After a brief lead-up that included his warning-shot one-off “The Heart Part 4” and blustery new single “HUMBLE.,” Kendrick Lamar dropped his fourth album, DAMN., late Thursday. The proper follow-up to his acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly — EW’s best album of 2015 — consists of 14 tracks, spans 55 minutes, and features collaborations with Rihanna, U2, Mike Will Made-It, Greg Kurstin, James Blake, and more.
Though two years have passed since Lamar released Butterfly in March 2015, the 29-year-old Compton, Calif. MC hasn’t left pop culture’s spotlight. Last March, he released untitled unmastered, a half-hour collection of eight rejects from the Butterfly sessions that debuted at No. 1 on Billboard‘s albums chart. He’s also guested on songs by Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Kanye West, Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, A Tribe Called Quest, and many more — and this Sunday, he’ll headline the final night of Coachella.
Still, DAMN.‘s arrival marks another major step for the rapper. Read on for EW’s first-listen highlights from Lamar’s latest album.[spotify id="spotify%3Aalbum%3A4eLPsYPBmXABThSJ821sqY" /]
Lamar rebukes Fox News
Butterfly‘s artwork prominently displayed the White House and its single “Alright” became an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. Many conservative commentators took issue with Lamar’s characterizations of police brutality, mass incarceration, and racism — and from DAMN.‘s start, the rapper takes on his critics. The close of “BLOOD.” contains a sample of Fox News talk show The Five, where anchor Eric Bolling disdainfully reads a line from “Alright” — “And we hate po-po / Wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho” — before his co-host Kimberly Guilfoyle scoffs and says, “Oh please, ugh, I don’t like it.”
He returns to the cable news network throughout DAMN. On “YAH.,” he suggests Fox uses him to boost their ratings and profits, rapping “Fox News wanna use my name for percentage” and adding “somebody tell Geraldo [Rivera] this n—- got some ambition!” And on “XXX.” he cites the hypocrisy of Fox’s “Alright” criticism: “You overnight the big rifles, then tell Fox to be scared of us.”
James Blake infuses “ELEMENT.” with his aqueous electronics
Beyoncé and Frank Ocean recruited the electro-soul artist for their 2016 albums Lemonade and Endless, respectively, and he lent his distinctive aesthetic to “ELEMENT.” as a co-producer. Blake ventured into hip-hop last year with his bombastic work on Vince Staples’ Prima Donna EP, but “ELEMENT.” is more subdued. It’s also a prime example of Lamar’s decision to spurn Butterfly‘s throwback funk-jazz stylings on DAMN.
DAMN. draws sounds from multiple corners of the mainstream
While Lamar’s previous albums were heavily praised for their nostalgic instrumental sounds, he hasn’t been shy about embracing modern ones; Pharrell produced “Alright” and sang its hook. The first single Lamar released from DAMN. was the propulsive trap banger “HUMBLE.,” produced by beatsmith Mike Will Made-It (Beyoncé’s “Formation,” Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles”), suggesting his willingness to tack toward the Top 40. And while DAMN. still goes heavy on vibe and less well-known producers like The Alchemist and BADBADNOTGOOD, it also includes some of Lamar’s most mainstream fare yet, from Mike Will Made-It’s other contributions (“DNA.,” “XXX.”) to “LOVE.,” which features a credit from Greg Kurstin (Adele’s “Hello,” Sia’s “Chandelier).
Rihanna duets with Lamar — and throws down bars of her own
DAMN.‘s only featured guest from the current pop world brings her A-game, belting her “loyalty, loyalty, loyalty” hook with poise and nuance that would’ve fit on her 2016 album Anti. But she also thrillingly matches rhymes with Lamar: “Haul ass on a bitch all in the fast lane,” she spits, “been a bad bitch way before any cash came.”
Zacari’s “LOVE.” hook has star-making potential
Lamar has teamed with acclaimed vocalists from Beyoncé to Frank Ocean since releasing Butterfly, but he delegated DAMN.‘s standout hook to the relatively obscure singer Zacari. The two teamed previously on “Wat’s Wrong,” an underrated cut off The Sun’s Tirade, the 2016 album from Lamar’s Top Dawg Entertainment labelmate Isaiah Rashad, and “LOVE.” hopefully indicates a budding creative relationship. Zacari’s tender vocals resemble The Weeknd’s in the best way.
Bono revisits The Joshua Tree‘s Americana on “XXX.”
Light on buzzy guests, DAMN.‘s track list drew attention upon its release earlier this week for one name in particular: U2. And the legendary rock group isn’t merely sampled, as some had speculated. “America, God bless it if it’s good to you,” sings Bono, later saying America is “not a place” but a country “to be a sound of drum and bass.” It’s fitting that 30 years after releasing their ode to America, The Joshua Tree, and on the eve of their tour commemorating that album, Bono and his bandmates have teamed with one of the country’s foremost contemporary artists to continue their clear-eyed analysis of their adopted nation.
Lamar remains hip-hop’s greatest narrative force
For all his instrumental experimentation, topical lyricism, and verbal dexterity, Lamar’s greatest asset has always been his skill as a raconteur; 2012’s “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” and 2015’s “How Much a Dollar Cost” are visceral, poetic short stories set to music. Add “DUCKWORTH.,” DAMN.‘s staggering closer, to that list. The song tells the tale — the degree of truth to it is vague — of an encounter between Top Dawg Entertainment founder Anthony Tiffith and Lamar’s father, Kenneth “Ducky” Duckworth. In vivid detail, Lamar recounts how a down-on-his-luck Tiffith went to rob a Kentucky Fried Chicken in the ’80s — and was placated by Ducky, who offered him free chicken instead. The rapper caps his final verse forcefully: “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 gunfight.”