Kendrick Lamar pulled a Frank Ocean on April 7th by having fans at the edge of their seats in anticipation for his fourth album, Damn. With releases like “The Heart IV” and “Humble” as precursors, this album was slated to be another win for the Compton emcee. Despite the wait, the album surely lived up to its name. Damn is a fitting phrase for an album that highlights the sin, evil, and hypocrisy in the world.
The album opens with “Blood”, an anecdote that says one thing: the act of kindness does not always warrant rewards. Before the story unfolds, Bekon sings, “Is it wickedness? / Is it weakness”. Although he leaves out the what, his inquiry soon becomes clear by the end of the story. Kendrick notices a blind woman pacing and being a good Samaritan, he asks her what she has lost? In reply, she tells him that he has lost his life and what happens next is unexpected. A gunshot is heard and it can only be inferred that Kendrick has been shot. Whether or not he is dead is ambiguous. What’s interesting about this track is its relationship to To Pimp a Butterfly. On the track “How Much a Dollar Cost?”, he is stingy and ungrateful for his blessings, which ultimately cost him a spot in heaven. However, he’s mad efforts to lend assistance to those down on their luck and what he receives in return is violence. The song is a clear critique on the wickedness of the world and senseless killings. People die unnecessary deaths and Kendrick is clearly pointing that out. It’s a very heavy start for the album, but it does set the tone for what is next. The song ends with a soundbite from FOX news critiquing the song lyrics from Kendrick’s notable anthem, “Alright.” While it bears no relation to the song, it does transition into the second track.
On “DNA”, he asserts the pain and struggle that lies within his heritage. However, he also acknowledges the loyalty and royalty that exists there, dating back to black people in Egypt. The song is in opposition to his many critics, particularly Geraldo Rivera, who stated that hip hop was more damaging than racism. Insulted, Kendrick Lamar fires back by telling white people what their DNA consists of. He references the evils they have committed and highlights the privilege and appropriate that’s within their veins. This track breaks from the somber mood of “Blood” and lifts the mood. The track is one listeners can get hype to and he switches production towards the song’s closing.
With various religious themes, “Yah” signals Kendrick’s awareness to God’s impending approach. Yah is the Hebrew word for God and he knows that he walks among mortals. His “radar is buzzin”, which seems to represent his senses going haywire. However, Kendrick doesn’t seem to be ready for his arrival as he is so busy living the rapper lifestyle. There is this sense of confusion as he knows what he needs to do or what’s important, but chooses to play ignorant. The song slows up the pace of the album, especially in contrast to the previous track. Kendrick is very introspective and personal on this track. “Element” introduces an arrogant Kendrick, who knows his capabilities. He knows his skills are great and that rap is the realm he dominates. It’s his “element”, so much so, that he’s one through five, a reference to the top five emcees today. In light of his greatness, Kendrick switches his flow and chops & screws the outro to display his versatility.
“Feel” is another slow and introspective track in which Kendrick expresses his lack of trust in family, friends, and the world. He opens the song by repeatedly saying “Ain’t nobody praying for me.” He notes that his services have given so much to others, but have not warranted much in return. While he has the money and success, what he really wants is prayer.
“Loyalty” featuring Rihanna is Kendrick’s question to listeners on what loyalty is and what they are loyal to. This is something else that Kendrick is unsure about as he references as shift in dynamic within his community. He borrows vocals from Rihanna as they go back and forth in their request for loyalty. The song’s production is interesting as it almost sounds churchy as what sounds like an organ plays in the background. “Pride” is one of two sins he commits. He wants to basks in his accomplishments and refuses to remain humble on account of others. In the chorus he sings, “Me, I wasn’t taught to share, but care.” The wealth that he has acquired isn’t meant for everything, which could also showcase greed. Following next is the song’s single, “Humble”, which is a virtue opposite of pride. He talks about the days he was poor and the wealth he has now, thankful for both. The catchy hook urges people to sit down and be humble. Kendrick makes a change to the intro of the song, stating, “Nobody pray for me / It’s been that day for me.” It’s a bit confusing to see Kendrick reject prayer when he seems desperate for it on “Feel.” However, this seems to hint at the inner conflict that Kendrick displays throughout the album.
