fake humble just ’cause your ass is insecure.” Pairing these thoughts together, Dot paints a more complete self-portrait.
Going internal to external yet again, Kendrick explores these ideas on a global scale. He says that a perfect world is only an illusion, one “filled with lies.” He understands that man isn’t perfect and neither is the world, but he still values the positive over the negative (faith above riches, schools above prisons). Most of all, he realizes that, from his perspective, only God’s been perfect.
In 2011, Kendrick explained why he tends to address this topic so often. “I’m just somebody looking for answers,” he said. “I think that’s why people can relate to me. I believe in a higher power. But, I am human at the same time and I go through things where I’m like, ‘Damn, why is this happening to me?’ That’s emotion and that’s how I vent. I vent through the music. I sit down in my room after I write records like that and I pray about it to help me better myself, and my strength with God.” Amen.
8. “I’m so fuckin’ sick and tired of the Photoshop / Show me somethin’ natural like Afro on Richard Pryor / Show me somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks.” — Kendrick Lamar, “HUMBLE.”
Fittingly, “PRIDE.” is followed by “HUMBLE.” Here, the notion of perfection is once again explored and this time through technology’s influence on societal standards of beauty. But after rapping about how man isn’t perfect and how a perfect world is one filled with lies, it’s even more clear that K-Dot is searching for truth in the world around him, in himself, and in his partner. Moreover, it just might simply be his preference.
But through “HUMBLE.” and its connection to “PRIDE.” K-Dot continues weaving portions of the album together. Over Mike WiLL Made-It’s production, he also references different points of the album. “Nobody prays for me,” he raps to start the track. That’s a repeated theme throughout DAMN. on tracks like “ELEMENT.” and “FEEL.” Through all of this symbolism and imagery, Lamar creates a vivid picture that bumps. No Photoshop needed.
9. “Time passin’, things change / Revertin’ back to our daily programs, stuck in our ways, lust.” — Kendrick Lamar, “LUST.”
With its psychedelic dream-like production, “LUST.” explores distractions, temptations and consequences. Dot begins by advising a man to smoke weed, watch a comedy, play video games, and relax. He then advises a woman to “hop on the ‘Gram,” diss her man, and work a credit card scam. In both instances, it feels like Kendrick’s playing the role of the evil conscience twin.
But by the second verse, Kendrick is looking within, reflecting on wild nights, harsh mornings, and regret on tour. Here, he seems to be fighting his own conscience. “Manager called, the lobby call is 11:30 / Did this before, promised myself I’d be a hour early.” Despite this, he ends this segment by falling into the same pattern in another city.
After breaking down vices for those around him and for himself, Kendrick points the lens at America. He appears to reference President Donald Trump’s election and the outrage that followed. “We all woke up, trying to tune to the daily news / Lookin’ for confirmation, hopin’ election wasn’t true / All of us worried, all of us buried in our feelings deep,” he raps, before dropping the kicker: “Times pass and things change, reverting back to our daily programs, stuck in our ways, lust.”
10. “Damn, love or lust / Damn, all of us.” — Kendrick Lamar “LOVE.”
Right after “LUST.,” Kendrick goes straight into “LOVE.” Here, again, he ponders the two. “Damn,” he says. “Love or lust?” The answer appears to be “LOVE.,” a psychedelic concoction of hip-hop, R&B, and pop with a trap-infused twist.
While “LUST.” showed wild nights with partners as a possible distraction, “LOVE.” is a look at romance through a more clearheaded and commitment-ready perspective. “Only for the night? I’m kiddin’,” he raps. “Only for life, you’re a homie for life.”
Backed by Zacari’s vocals, “LOVE.” is also another glimpse into Kendrick’s personal life. When he adds details about Gardena, about buying “the big one to prove it,” he allows listeners into his usually private relationship, his reported engagement to his high school sweetheart. But as personal as the song might be, it seems to transcend that by becoming a more universal love song that is likely to climb the Hot 100 at some point this year.
11. “This is how I feel / If somebody kill my son, that means somebody gettin’ killed.” — Kendrick Lamar, “XXX.”
On 2010’s Overly Dedicated, Kendrick said that calling him “conscious” alone would prove that “Ignorance is Bliss.” On “Ab-Soul’s Outro” off 2011’s Section.80, Dot said he is “not the next pop star” or “the next socially-aware rapper.” He added: “I am a human motherfuckin’ being over dope ass instrumentation.” Despite this, some have unfairly painted Dot as a one-dimensional conscious rapper, a religion-based lyricist with a Bible in hand. Here, he addresses all of that head on.
