Kendrick Lamar's 'DAMN.': A track-by-track instant review

Encompassing 14 tracks and 55 minutes, Kendrick Lamar's DAMN. is not an album that can be categorized on its first listen.

But thankfully for his fans, Lamar's fourth studio album, currently streaming on Apple Music, is worth the time it'll take to unpack. DAMN. ditches the rap-opera construction of Lamar's 2012 album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, and the politically urgent jazz of 2015's To Pimp A Butterfly, seeing the rapper meditating on his relationship with his family, his community and his newfound fame.

Lamar is still pulling political punches on DAMN., singling out Fox News and President Trump as his targets. But the album is most interesting when Lamar is grappling with the repercussions of success. Too many of Lamar's rap peers have allowed their music to become consumed by their famous-people problems, but Lamar never loses his grip on reality as he ponders his King Midas complex. While DAMN. immediately sounds more radio-ready than its predecessor, Lamar doesn't sacrifice the artistic quality that drew critics to Butterfly, sounding as musically imaginative and politically vital as he ever has.

As with his previous albums, DAMN. doesn't lend itself well to an instant review, full of samples and sonic Easter eggs that require more than just an evening's listen to discover. Still, Lamar's DAMN. makes quite a first impression.

BLOOD.: The album opens with a perfectly Lamar-ian anecdote, as he narrates a story about an old woman that takes an existential turn completely in character for the rapper. DAMN.'s first political reference arrives at the end of the track, a winking sample of two Fox News reporters puzzledly reciting a lyric from Lamar’s Black Lives Matter anthem Alright. "'And they hate popo'...ugh, I don't like it."

DNA.:DAMN.'s second track lays out the themes that Lamar returns to throughout the album: loyalty, royalty and the heritage embedded in his genetic code. The track starts out triumphant, as Lamar compares himself to Jesus and raps about his “soldier’s DNA,” before another Fox News sample declaring that "hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years" puts Lamar on alert, his levels of paranoia audibly rising.

YAH.: Lamar channels Lauryn Hill in his laid-back singing, shrugging off political matters to invoke a number of references to God, including the track's title. "I’m an Israelite, don’t call me black no more," Lamar intones. "The word is only a color, it ain't facts no more."

ELEMENT.: On Thursday, LeBron James introduced the world to ELEMENT by filming himself dancing to the song, and the track has all the makings of a potential hit as its celebrity co-sign suggested. Even with its Instagram-caption ready verses — like "I don’t do it for the ‘gram I do it for Compton" and "there’s a difference between black artists and wack artists" — Lamar still sounds sharp and unforgiving even when he’s coining catchphrases.

FEEL.: Lamar invites listeners into his clouded headspace, sharing his growing anxieties about losing his friends, family and talent. Yet even while he's meditating on fame, he stays relatable, introducing each of his issues with “I feel like,” elementary school-level phrasing that grows powerful the more he repeats it.

LOYALTY.: As he’s shown over the last year, Lamar’s features are a mixed bag, from hits with Beyonce to misses with Maroon 5. Thankfully, DAMN.'s buzziest guest appearance, the Rihanna collaboration LOYALTY., is destined for radio success. LOYALTY. isn't the album's most lyrically stirring track — its refrains of “tell me who you loyal to” and “it’s so hard to be humble” are familiar territory for both artists. Instead, the track offers two artists among the absolute best in their respective genres, trading deadpan deliveries and sounding totally at home in one another’s presence.

PRIDE.: This isn't the album's most memorable track, but its enjoyable mix of influences sees Lamar borrowing the warped guitars and pitch-shifted vocals from Frank Ocean’s sonic toolbox, before attempting his best Andre 3000 falsetto on the chorus.

HUMBLE.: The album's first official single is the spiritual successor to the Butterfly hit King Kunta, with both tracks sharing a playful beat, nursery-rhyme flows and highly-quotable verses.

(Warning: explicit language)

LUST.: At face value, the slow-burning track focuses on romantic lust and material desire. Lamar details the empty pleasures of his own life — hotels, rooms full of clothes, endless new cities — before painting a picture of Americans “hoping the election wasn’t real,” attending a one-off protest before letting months pass, “reverting back to our daily programs." As listeners learn, the song's titular desire is really about motivation, and reveals that "lately, my lust been hiding."

LOVE.: The album's previous track may have been a red herring, but LOVE. actually offers the sentiment its title promises. With the help of guest vocalist Zacari, Lamar tries his hand at some Drake-style, radio-ready seduction, complete with vaguely dumbed-down verses. Unlike some of the rapper's previous love songs, there's no paranoid twist or frank real-talk waiting to derail the track, and it's fun to see Kendrick ride a vocal melody and show off a softer side.