“Lust”, the second sin, highlights much more than a desire for sex. While in the chorus, he speaks of being thirsty and falling into temptation, the rest of the song deals with a lust for fame, money, and attention. In the verses, he repeats the same words over and over again. They detail an unproductive lifestyle that lends the same results. While a guy is smoking weed, skipping work, and having sex, a woman is getting her weave done to finesse a man out of money. Although he condemns others, he puts himself into the equation by displaying his narrative of waking up hungover and getting on the road to do it all over in the next city. “Love” featuring Zacari, the opposite of lust, addresses Kendrick’s desire for commitment. He recognizes that he has a woman in his life who has been faithful, loyal, and trustworthy. He wants complete honesty from her, questioning whether she would be around if not for the money and fame. The song is very dreamy and has an intergalactic feel to it, especially when paired with Zacari’s autotune.
“XXX” featuring U2 is his perspective on America and its treatment of the black community. He begins by painting various scenarios that denote his indestructability, an ode to the strength of the black spirit. He follows with three different narratives. This first is about Johnny, his cousin who wants to be a rapper like him. However, he murders someone while hustling and becomes a product of his environment. The second narrative is of a phone conversation between Kendrick and a friend. His friend’s son lost his life to the hands of police and while he asks for prayer, Kendrick advises revenge. He even goes on to state what he would do in the situation, which also ends in murder. With the third and final narrative, he gives his overall perspective of white America and the blind eye it turns to the black community. The three x’s in America seem to be institutionalization, police brutality, and abandonment. An X rating normally means that the content is inappropriate, which could also be a reference to the behaviors and injustices of America. The song’s production starts off very chaotic and violent, but slows to a rock and roll beat.
“Fear” details three different points in Kendrick’s life where fear was prominent the most. At age 7, he was afraid of his mother. At age 17, he was afraid of dying young. At age 27, he feared losing everything that he had, which included his wealth and creativity. The fourth contains many lines that reference previous track titles on the album. For example, he raps, “I’m talkin’ fear, fear of losin’ loyalty from pride / ‘Cause my DNA won’t me involve in the light of God.” This track culminates the entire album as Kendrick reveals the root of his inner conflict. Included with the song is a voicemail that Kendrick’s cousin, Carl, leaves for him. The voicemail begins and ends the song as his cousin preaches that Black, Hispanics, and Native Americans must turn to God to end their suffering. He calls them the “true children of Israel.” The song is almost reminiscent of a blues song due to its tempo and the groans and moans he applies in the background. On “God”, he equates his feeling of success and accomplishments with how God must feel. He also asks that he doesn’t get judged for his past transgressions or the life he has now. It almost seems like he has reached a feeling of completion and satisfaction.
The final track on the album is “Duckworth”, Kendrick’s last name. He details the story of how his father, Ducky, and Top Dawg, Anthony, met. While their meeting was coincidence, it led to Kendrick’s career and success. Their past paved the way for an interesting future. However, Kendrick notes that things could have gone differently when Top Dawg robbed the KFC his dad worked at. He recognizes that if Top Dawg had shot his dad, he would lose a parent and the guidance he needed during his adolescence. This would in turn led to him turning to the streets and ultimately getting himself killed. Top Dawg would have gone to jail and the outlet that Kendrick used to get away from his neighborhood would never be. There wouldn’t be a Kendrick Lamar without this incident. Another gunshot sounds and the album goes in reverse up until the title track and the anecdote starts again. Essentially, Kendrick is damned if he did and damned if he doesn’t. Even though there was the possibility of death by the hands of his community, he is still susceptible to death by the evils of the world.
Damn recognizes that condemnation that will fall upon the world if they do not get their act together. Kendrick realizes that this also falls unto himself as struggles to be righteous in the midst of sin. The album goes back and forth between Kendrick Lamar, the man and Kendrick Lamar, the rapper. He’s unsure of himself, which is why the tone of the album seems to go up and down. It’s obviously tiring him out, as the album cover suggests a feeling of exhaustion. He also makes him look dead on his feet, which would be accurate with the lifestyle the he lives combined with the social climate of today. There are many biblical references in this album, highlighting the close relationship Kendrick has with God. This album is very heavy in tone and critical of how the world is functioning. He feels that the end is coming and it very well maybe with how things are looking. Damn is a good album and recommended to anyone. You can find it on Apple Music, Spotify, and in stores.