“XXX.” tells a story of a friend in need, calling Kendrick after his son was murdered, hoping for a spiritual peptalk. Instead, K-Dot is blunt about what he would do in his shoes. “I’ll catch a ni**a leavin’ service if that’s all I got,” he raps. “I’ll chip a ni**a, then throw the blower in his lap / Walk myself to the court like, ‘Bitch, I did that.'”
He does a similar thing on “ELEMENT.” when he raps: “I’m willin’ to die for this shit / I done cried for this shit, might take a life for this shit / Put the Bible down and go eye for an eye for this shit.” Both instances show that he shouldn’t be boxed into any one category because he, like all human beings, is complex. He’s certainly pulling from religion throughout this project, but he’s self-aware enough to address the internal conflict between wanting to do good and living in a world that sometimes begs for revenge, that sometimes calls for sacrifice.
That connection to “ELEMENT.” isn’t the only one made here. The song’s message is amplified by other moments on the album, starting with “BLOOD.” in which Kendrick tries to do good, before he’s shot. Later, the notion of doing good will come up once again on the moral “DUCKWORTH.”
12. “I’m talkin’ fear, fear of losin’ ‘LOYALTY.’ from ‘PRIDE.’ / ‘Cause my ‘DNA.’ won’t let me involve in the light of ‘GOD.’ / I’m talkin’ ‘FEAR,’ fear that my ‘HUMBLE’-ness is gone.” — Kendrick Lamar, “FEAR.”
This track’s first verse deals with Kendrick’s fears as a 7-year-old, which mostly includes scoldings from his mom: “That homework better be finished, I’ll beat yo ass / Your teachers better not be bitchin’ ’bout you in class.” The second verse is all about his fears as a 17-year-old, which tragically involves death: “I’ll prolly die trying to diffuse two homies arguing / I’ll prolly die ’cause that’s what you do when you’re 17.” Damn.
From there, K-Dot breaks down his fears as a 27-year-old, which were centered around money. “All this money, is God playin’ a joke on me?” he asks. “Is it for the moment, and will he see me as Job? Take it from me and leave me worse than I was before? At 27, my biggest fear was losin’ it all.” Here, he connects “FEAR.” to “LOYALTY.” through his collaborator: “I read a case about Rihanna’s accountant and wondered / How did the bad girl feel when she looked at them numbers? / That type of shit’ll make me flip out.”
All of this leads up to Kendrick’s fourth verse, which is about his current fears. This is where the Compton MC masterfully places song titles in his verse, showcasing how fear likely helped inspire this album. Beyond the song titles listed, he references “LOVE.” and “FEEL.” in this verse. Plus, he makes two references that appear elsewhere throughout the album: “Wickedness or weakness,” and “What happens on Earth stays on Earth.”
13. “Ever since a young man / All I wanted to be was a gunman / Shootin’ up the charts, better run, man / Y’all gotta see that I won, man.” — Kendrick Lamar, “GOD.”
On 2011’s “Poe Man’s Dreams (His Vice),” Kendrick explained that he “used to want to see the penitentiary way after elementary.” He added: “Since my uncles was institutionalized / My intuition had said I was suited for family ties.” On that song, he also shared: “My momma is stressin’ / My daddy tired / I need me a weapon.”
Six years later, this idea is transformed into a new song. Here, he realizes that he ended up being a different type of gunman, one that blasts competitors with lyrics, and one who shoots up the charts with a quickness. To add to that, DAMN. is slated to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with more than 475,000 equivalent album units. To go from wanting to be a gunman to being one of music’s most successful artists? That’s about as slick as El DeBarge with the finger waves.
14. “Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence? / Because if Anthony killed Ducky / Top Dawg could be servin’ life / While I grew up without a father and died in a gunfight.” — Kendrick Lamar, “DUCKWORTH.”
Kendrick Lamar’s storytelling on “DUCKWORTH.” is nearly flawless. Joe Budden, a gifted storyteller in his own right, said as much on “Everyday Struggle.” “The storytelling was so amazing that I sat and tried to think of who tells a better story today in hip-hop than Kendrick,” he said. “The answer to that was nobody.”
On “DUCKWORTH.” K-Dot recalls his father Ducky’s past experiences with TDE CEO Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith. He weaves in details expertly, unloading just enough to keep things suspenseful at every turn. The intrigue pays off with a surprising twist at the end, which reveals a moral to the story, that “one decision” can change multiple lives, that good karma is a valuable thing, and that positive choices can eventually lead to even more fruitful outcomes. Through this one story, Dot is able to merge many of the album’s interwoven themes into a story that sends a message. DAMN. What a skillful way to end an album.