“I got, I got, I got, I got
Loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA
Cocaine quarter piece, got war and peace inside my DNA
I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA
I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA”
‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ was about the trials and tribulations of African American society. ‘DAMN.’ is about the trials and tribulations of being Kendrick Lamar, the number one rapper in the world.
Every track here has a one word title, all in caps, with a full stop at the end; Kendrick has a point with each one, and he’s keeping that point sharp. Themes of religion are intermixed with experiences in the music industry, along with themes of humanity explored through Kendrick’s experiences.
In the intro skit, ‘BLOOD.’ Kendrick is shot by an old blind woman he tries to help. I imagine the old woman represents the old blind music industry. Kendrick wants to help it find what it has lost; credibility, legitimacy and true talent; but the industry responds kills him.
The next track, ‘DNA.’ , is an exploration of Kendrick’s roots; what lies in his DNA. This is a personal album for Kendrick, we’re exploring his DNA. The song highlights duality, another theme explored throughout the album. Kendrick’s flow here is immaculate, this is Kendrick the rapper at his very best; just two verses, broken by a bridge. No hook, but catchy as hell.
Sampled at the end of ‘BLOOD.’ and during ‘DNA.’ is a Geraldo Rivera Fox News segment criticising Kendrick’s performance of ‘Alright’ at the BET awards. The second verse of the third track, ‘YAH.’ also addresses the segment, where Geraldo claimed that Kendrick is an example of why “hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism”. Geraldo is whitesplaining why young African-Americans cause their own problems, and has no idea what he is talking about. Kendrick’s skill is in portraying the struggles of his community better than anyone. Geraldo and those like him need to shut up and listen.
Kendrick’s relationship to God is explored through his relationship to music and the industry.
In ‘YAH.’ he sees inspiration as God talking to him, expressed as blips on his radar that go, “Yah” (Yahweh).
‘PRIDE.’, depicts Kendrick’s success distancing him from God, enjoying it gets in the way of being the human he wants to be.
And finally on the track ‘GOD.’ Kendrick explains how the adulation he recieves makes him feel like a God, that everything he does is divine, before reminding himself that he is just a man and what he does is a tribute to the divine.
Each of these songs have very chilled beats with slower, ‘everyday talking’ type rapping, Kendrick uses this style of beat and rapping when he is coming from an internal place on the album.
The three songs that follow ‘YAH.’ explore Kendrick’s relationship with the music industry, and have heavier beats and faster rapping.
‘ELEMENT.’ is Kendrick’s declaration that he is the best at what he does, and reflects on how the trials he endured took him here.
On ‘FEEL.’ Kendrick explores the isolation his success elicits in him, he dominates an industry he considers toxic and no amount of success can drive away his depression.
He teams up with Rhianna on ‘LOYALTY.’ to explore how it so important and so difficult to surround yourself with loyal people, to the point where loyalty is the most desirable trait in a relationship.
The hardest hitting beat on the album comes directly after the chill of ‘PRIDE.’, and differs both in feel and lyric.
‘HUMBLE.’ is the first single from the album and one of the songs of the year; bound to be near the top of all the year end countdowns.
It’s Kendrick telling all those who are constantly trying to take his place at the top of the hip-hop heap, that he got to where he is by being humble, and now he’s arrived, he doesn’t need to be humble, they do.
He takes aim at the frauds perpetuated by the media and the industry, recounts his own story and demands his due respect.
Everything works in this song: the beat is infectious, Kendrick’s flow and wordplay are as awesome, and the hook, simply “Bitch be humble, Sit down” repeated ad nauseam, works as it shouldn’t.
The following two tracks, ‘LUST.’ and ‘LOVE.’ explore two contrasting sides of human relationships.
‘LUST.’ depicts using short term satisfaction to drive away the monotony of the everyday as ultimately a waste of one’s time and effort.
‘LOVE.’ explores a deeper relationship, most probably the one with his fiance Whitney Alford, that reveals the flaws in his character and offers opportunity for growth and a connection with the divine.
Once again the music and rap flow contrasts, heavy, fast and chaotic on ‘LUST.’, slow, genuine and chilled on ‘LOVE.’
The remaining three songs use stories from Kendrick’s life to demonstrate definitive human themes.
‘XXX.’ recounts the death of a friend’s son and his inability to offer forgiveness, lusting for revenge. It’s about how love can make us do the most terrible things.
‘FEAR’. explores Kendrick’s relationship with fear throughout life. At seven, fear of getting in trouble and experiencing his mother’s wrath. At 17, fear of a gang-related death. At 27 he fear of not being good enough as a rapper, having his inspiration dry up and opportunity pass him by.
The final track, ‘DUCKWORTH.’, explores coincidence through the curious tale of how an act of self-preservation by his father towards his eventual label boss not only may have saved his father’s life and ensured he steered Kendrick away from gangs, but also ensured there was someone to start the label than catapulted Kendrick’s career.
In ‘DAMN.’ Kendrick Lamar has created yet another Hip-Hop masterpiece. It’s a personal record that proves Kendrick is one of the best, not only of his generation, but of all time. It’s a lesson to every other rapper in the game of how hip-hop is done right.