The 14-song album, which features a track list made up entirely of single words, begins with anecdote-based “BLOOD.” After posing the questions “Is it wickedness? / Is it weakness? / You decide, / are we gonna live or die?” Kendrick begins telling a story about a blind woman, eventually culminating in the surreal line, “It seems to me that you have lost something. I would like to help you find it. / She replied, “Oh yes, you have lost something. You’ve lost your life,” followed by a gunshot sound. The outro is a sample of one of his critics, FOX news anchor Geraldo Rivera:
Views on police brutality with that line in the song quote, ‘And we hate the popo, wanna kill us in the street fosho… I don’t like it’
“BLOOD.” sets up Lamar’s album with themes of confusion, fear, frustration – which can all be traced back to race relations in the United States. He proved himself to be a master of articulating the intricacies of race in To Pimp a Butterfly, and has since been hailed as one of the best rappers of the generation. He follows through with DAMN., with pointed songs like “DNA.” (“I know murder, conviction, burners, boosters, burglars, ballers, dead, redemption / Scholars, fathers dead with kids and I wish I was fed forgiveness) and “YAH.” (don’t call me Black no mo’ / That word is only a color, it ain’t facts no mo’) that directly follow “BLOOD.”
Kendrick also reveals a more vulnerable side of himself in this album, most notably in “FEEL.” where he questions his relationships, his talent, and his faith. The song begins with the repetition of the line “ain’t nobody prayin’ for me,” which comes across as more of a realization than an assertion. Later, he highlights certain insecurities when he says, “I feel like I’m losin’ my focus / I feel like I’m losin’ my patience” and “I feel like friends been overrated / I feel like the family been fakin’.”
This mood does not last long, though, and soon we get to “HUMBLE.” – a track released as a single on March 30th. Theorized to be a Big Sean diss track, “HUMBLE.” is an expected return to the confident, hyper-masculine attitude that is expected Lamar (and of most rappers, in general.) He received backlash for a few lines about women in the single, but little did his critics know that he would take DAMN. as an opportunity to open up a more sensitive discourse about women.
He discusses relationships with women further in “LUST.” and “LOVE. FEAT. ZACARI,” both of which come across as undeniably more raw than “HUMBLE.” Although “LUST.” seems to be wrought with characteristically masculine descriptions of sex, the line “I just need you to want me / Am I askin’ too much?” is surprisingly honest. “LOVE.” is an even further rejection of this toxic masculinity, as seen in the chorus with Zacari: “Sipping bubbly, feeling lovely, Heaven lovely / Just love me / I wanna be with you.”
He artfully juxtaposes these tender moments with violent descriptions, a stylistic tool that allows him to fully explore all of the facets of what it means to be a black man in America. In “XXX. FEAT U2” he talks about the manipulation of black America by the media with lines like, “Ain’t no black power when your baby killed by a coward / I can’t even keep the peace, don’t you fuck with one of ours” and “You overnight the big rifles then tell Fox to be scared of us.” In “FEAR.” he conveys the inexplicable feeling of not being in control of one’s own physical being with the repetition of “I’ll prolly die because” in nearly half of the lines. These songs explain the conflicting emotions that inadvertently force the creation of the aggressive persona he takes on in “HUMBLE.”
Releasing “HUMBLE.” as a single shows Kendrick’s awareness of the perceptions and expectations of rappers, and the rest of DAMN. shows his ability to subvert all of them. With DAMN., he reminds his listeners that he is not the average rapper – while also maintaining the idea that there is nothing wrong with being the ‘average rapper,’ either.
DAMN. comes full circle with “DUCKWORTH.” – another song that focuses on telling one specific story (he even says “Once upon a time,”) and it ends with the chilling repetition of a line from the beginning of the album: “So I was taking a walk the other day…” Ultimately, even after he recognizes and reveals all of the inconsistencies and cruelties that made up his existence, he still is forced to end up right where he started.