Kendrick Lamar — “DAMN.” Track By Track Review

Kendrick Lamar rapping in 2013. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

Alright, everybody. After an EP, a host of featured verses, and two hot singles, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth has returned with the official follow-up to his critically-acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly from 2015. How good is it? Short answer: DAMN. Read and listen as I break down the album, track by track (all lyrics adapted from Genius).


“Is it wickedness?
Is it weakness?
You decide
Are we gonna live or die?”

In the album’s cold open, K-Dot tells a story of him trying to help a struggling blind woman. “Oh yes,” she says, when he asks if she had lost something. “You’ve lost…your life”. She shoots him, and the track fades into Geraldo Rivera (from Fox News’ The Five) critiquing Lamar’s BET Awards performance of “Alright” in 2015. Lamar goes deeper into this in the following track. 4/5


“I got, I got, I got, I got
Loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA”

Kendrick addresses his rivals and critics over a Mike WiLL Made-It beat for the first song off the LP. He seemingly takes shots at Drake, but more explicitly returns to Geraldo Rivera, whose critiques from “BLOOD.” are expanded upon before the second verse: “This is why I say that hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years.” The beat then switches as Kendrick turns his attention fully to the Fox News correspondent. Plus, the video has Don Cheadle rapping. That’s a win in and of itself. 5/5


“Interviews wanna know my thoughts and opinions
Fox News wanna use my name for percentage
My latest muse is my niece, she worth livin’
See me on the TV and scream: ‘That’s Uncle Kendrick!’”

A more laid back track, “YAH.” almost serves as an interlude between “DNA.” and the upcoming “ELEMENT.” Lamar raps and sings melodically over a slow, trance-inducing beat. As outlined above, he takes a few more shots at Fox News, specifically telling audiences to “tell Geraldo [Rivera] this nigga got some ambition.” 3/5


“Most of y’all throw rocks and try to hide your hand
Just say his name and I promise that you’ll see Candyman”

Self-aggrandizement to the fullest. If “DNA.” was the opening hype track, “ELEMENT.” is the full flex. Lamar reasserts his dominance over the genre with braggadocious lyrics like “Mr. One through Five, that’s the only logic” — literally claiming that he is the top five list. After seven Grammys, the highest Billboard Hot 100 debut for any rap song since 2010, and a debut week where he already beat Drake’s 300 million-plus streaming record, I’d say he’s earned the right to brag. Just a little bit. 5/5


“I feel like a chip 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”

This Sounwave-produced track is the first full-fledged introspective song on the album. “Ain’t nobody prayin’ for me,” Lamar bemoans repeatedly, dissecting his negative feelings over a smooth drum and bass breakbeat. The theme of religion plays a more central role in this project than in his previous work, and it starts to come to a head in “FEEL.” 4/5


“Tell me who you loyal to
Do it start with your woman or your man? (Mmm)
Do it end with your family and friends? (Mmm)
Or you’re loyal to yourself in advance?

Hi, Rihanna!” The Bad Gyal joins Kung-Fu Kenny on this ‘90s-inspired hip-hop/R&B track. In their first collaborative effort, the two superstars trade bars and melodies relating to platonic and romantic loyalty. “It’s a secret society,” they sing together. “All we ask is trust…Tell me who you loyal to.” It’s interesting to note Rihanna’s appearance on this song considering Lamar later references her former accountant in “FEAR.”. 4/5


“See, 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, world”

Another introspective track, Lamar confronts his vices such as pride, vanity, and selfishness, detailing how he feels he has contributed to the pain of others. He also outlines his ideal world. He’s tackled his own selfishness like this before, notably on tracks from To Pimp a Butterfly such as “u” and “How Much A Dollar Cost.” 4/5


“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
Still will take you down right on your mama’s couch in Polo socks…”

While the above lines got him some online backlash, it did not stop this lead single from debuting at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, the first rap song to do so since Eminem and Rihanna teamed up for “Love the Way You Lie.” “HUMBLE.” ironically sees Lamar just as braggadocious as “ELEMENT.”, telling his listeners and rivals to “be humble.” He teams up with Mike WiLL Made-It again for this street-worthy earworm. 4/5


