We breakdown each one of “DAMN”‘s fourteen tracks.
More so than any other artist currently working in hip hop, Kendrick Lamar makes albums that demand analysis. This can certainly be taken out of hand, as was proved when a rumored companion album to DAMN. didn’t end up surfacing this past weekend, and as was satirized in this hilarious piece by Shea Serrano, but Kung FU Kenny’s music is so rich with thematics, allusions, and metaphors that any fan would be remiss to just take it at face value.
DAMN. may not have quite the overarching narrative of good kid, m.A.A.d city or To Pimp a Butterfly, but that doesn’t mean that there are links between its songs, hidden meanings, and aspects that only reveal themselves after a few listens. To delve into all of these, we’re going song-by-song to unlock all of the album’s secrets.
The album’s shortest track, “BLOOD.” introduces us to the “I was taking a walk the other day” thread, which pops up again on the final track. Another underlying theme on the album, a debate about certain personality traits being wickedness or weakness, is also presaged here. More mystifying is the blind woman and her words to Kendrick. “You’ve lost…” she says, pausing dramatically, “Your life!” A gunshot echoes, suggesting that Kendrick dies at the start of the album, similarly to The Notorious B.I.G. on Life After Death. Is what follows the afterlife, or rather a “life flashing before your eyes”-style reevaluation of his life on earth?
Before we can even contemplate that, we get a FOX News clip that gets the blood boiling just in time for…
“DNA.” is an exploration of Lamar’s blackness, but under much different lighting than most of those found on TPAB (outside of “The Blacker The Berry”). This time, he’s directly, angrily responding to the pundits who have attempted to school him about his race, like FOX’s Geraldo Rivera, who’s sampled again here, saying that hip hop has done more damage to black kids than racism has in the past few years. Blackness contains multitudes, says Kendrick, and he’s here to expound upon every aspect: “I know murder, conviction/Burners, boosters, burglars, ballers, dead, redemption/Scholars, fathers dead with kids.”
In verse two, Kendrick takes a rare opportunity to stunt, citing “Diamond in the ceilin’, marble on the floors” a a few of the luxuries his music’s afforded him. Does this contradict the message of “HUMBLE.” that appears later on in the album. When it’s preceded by a swift takedown of people trying to pigeonhole Kendrick as a thug, it doesn’t really feel that way.
No, Kendrick wan’t just saying “Yah” to keep up with Playboi Carti’s astronomical tally on his debut album, released the same day as DAMN., he was actually referencing god, or Yahweh. Despite saying he’s “Not ’bout a religion,” he centers the track around a passage from the Book of Deuteronomy claiming that the Israelites (which is Kendrick asks to be called) are cursed for eternity as a test of their faith. Knowing this, Kendrick finds temptation– “money to get, bitches to hit”– even harder to resist. Similarly to the humble/boasting dichotomy discussed before, this plays on the duality of life and the inner conflicts we all have.
This one opens with the first utterance of “What happens on earth, stays on earth” on the album, which will be repeated a few more times before its end. Perhaps it’s a follow-through on Kendrick talking about his sins of lust and pride, convincing himself that these deeds won’t negatively affect his afterlife? I’m not so sure, but neither is the guy who delivers those words, Kid Capri.
The title seems to refer to Kendrick being in his element, AKA hip hop. Its lyrics are mostly aimed at rap rivals, whether they’re “Maney-ass rap n****s,” “Pussy-ass n****s,” or “Imaginary rich n****s.” To back up the fact that he deserves to be here more than anyone else, Lamar cites his rags-to-riches come-up, including but not limited to his mom stomping him out and his grandmas both dying, leaving him prayerless. He delivers the song’s climactic line, referencing TPAB and again, his rivals, last: “Last LP I tried to lift the black artists/But it’s a difference between black artists and wack artists.”
