Kendrick Lamar's new album just dropped. We haven't had nearly enough time with this thing to offer any kind of review yet, but we were surprised by a few things during our first listen.
There are hidden lyrics found in reversed vocals.
Kendrick is known for hiding hidden meanings in his songs, but he took things a step further on DAMN. Midway through "Fear," 20 seconds of unintelligible reversed vocals appear. We reversed the clip and found the following hidden message (which echoes the spoken word intro at the beginning of the song):
"Every stone thrown at you resting at my feet / Why God why God do I gotta suffer / Pain in my heart carry burden for the struggle / Why God why God do I gotta bleed / Every stone thrown at you restin' at my feet / Why God why God do I gotta suffer / Earth is no more, won't you burn this mufucka?"
Later, he ends the album with a reversed clip of DAMN.'s final line, which says: "Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence / Because if Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg could be servin' life / While I grew up without a father and die in a gun fight (Gunshot)."
Steve Lacy's contribution is even better than we hoped for.
We first became familiar with Steve Lacy as part of The Internet. But in the past six months, members of that band have been releasing solo projects, including front woman Syd and Matt Martians. Steve has produced songs for Big Sean and Jhene Aiko's TWENTY88 project and featured on Kali Uchis' "Only Girl," but this February he released his first body of work as a solo artist, Steve Lacy's Demo.
Steve Lacy recorded and mixed his project entirely on his iPhone, and just a few months later dude has one of the best tracks on Kendrick Lamar's album. It sounds like Steve's vocals open the song (Anna Wise appears with backup vocals later in the song), and his rich, bright production is the perfect backdrop for Kendrick to get introspective.
Damn, Steve Lacy leveled up.
The U2 song doesn't suck.
As soon as the tracklist for DAMN. dropped, we could tell there would be two sides to this story. The back of Kendrick's cover was almost a mirror image of the front, and the album has only two listed features—Rihanna and U2—who occupy contrasting ends of the pop spectrum.
When U2's feature was announced there was immediately a lot of hate, but Mike Will erased all doubts with some masterful, double-sided production. The first half of "XXX" might be the album's toughest track, with Kendrick killing cowards at "Backseat Freestyle" levels of insanity, going in over tire screeches, alarm bells, and clipped, angry percussion.
As for Bono? His voice fits nicely, twice—first in a pitched down intro that quickly gives way to Kendrick's ferocity, then again in the plaintive second half. And even though they're coming from very different places, Bono and Kendrick are singing about a subject familiar to them both.
These are two artists who have worked to be a voice for the voiceless, and they attack the subject with renewed energy here: "This country is to be a sound of drum and bass," Bono warns. Kendrick counters: "The great American flag is wrapped and dragged with explosives."
Damn, Kendrick really made Bono cool in 2017.
If I gotta slap a pussy ass n*gga, I'ma make it look sexy
If I gotta go hard on a bitch, I'ma make it look sexy
I pull up, hop out, air out, made it look sexy
They won't take me out my element
Nah, take me out my element
The BadBadNotGood collaboration
There are jazz elements sprinkled into Kendrick Lamar's entire catalog, and To Pimp a Butterfly was a dense, complicated, free-jazz-meets-rap masterstroke. Billboard even called Kendrick "the John Coltrane of hip-hop." When we saw Kendrick was working with Canadian jazz group BadBadNotGood on "Lust," the ninth song on DAMN., we were expecting, you know, jazz. But the dark "Lust"—which also features work from DJ Dahi, Sounwave, and Kaytranada—is not that. Aside from a couple of moments on songs like "Element" and "Feel," DAMN. is pretty light on jazzy vibes altogether.
There are no features from TDE artists.
The Top Dawg Entertainment roster is stacked. With ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, SZA, Isaiah Rashad, Lance Skiiwalker, Jay Rock, and SiR, there is a lot of talent, and the artists often collaborate and appear on each other's records. Jay Rock and SZA both appeared with uncredited vocals on untitled unmastered. while SZA provided backing vocals on two To Pimp a Butterfly songs.
On DAMN. though, the features come from U2, Rihanna, and Zacari, and additional vocals from Steve Lacy, who produced "Pride," as well as Kaytranda on "Lust."
The Rihanna collaboration
"Loyalty" is great. Rihanna and Kendrick are both super talented artists in their own right, but, having never previously collaborated, it was hard to imagine what the song would sound like. Would it be a pop song? Would Rihanna handle the hook? Would their styles mesh?
In the end, "Loyalty" is a perfect balance of this more melodic Kendrick album and Rihanna's mastery of contemporary pop. They duet on parts of the chorus, but the highlight here might actually be Rihanna's verse.
Damn, RiRi's got bars.
"Love" is one of the year's prettiest love songs.
We already know Kendrick Lamar has range, from empowering anthems like "Alright" to bangers like "Backseat Freestyle" to deeply impactful tracks like "Sing About Me, Im Dying Of Thirst." Love songs, however, probably aren't the first thing that come to mind when thinking about Kendrick's music.
The aptly titled "Love," featuring Zacari, is a gorgeous track, taking on the subject of what real love is, and what it means, once the money and the fame is stripped away. All the unexpected moments make DAMN. such a compelling record, and the variety gives it real replay value.
This album is probably even deeper than we're realizing.
In 10 years, we'll probably look back at some of Kendrick Lamar's work and face revelations. He's smart, calculated, and thoughtful, and it seems like all of his moves are at least deliberate, if not profound. There is hidden meaning, quiet symbolism, and probably a lot of themes and messages that Kendrick never explains and many listeners never grasp.
On early listens, the depth of DAMN. is evident, but there are a couple of fan theories going around that point to a master plan of biblical proportions. Mind blown.
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