DAMN. is the fourth studio album from rapper Kendrick Lamar, which came out on April 14th, 2017, three years ago. Lamar has been heralded as one of the generation’s greatest musical minds from both critics, the underground, and the mainstream, earning him dozens of gold & platinum certifications as well as a Pulitzer Prize for this very album.
DAMN. is perhaps Kendrick Lamar’s most commercial effort, and certainly his most commercially successful record. The smash-hit lead single “HUMBLE.” is now a whopping seven times platinum. The entire record is now triple platinum, and every song on it has at least one certification.
DAMN. is striking from one look at the cover, with a bold red “M” forming devil horns over the head of a downhearted Kendrick. This image gives us a greater sense of the music than any description could give. Kendrick feels more depressed and damned than ever, feeling as though nobody’s praying for him. The recurring line “ain’t nobody praying for me” could mean multiple things. It could mean that Kendrick doesn’t get enough real love and feels lonely and depressed because of it, or Kendrick believes that there isn’t enough God in people anymore, and people don’t have enough faith in their lives. This album is chock full of meaning (enough for an entire Dissect podcast series on it), and don’t let its commercial facade fool you. DAMN. is the most personal and painfully down-to-earth album in Kendrick Lamar’s outstanding oeuvre.
The track “BLOOD.” kicks off the album with a dark, brooding story of Kendrick being shot while trying to help a blind woman. The track evokes the Book of Deuteronomy, which will play a major role throughout the album, and also introduces us to the duality of “wickedness” and “weakness,” challenging us to either choose our path or identify Kendrick’s path as you listen.
This album is mainly about duality. Songs often transition from highs to lows, like the transition between the boastful “DNA.” and the introspective “YAH.,” and song titles often contradict, like “PRIDE.” and “HUMBLE.” or “LUST.” and “LOVE.” This duality is reflective of Kendrick’s astrological sign, the Gemini, which is noted for being volatile with dual personalities, something Kendrick has frequently alluded to in previous work.
I, personally, do tend to look at this more as an album of individual tracks each addressing separate and significant feelings. Some of those standout tracks are the fiery “XXX.,” the abstract and lyrically potent “LUST.,” and “FEAR.,” a seven-minute epic that is undoubtedly the climax of the album and one of the best songs of Kendrick’s career. But one of the most intriguing things about DAMN. is the loose story it seems to tell. There’s a duality even to this album’s tracklist, with the chant “we gon’ put it in reverse!” on the final track urging us to consider the album in reverse order (the collector’s edition of this album even reversed the tracklist). Front-to-back, this seems like the story of Kendrick finding redemption in a dark place. But back-to-front, the album becomes a much darker story of a young black man succumbing to stereotypes and his “DNA.,” the album ending with a death instead of beginning with one. But the narratives, either way, always seemed a bit rickety to me.
But that’s what’s so great about DAMN. It’s mix of popularity and ambiguity welcomes a ton of discussion. And while the narrative(s) may not be flawless, and some of the tracks can come off as too commercial, sacrificing some quality in a way Kendrick never did before, make no mistake that this is still one of the strongest collections of tracks in Lamar’s discography, and, over these past three years, has solidified its own, unique place in his stellar catalogue.
- FEAR. 2. FEEL. 3. LUST. 4. XXX. FEAT. U2 5. DUCKWORTH. 6. PRIDE. 7. DNA. 8. ELEMENT. 9. YAH.
- GOD. 11. HUMBLE. 12. LOVE. FEAT. ZACARI 13. LOYALTY. FEAT. RIHANNA 14. BLOOD.