Kendrick Lamar’s fifth album, titled DAMN., was released on April 14. Like any Kendrick masterpiece, the album must be listened to at least four times before reaching even the surface themes. A week after its release, the following is a track-by-track review and analysis of DAMN.
The album opens up with haunting vocals, singing “Is it wickedness? / is it weakness? / You decide…” Kendrick tells the story of a blind woman whom he found wandering the streets, as though she had lost something. Kendrick recounts the event in a slow, contemplative speech, complete with ominous violin in the background. Just as Kendrick offers his assistance, the woman takes his life with a chilling gunshot. Here, Kendrick reminds his audience not to take people at face value, as letting your guard down can lead to a loss of your very own. Following the gunshot, a Fox News clip is weaved into the end of the track, and the voice of Kendrick’s critics permeates the track as it leads into his response.
This embodies the intense protest rap we’ve come to know and love from K. Dot. Here Kendrick raps about the greatness and controversy running hot through his blood. While praising his own natural talents, he attacks the weakness of his enemies, claiming the hormones have switched, implying a lack of testosterone and backbone. The continued news clips criticizing his work run through the second half of the track, and Kendrick remains unfazed by them.
Kung Fu Kenny makes his humble debut on this track, employing a slower drawl. The “yah yah” repeating through the hook is the first of many religious notes on this album, possibly referring to “Yahweh,” a Hebrew name for God. Here Kendrick pays attention to his family and God who support him, ignoring the people who want to use his vision for their fame.
The dedication to his music and his career is most prevalent on this track, as well as the reason behind it. His father, who inspired him through his success, moving from jail to a several figure salary (“My daddy commissary made it to commas”). Kendrick works for his birthplace Compton, for his family and he knows he’s killing the game. Kendrick takes the time to call out his fellow rappers who pursue success for more shallow reasons while acknowledging that whatever he does, he makes it look sexy.
The religious tones continue on this track, with overlapping voices lamenting the lack of prayer from people who support Kendrick. This is one of the more emotional tracks, and Kendrick takes this time to divulge a stream-of-consciousness expression of his feelings. Up until the last 45 seconds, a synthesizer runs in the background and Kendrick remains calm and pensive. He makes a Slim Shady-esque shift, in which he pivots and dismisses the feelings of these same people who won’t pray for him.
With R&B beats reminiscent of recent rap gracing radio stations, Rihanna’s soulful vocals mesh perfectly with Kendrick’s soft monochrome rapping. The song is a comment on loyalty in a relationship, whether romantic or, in Kendrick’s case, a fan base. Kendrick observes his audience shifting, and in this track calls out for a loyal one.
Kendrick acknowledges the dangers of pride, opening the track with a haunting, echoing reminder that pride will be the death of everyone. He describes the imperfections in the world around him while musing that he can’t be entirely humbled for the sake of his followers and competitors. Kendrick ends the track on yet another religious note, expressing a desire to bring all religions together and have the people of the world abandon their pride, and look to God in thanks for his perfection and mercy.
In juxtaposition to “PRIDE.”, this track resumes the intense side of Kung Fu Kenny’s music. The repetitive piano chords and monochrome vocals lead to an earworm of a song, as he reminds his competitors to sit down and be humble both in the face of God and of Kendrick, who is increasing in god-like status.
Toning it down for the next track, Kendrick describes the physical feeling of lust taking over his body. His continued use of the word “need” emphasizes the desperation he feels wanting physical interaction with the object of his affection. Lost in the monotone daily routine between him and the girl he lusts after, he needs the excitement and rush he feels to distract him.
The more emotional “love” as opposed to the purely physical “lust” has a happier, bubbly sound. Here Kendrick laments about another girl who is hard to get, but rather than his lower region hurting, his heart does. In light of his success, love is one of the few things Kendrick still has to fight for. Here he wishes for someone to stay loyal and be with him, a “homie for life” to love him outside of the fame and fortune.
Here, Kendrick continues his controversy, discussing a justified form of violence. If Kendrick is God, this piece is his flood, filled with dark themes of death and payment for sins. Someone asks Kendrick to pray for him and Kendrick, angered, demands violent backlash for the crimes committed against his people. Kung Fu Kenny makes it clear that if you touch something important to him, he’s coming for you. The track is quite literally cut off by fear.
While continuing the religious theme, this track makes a change in which Kendrick curses God for his suffering throughout his life. The track follows three different shifts in fear by three different times in Kendrick’s life. At 7 years old, Kendrick is a paranoid, troubled mind in a home full of domestic violence, suffering from a fear of being beaten. At 17 years old, Kendrick can’t have the freedom he wants, for fear that it may quite literally kill him. Death lurks around every corner for teenage Kendrick. At 27, despite a new life and new success, Kendrick remains afraid. His biggest fears involve “losing it all,” so much to the point where he trusts no one with his money, nor does he make frivolous purchases. Kendrick wants to be able to smoke away the fear that permeates every part of his life, no matter what stage.
Kendrick secures his identity as the God of the rap game in this track, reveling in the power and authority. He wanted to be a gunman as a young boy, so he found his way, killing his competition with success, fame and art. Kendrick indulges in his own pride, rightfully so with his accumulated success.
This track, named after Kendrick’s last name, acknowledges his true adversary, himself. Kendrick tells the story of his father’s near death, explaining how his existence is purely based on coincidence. The outro of this track reverses audio and brings the album full circle, ending with the same fateful phrase at the beginning of “BLOOD.”: “So I was taking a walk the other day..”