Lately, I feel like I been lustin’ over the fame
Lately, we lust on the same routine of shame
Lately, lately, lately, my lust been hidin’ (Lately)
Lately, it’s all contradiction

“LUST.” deals with the “lifestyles of the rich and famous.” More specifically, it tackles lust in various forms like sex or overall greed. Lamar repeats several sections of the song intentionally to reflect this monotony while simultaneously seeming bored and unfulfilled with it. He’s searching for something more. “I need some water,” he sings, almost as if he’s “dying of thirst.” 4/5


If I didn’t ride blade on curb, would you still (love me)?
If I minimize my net worth, would you still (love me)?
Keep it a hundred, I’d rather you trust me than to (love me)
Keep it a whole one hund’: don’t got you, I got nothin’

While “LOVE.” builds off of the themes expressed in “LUST.”, it is mostly earworm melody and electro-hop beat. It’s catchy as hell, but not a song with any life-changing revelations. “Keep it a hundred,” Lamar sings with Zacari, “ I’d rather you trust me than to love me.” Obviously, the song is about love but, as a wise man recently pointed out, love can be interpreted in many ways. 3/5

XXX. (FEAT. U2.)

“Yesterday I got a call like from my dog like 101
Said they killed his only son because of insufficient funds
He was sobbin’, he was mobbin’, way belligerent and drunk
Talkin’ out his head, philosophin’ on what the Lord had done”

Somewhat reminiscent of his “m.A.A.d city” performance with Imagine Dragons, the U2-assisted “XXX.” is truly one of the standout tracks. Despite the feature from the band, this song is unmistakably hip-hop rather than a rap-rock fusion or crossover. The beat and melody switch three times — twice in the first verse as Lamar tells a friend his feelings on revenge killings, and once again during the second as he becomes more religiously and politically-inclined. Lines like, “The great American flag is wrapped and dragged with explosives,” or, “Donald Trump’s in office/We lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again,” interestingly contrast the more violent and angry first verse. “It’s not a place,” Bono sings on the chorus. “This country is to be a sound of drum and bass.” 5/5


“I’ll prolly die from one of these bats and blue badges
Body slammed on black and white paint, my bones snappin’
Or maybe die from panic or die from bein’ too lax
Or die from waitin’ on it, die ’cause I’m movin’ too fast”

As the title suggests, Lamar dives into the fears he had growing up. Each verse is ten years apart: the first verse is age 7, and discusses the fear of punishment from his parents; the second is age 17, describing the fear of dying under 25 like many young, Black men; and the third is age 27, describing the fear of losing all of the success he had attained as an artist — something he previously discussed in detail on To Pimp a Butterfly. 4/5


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

“This what God feel like,” Lamar brags on this minimalist flex track. “Laughing to the bank like ‘A-ha!’” “GOD.” finds Lamar taking a victory lap after confronting his demons and vices throughout the album and his life overall. He shouts out El DeBarge (“Slick as El DeBarge with the finger waves”) and Justin Timberlake (“I’m sellin’ verses, JT”), he gets ratchet (“Fuck is you talkin’ to?”), and he brags about his talents (“Everything I write is a damn eight ball”). 3/5


“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 die in a gunfight”

Apparently fans have more reasons to thank Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith than just signing Kendrick Lamar to his label. The Compton rapper closes out his album with the story of a lifetime: how his father (referred to as “Ducky”) and Top Dawg previously met years before he became a rapper. In “DUCKWORTH.”, he describes how his father’s repeated acts of kindness led to Top Dawg sparing his life during a robbery. That critical decision, according to Lamar, allowed him to grow up with a father and eventually discover music as an alternative outlet to violence. 5/5

DAMN. is one hell of an album, confidently solidifying Kendrick Lamar’s place in hip-hop while he simultaneously furthers and subverts many of the tropes that have become associated with the genre. While not as dense, sonically or lyrically, as To Pimp a Butterfly, it is still as consistently complex as to be expected from the Compton rapper. It plays with themes of duality, religion, and violence with sounds reminiscent of good kid, m.A.A.d city but still as personal and reflective as his previous LP.

Album Average: 4.1/5 (57/70)

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