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Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Damn.’: A Track-by-Track Guide

Notes on the producers, songwriters, guests and key themes on the latest from the virtuosic, celebrated MC.

Yesterday, the world’s most vital, critically acclaimed rapper, Kendrick Lamar, dropped his fourth studio album, Damn. Initial reactions suggest that like all his work, the 14-track LP is both pointed and intimate, this time a mix of scathing treatises on the media mixed with Lamar’s celebrated knack for personal reflection. Here’s a guide to understanding the album’s producers, songwriters, guests and key themes.

By Elias Leight, Mosi Reeves, Christina Lee.

1. “Blood”
This short intro ends with an excerpt from Fox News personalities Eric Bolling and Kimberly Guilfoyle dismissing Lamar the day after he performed at the 2016 Grammy awards. Additional vocals and production on “Blood” are credited to Bekon, a.k.a. Dr. Dre collaborator Daniel “Danny Keyz” Tannenbaum, who appears multiple times on the LP.

2. “DNA”
The simple, vicious loop at the centre of “DNA” sets the musical tone for Damn. – a marked contrast with the elaborate, shape-shifting instrumentals that were common on To Pimp a Butterfly. Fox News appears again as a punching bag. This time the track contains a snippet from another talking head, Geraldo Rivera, who condemned hip-hop during the same segment sampled in “Blood.” “This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years,” Rivera says. Lamar responded to these comments during a conversation with TMZ. “Hip-hop is not the problem,” the rapper asserted. “Our reality is the problem of the situation.”

“DNA” is the first of three Damn. beats from Mike Will Made It, the producer behind Beyoncé’s “Formation” and Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles,” among other hits. He brings a touch to the album that’s both radio-ready and street-level booming. Lamar recently contributed to Mike Will’s recent Ransom 2 mixtape, appearing alongside Rae Sremmurd and Gucci Mane on “Perfect Pint.”

3. “Yah”
Lamar continues to joust with Fox on “Yah,” calling out the network and Rivera by name. “Fox News wanna use my name for percentage,” the rapper asserts. “Somebody tell Geraldo this nigga got some ambition.”

Sounwave, an in-house producer for Lamar’s label, Top Dawg Entertainment, helped put together the “Yah” beat. In the past, he’s worked on some of Lamar’s most vigorous songs, including “King Kunta” and “Alright.” Sounwave had help on this one from DJ Dahi, a versatile producer who helped craft fizzy tracks like Drake’s “Worst Behavior” and Schoolboy Q’s “Hell of a Night.” With those credits, you might expect a Sounwave and Dahi collaboration to be searing and urgent, but the two ended up making a lax, understated beat.

In 2015, Dahi spoke with Rolling Stone about working in the studio with Lamar on music that ultimately ended up being shelved. “He was trying to describe his album – ‘I want this song to be this color,'” Dahi remembered. “It was like [the colour of] fire, green leaves burning in the fire. It didn’t fit the album, but hopefully, people will hear it one day. I still listen to it and I’m like, ‘Man, we’ve got to do something with this. This shit is incredible.'”

4. “Element”
“Element” milks a contrast between blistering drums and discordant shards of piano. James Blake, who specialises in a morose brand of soul, helped write and produce the track. He has quietly become a go-to collaborator for the stars – last year the English singer appeared as a featured vocalist on Beyoncé’s Lemonade and a producer on Frank Ocean’s Blonde.

Blake produced “Element” along with Sounwave and Ricci Riera. Riera has worked with Lamar before in an oblique manner: He is credited as a producer on “Collard Greens,” a Schoolboy Q song that features a guest verse from Lamar. Last year, Riera’s name also appeared on albums from Drake and Travis Scott. When Lamar shared the album artwork for Damn. this week, Riera announced his involvement with the LP on Twitter: “Proud to be a part of this,” he wrote. Kendrick is aided by an energetic intro from the famous DJ Kid Capri, who defined New York mixtapes in the early Nineties.

5. “Feel”
With round, textured notes from the Grammy-winning bass virtuoso Thundercat and a rickety, rim-shot drum pulse, “Feel” nods to the live-musician inflections of To Pimp a Butterfly – or the sixth track from last year’s untitled unmastered. In a jarring shift after the chest-thumping “Element,” Lamar’s nerves are frayed here, and his patience is wearing thin: “The world is ending, I’m done pretendin’/And fuck you if you get offended/I feel like friends been overrated/I feel like the family been fakin’.” The song includes a mid-song energy shift where Lamar suddenly lunges forward like weary boxer finding a second wind.

Sounwave produced “Feel” and helped Lamar write it. “Kendrick really trusts my ear,” the producer explained in 2015. “…When you’ve been around somebody so much, you kind of understand what they like.”

6. “Loyalty” feat. Rihanna
Here, Lamarsurrounds himself with his most trusted collaborators – producers who have worked with him since his 2009 EP (Sounwave), his 2011 debut LP Section.80 (Terrace Martin) and his 2012 breakthrough Good Kid, m.A.A.d City (DJ Dahi). But, of course, it’s notable that this marks his first collaboration with Rihanna. While interpolating a Jay Z line from 2000’s Dynasty: The Roc Familia (“It’s a secret society, all we ask is trust”), they rap-sing meditations about how, despite a dollar bill reading “In God We Trust,” the rest of society chooses money first.