“FEEL.” build off of the previous song’s “All my grandmas dead, so ain’t nobody prayin’ for me” line, turning it into a hook. In its verses, Kendrick introduces a repetitive structure that’ll be echoed on “FEAR.” later in the album. This time, he’s beginning most lines with “I feel like,” and mostly citing concerns that have arisen since he’s become famous. On one hand, he feels like “Mike Jordan whenever holdin’ a real mic;” on the other, he feels like friends are overrated, the family’s been faking, and his feelings are changing. Again: the dualities of life, producing pros and cons.
Two of the most powerful artists in the game, Kendrick and Rihanna, begin by introducing themselves with lofty terms: “My resume is real enough for two millenniums” for the former, “Been a bad bitch way before any cash came” for the latter. Once that’s been established, they seem to suggest that, having reached these rarified plateaus, all they really ask of friends, family, and lovers is loyalty. Oftentimes, stars will turn to other things (“Is it money? Is it fame? Is it weed? Is it drink?”) to fill the hole that the absence of real friends and relationships has left, which is why Rihanna seems so desperate when she asks, “Is it anybody that you would lie for? Anybody you would slide for? Anybody you would die for?”
Although “Loyalty” doesn’t seem explicitly tied to any other songs or themes on the album, it does seem to be another thing Kendrick’s preoccupied with at this moment in his life, which, more than anything else, seems to be the guiding principle of DAMN.
For Kendrick, pride seems to be a particularly difficult sin to avoid. He has to recognize that he’s one of the best– if not the best– rapper in the game right now, and not only that, but that he’s using his music to tackle issue that most other artists rarely ever touch. On the other hand though, thinking of yourself as the best is a “sick venom” that will blind you to the concerns of others. “I don’t love people enough to put my faith in men,” he raps, which make sense considering his hermetic persona in the media, “I put my faith in these lyrics, hoping I make amends.”
That seems like a reasonable enough proposition, and with the way Kendrick repeats “I can’t fake humble just ’cause your ass is insecure,” he seem to believe that too. But Kendrick being who he is, he’s always got perfection on his mind, which is why he presents a contrasting vision in his final lines:
“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”
In keeping with the theme of contrast on the album, the song about humbleness is the one with the hardest, most brash beat. I already analyzed this one at length, so suffice it to ay that Kendrick spends “HUMBLE.” putting down his rivals and modern popular culture, sounding more aggressive than he does anywhere else on the album.
“LUST.” is possibly the most jumbled song, thematically speaking, on the album. On one hand, it has Kendrick embodying the titular sin on the hook, saying “I need you to want me” and asking his lover to “Let me put the head in.” On the first verse, he’s talking about daily routines, whether monotonous or not, and telling us to make them count for something whether that be fun, monetary gain, health, beauty, or whatever. On the second verse, he’s recounting a hungover morning that made him late for a flight, and then lamenting the outcome of last year’s election.
What ties this all together though, is the bridge, which explains how the concept of lust factors into all of the above:
“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, it’s all contradiction
Lately, I’m not here
Lately, I lust over self
Lust turn into fear
Lately, in James 4:4 says
Friend of the world is enemy of the Lord
Brace yourself, lust is all yours”
Contrasting (I know I’m using that word too much, but fuck it) with the previous song’s schizophrenic documentation of infatuation and obsession, “LOVE.” is as straightforward and smooth as a Kendrick Lamar song gets. It seems more accurate about his current life than the preceding song, considering that he’s been in a low-profile relationship for most of his adult life. On it, Kendrick still rhapsodizes about all of the privileges his fame allows him, but as he’s sharing them with his girl, they begin to seem less evil and more godly. Wanting something is one thing, wanting something to give to someone you love is something entirely different.
