“The world is endin’, I’m done pretendin’, and f- you if you get offended,” Kendrick Lamar proclaims on “FEEL.,” one of the most arresting songs on his solemn fourth album DAMN. It’s a surprising change in tone for the 29-year-old Compton, California, rapper who, just two years ago, reassured listeners “we gon’ be alright” on To Pimp a Butterfly, his star-making 2015 opus about race in modern America. Of course, the world has changed markedly since then. When President Obama invited Lamar to the Oval Office during his tenure, he had named Butterflys “How Much a Dollar Cost” his favorite song of the year. President Trump, meanwhile, isn’t the biggest fan of hip-hop.
And so across DAMN.s 55 minutes - a brief effort by Lamar’s standards - the MC attempts to make sense of these last two years, which have also seen him become one of music’s preeminent voices. Despite his rise, there’s little relief here. Overwhelmingly, DAMN. is Lamar’s admission that things might not be “Alright” after all. When he raps that “they won’t take me out my element” over woozy production by Beyoncé collaborator James Blake on “ELEMENT.,” the statement feels less triumphant than defensive.
Lamar has fused the political and the personal since his 2011 debut Section.80, but on DAMN., the two are nearly inseparable. After drawing ire from conservative pundits like Geraldo Rivera, who criticized Lamar when he performed “Alright” from atop a cop car at the 2015 BET Awards, the rapper responds on DAMN. “Somebody tell Geraldo this n-- got some ambition,” he quips on the sun-flecked “YAH.” But generally, Lamar explores grander sociopolitical themes. On “XXX.,” U2 frontman Bono - who adopted America as his own on U2’s 1987 classic The Joshua Tree - sings about the nation being “a sound of drum and bass,” as Lamar lays down incisive verses. “Is America honest, or do we bask in sin?” he asks. “Pass the gin, I mix it with American blood.” Minutes later, Lamar deconstructs dread on “FEAR.”: “If I could smoke fear away, I’d roll that motherf-er up, and then I’d take two puffs,” he concludes over a leisurely funk beat by The Alchemist. After delving into the personal on 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city and going broader on Butterfly, Lamar has found a middle ground on DAMN. that yields some of his most emotionally resonant music yet.
The instrumentals on DAMN. deftly mirror Lamar’s unease. Butterflys jazz-oriented soundscapes are mostly gone; Thundercat and Kamasi Washington, key collaborators from that album, only appear on a song apiece here. For the album’s harshest moments, Lamar turned to trap superproducer Mike Will Made-It (Beyoncé’s “Formation”), whose cacophonous beats for “DNA.” and lead single “HUMBLE.” match Lamar’s bleak verbal barrages. Even sunnier tracks including “YAH.” and “FEAR.” evoke stifling city heat instead of a midday bask on the beach. It’s a disorienting listening experience, but it is still sonically cohesive: Sounwave, the producer who has contributed heavily to Lamar’s three previous albums, worked on eight of DAMN.s songs, subtly fusing the album’s disparate styles.
It’s old hat at this point to say that Lamar is technically peerless, and his astonishing flow on cuts like “DNA.” and “FEEL.” confirm that. But Lamar’s greatest poetic gift - and what elevates so many of DAMN.s verses - is his ability to find humanity in desolate situations. DAMN. contains stunning beauty if you listen closely: a vocoder-driven duet with Rihanna about commitment (“LOYALTY.”), an exultant ode to work ethic (“GOD.”), a simple love song featuring rising singer Zacari (“LOVE.”).
The quintessential example of Lamar’s unmatched empathy is “DUCKWORTH.,” the crackling blast of vintage West Coast hip-hop that closes the album. On it, Lamar flexes his formidable storytelling chops to recount how Anthony Tiffith, now the head of Lamar’s label, Top Dawg Entertainment, robbed fast food joints in the late ’80s. In an allegedly true story, Tiffith attempted to rob the Kentucky Fried Chicken where Lamar’s father, “Ducky,” had worked. But Tiffith spared Ducky because he’d previously offered Tiffith food on the house. Lamar’s moral is that, without this small expression of generosity, his father could’ve died, Tiffith could’ve ended up behind bars, and the young Lamar could’ve been cast adrift without either of them. The broader lesson, however, is clear - especially after America’s repudiation of the values he extolled on Butterfly. In these uncertain times, Lamar makes the case to love thy neighbor, regardless of the circumstances.
Lamar grapples with stardom and society in some of the most dazzling verses of his career.
Another 29-year-old megastar, Rihanna, teams with the MC on one of DAMN.s most tender moments.