7. “Pride”
“I know the walls, they can listen, I wish they could talk back,” Kendrick muses. It’s lyrical callback to To Pimp a Butterfly‘s “These Walls,” revisiting the same subject matter – how pride prevents us from finding world peace. The slow-building, psychedelic epic features ominous vocals by both newcomer Steve Lacy (The Internet’s Ego Death, J. Cole’s “Folding Clothes”) and hypnotic songwriter Anna Wise, who also appeared on “These Walls.”

8. “Humble”
Lamar received a little bit of backlash for skewering Instagram beauty standards on this, the album’s first single. The track, produced by Mike Will Made It, is currently the Number Two song in the country.

9. “Lust”
On “Lust,” Lamar toggles between different narrative threads. He’s overwhelmed by sexual desire during the chorus, describes banal day-to-day activities during the first verse and, by the second verse, turns his attention to the rise of President Trump. “Lookin’ for confirmation, hopin’ election wasn’t true,” Lamar raps. “All of us worried, all of us buried, and the feeling’s deep/None of us married to his proposal, make us feel cheap.”

“Lust” is produced in part by BadBadNotGood, an instrumental jazz-funk outfit from Toronto that frequently records with rappers like Ghostface Killah, Earl Sweatshirt and Freddie Gibbs. Kaytranada, an in-demand producer known for mixing house music with neo-soul, appears here in an unusual role – instead of crafting a beat, he’s a contributing vocalist. Kamasi Washington, the acclaimed jazz saxophonist who also played on To Pimp a Butterfly, assisted with string arrangements.

10. “Love” feat. Zacari
“Love,” a spacious ballad that wouldn’t be out of place on a Rihanna album, is perhaps the most conventional moment on Damn. Lamar, a master of unusual, idiosyncratic flows, chooses to adopt a sing-song, pop-radio-friendly delivery to fit the gentle swells of the instrumental. The Top 40 appeal of this track is no accident: One of the producers and writers here is Greg Kurstin, who has helped Adele, Kelly Clarkson and Katy Perry storm the charts.

“Love” features additional vocals from Kid Capri, who punctures the track’s calm surface with another boisterous interjection – “another world premiere!” – and Zacari, who previously contributed to other projects on TDE from Isaiah Rashad and Ab-Soul. In an interview with Pitchfork, Zacari described “Love” as “a whole new genre.” “This song, this beat, the singing, the rapping – I don’t think it can really be compared to another song,” Zicari continued. “It’s a whole new wave.”

11. “XXX” feat. U2
When the iTunes credits revealed that rock icons U2 would appear on Damn, some wondered whether producer Mike Will Made It was sampling the band or if the rapper was actually working with them. It’s not a fake-out: Shortly after the midpoint of “XXX,” Larry Mullen Jr.’s familiar military-style drum rolls come in, we hear Bono’s voice, and the Edge lays out a mournful piano riff akin to the band’s classic “New Year’s Day.” “It’s not a place/To me this country is a sound,” Bono sings. The effect isn’t jarring, reminiscent of Rod Stewart’s appearance on A$AP Rocky’s 2015 single “Everyday.” Meanwhile, Lamar continues with a stinging criticism of America’s treatment of people of color. “It’s nasty when you roll the dice and set us up then batter’s up/You overnight the big rifles then tell Fox to be scared of us,” he raps.

12. Fear
The career of “Fear” producer Alchemist dates back to the mid-Nineties and an unheralded stint in the Whooliganz (alongside future actor Scott Caan). Thanks to mentoring from Cypress Hill producer DJ Muggs, he’s been cranking out sample-heavy bangers ever since, including Schoolboy Q’s 2014 hit “Break the Bank.” Kendrick’s opening words are spun backwards before he lets out a handful of “I’ll beat your ass” threats. By the third verse, he’s rapping, “When I was 27, I grew accustomed to more fear/Accumulated 10 times over throughout the years.” Whether it’s being scared of falling off and returning to Section 8 housing, or simply being judged by others, Lamar sounds haunted by the feeling: “Fear – what happens on Earth stays on Earth/And I can’t take these feelings with me so hopefully they disperse.”

13. God
“This what God feels like,” sings Kendrick in a free, ecstatic voice. The glitchy, 8-bit laptop blasts come courtesy of Illinois producer Cardo, who has known Lamar since 2010; Manhattan Beach’s Ricci Riera, who worked on Lamar’s “m.A.A.d. City”; and TDE in-house producers Sounwave and DJ Dahi. By the second verse, Lamar has begun rapping again: “Seen it all, done it all, felt pain, more/For the cause, I done poured blood on sword.” Yung Exclusive, who co-produced Travis $cott and Lamar’s 2016 hit “Goosebumps,” and Mike Hector also claim that they worked on the track. But neither appears in the official credits.

14. “Duckworth”
Earlier this month, 9th Wonder reminisced to djbooth.net about how a relatively unknown Kendrick tweeted at him in August 2010. He didn’t respond, but coincidentally met Lamar at Rock the Bells in San Bernardino the next day. The two eventually paired up (alongside Murs and Warren G) for “Enjoy (West Coastin’),” a track on 9th’s 2011 production showcase The Wonder Years. However, collaboration “Duckworth” is a more substantial outing. It kicks off with Kid Capri’s voice again, shouting, “Just remember what happens on Earth stays on Earth! We’re going to put it in reverse!” Then Lamar weaves an incredible story of how TDE co-founder Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, in an earlier life as a career criminal, nearly shot Lamar’s father during a robbery. If Kenny Duckworth had died and Top had been imprisoned, he would never had found and nurtured Kendrick into international fame as the best MC of his era. Paying homage is an appropriate way for Lamar to end an intimate, spiritually powerful album.