Now we’ve reached the dark, dense part of the album. “XXX.” is mostly about America in a big picture sense (see: the short section about “Johnny” who’s influenced by the country’s culture), but it also contains some more specific parables that relate to the song’s wider scope. Kendrick’s first verse recounts the story of a friend calling him with new of his son’s murder, expecting Kendrick to pray for him and show him “how to overcome.” Instead, the normally-peaceful Kendrick shocks him by saying, “If somebody kill my son, that mean somebody gettin’ killed.” Citing the “love, loyalty, and passion of all the memories collected” as “moments you could never touch,” K Dot presents a pretty convincing argument for revenge, saying that he’d do the crime and even turn himself in afterwards. Everything goes out of the window when a tragedy like this happens, he says. “Ain’t no Black Power when your baby killed by a coward.”
His verse in the song’s second half doesn’t totally contradict this, instead explaining the country that inspires such incidents, but it comes pretty close to a full 180. “Look what you taught us,” he says to an America that values bombs, borders, “bosses with homicidal thoughts,” and “big rifles.” He calls these “America’s reflection of me,” but the inverse could be true too.
“XXX.” works as a self-contained track about violence in this country, but its contrasting tone also fits right in with the rest of DAMN.
The longest track on the album reminds me of the film Moonlight more than anything else. Not only is it divided into three parts by age– childhood, adolescence, and adulthood– but each part addresses similar themes to the corresponding parts of the movie. Childhood Kendrick is terrified by his mother, who repeatedly threatens to beat his ass. Her concerns range from things every kid hears (“That homework better be finished”) to things that only apply to poverty-stricken families (“County building’s on my ass tryna take my food stamps away”), but at this point in his life, Kendrick’s biggest fear is disobeying his parental guardian.
At 17, the real world’s come more into focus, and for Kendrick, that world is the mean streets of Compton, where death lurks around every corner. Informed by personal experience, news coverage of Michael Brown’s murder, and statistics, his fear is now much more real and heartbreaking. “I’ll prolly die ’cause that’s what you do when you’re 17” in particular hits harder than a bag of bricks.
Grown-ass Kendrick at age 27, around the time of To Pimp a Butterfly’s release, has less life-threatening, but no less crippling anxieties. Having reached a point of equilibrium in his life, he’s now afraid of losing it, or disappointing his fans, or being unfairly judged (hi FOX News). This, along with the last verse on “ELEMENT.” presents quite a startling portrait of a dude who just released the best-reviewed album of the 2010s. Kendrick’s got demons that most people can’t even see.
The final verse is again used as a device to tie up all of the jumbled content that precedes it, this time acting as a thesis on the concept of fear. Among other things, he’s afraid that “what happens on Earth stays on Earth” and that “it’s wickedness or weakness,” which you’ll remember from previous parts on the album. This is the climax of Kendrick wrestling with all of his contradictions and overlapping questions.
Here, Kendrick finds god in worldly trappings, claiming that He feels like “laughing to the bank” a la 50 Cent. It’s the least weighty of the final four songs on DAMN., but it provides a necessary viewpoint, that maybe not all of this excess and dominance of an artform is a bad thing. Maybe you can find god in whatever brings you wholesome joy and sets you apart from the rest of his flock.
Existing on an island by itself is the final track, which has no hook and just an extended storytelling rap from one of the greatest to ever do it. Kendrick recounts the strange-but-true tale of his father and TDE president Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith meeting each other before he was born, and after taking a liking to each other, altering the course of rap history by allowing a better life for Kendrick. “Life is one funny mothafucka,” Kendrick aptly says, “A true comedian, you gotta love him, you gotta trust him.”
The crux of this story isn’t really evident until the end, when Kendrick says that if things had gone differently, and Top Dawg had held up the KFC where Ducky worked, he may have ended up dead, rather than being the “greatest rapper”: “If Anthony killed Ducky/Top Dawg could be servin’ life/While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight.”
This makes the gunshot make a little more sense, especially because K Dot ends the album by echoing his “So, I was takin’ a walk the other day…” intro. He may spend an entire album wrestling with the contradictions that paralyze him, but at least he’s alive to do so.