XXX.: The album's toughest track to digest is XXX., which opens with a disembodied chorus before launching into Lamar's stark rapping over skittering beats. For a while, XXX. seems like it's emerging as DAMN.'s hardest track — "Ain't no black power when your baby killed by a coward," Lamar raps — before the song changes gears again, turning into a jazzy U2 feature, with Bono offering platitudes about America in a slinky vocal performance.

FEAR.: Every Kendrick album has a track like this, an opus that arrives towards the end of the album to encompass its themes in a longer runtime. Good Kid had Sing About Me, I'm Dying Of Thirst, Butterfly had The Blacker The Berry, and DAMN. has FEAR. Lamar raps about a child scared of his mother and a teenager afraid that his skin color will “probably” cost him his life, before addressing his current fears of a newfound star afraid of “losing it all." On FEAR, the album’s purpose solidifies beyond its political statements, showing a portrait of an artist terrified of failure, in the eyes of his community, his peers and himself.

GOD.: For a track called GOD, it’s quite a departure from the clip of music that precedes it, FEAR.’s somber spoken-word outro. Instead, GOD. is Kendrick’s Kanye West track, a triumphant several minutes of roughly-sung bravado over a melody that isn’t dissimilar to the Life of Pablo track Waves, with a chorus that Yeezy would surely approve of: “This what God feel like.”

DUCKWORTH.: If there’s a lyric that sums up Kendrick’s dueling demons on DAMN., his desire to reach outward battling his compulsions to tear himself down, it’s DUCKWORTH.’s powerful Tupac-referencing line, “It was always me versus the world / Until I found it's me versus me.”

Kendrick Lamar returns with another classic. (Photo: TDE)

Stream Kendrick Lamar's New Album, 'DAMN.'

The wait is over. Kendrick Lamar unleashed DAMN., his fourth studio album, on streaming services shortly after midnight on the east coast Friday, hours after it leaked online and about an hour after pre-orders popped up on his fans' phones.

DAMN. follows To Pimp A Butterfly (2015) and good kid, m.A.A.d. city (2012), both pieces so ambitious and varied, richly envisioned and perfectly executed that Lamar could have retired a legend based on them alone. Expectations are justifiably high. Oh, and... U2? (Yes, U2.)

The album comes after a relatively minimal promotional campaign consisting of one inscrutable-at-the-time social media post on March 23 and the release of "The Heart Part 4" (part of a sequence stretching back to 2010 that provides an arc to Lamar's ascent). One week later came a stunning video for a new song, "HUMBLE." The album's title, art and tracklist arrived on April 11. And now, finally: DAMN.

"Drop one classic came right back / Another classic right back," Lamar rapped three weeks ago on "The Heart Part 4." As Rodney Carmichael wrote here, "When it comes to driving the cultural discourse, Lamar has proven himself to be rap's main course."

These Kendrick Lamar fans think another new album is still to come this weekend

The king will rise again on Easter Sunday. Apparently.

Kendrick Lamar‘s new album DAMN. has only just dropped, but already some fans are speculating another new album is due to arrive this weekend. Users on Reddit are claiming to have uncovered plans to release another record on Sunday, based on various lyrics on the album and preceding single ‘The Heart Part 4’, as well as cryptic The Matrix-referencing tweets by producer Sounwave.

According to the theory, DAMN.’s narrative sees Kendrick die on the album’s opening track ‘BLOOD’ (“you have lost something… you’ve lost your life”). The album’s Good Friday release date, coupled with Kendrick’s deep Christian beliefs, coupled with lines of ‘The Heart Part 4’ (“dropped one classic, came right back”) suggests a follow-up could arrive on Easter Sunday, the day Christians believe Jesus rose from the dead.

It goes deeper. ‘The Heart Part 4’ saw Kendrick rap “my next album, the whole industry on a ice pack… with TOC, you see the flames.” Reddit users are now interpreting “TOC” as meaning “the other color” after Sounwave tweeted as the album dropped last night “what if I told you… that’s not the official version…” followed by a photo of The Matrix character Morpheus.

Because Morpheus famously offered Neo two pills – one red, one blue – fans have begun to speculate that another album with a blue cover, in contrast to DAMN.’s red artwork, might be en route. The Matrix was a Christ analogy, after all, right? Anyways, shortly after this, Kendrick changed his Spotify profile image to him against a background of blue bricks, sending the theory into overdrive.

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