Photo courtesy of Top Dawg Entertainment

From the beginning of his career until now, Kendrick Lamar has always had one clear message for his audience: people are products of their respective environments, and each person’s story deserves to be heard. Kendrick’s work aims to intercede for those who are chronically misunderstood, whether a prostitute, a gangbanger, a concerned mother or a young black man in America.

Now, about a decade into his career and five major label releases in, Kendrick asserts with “DAMN.” that he is not exempt from his own message, and as a misunderstood person himself, he has a lot more storytelling to do.

Having been intellectual hip-hop’s poster child for the past five years, Kendrick wants every listener to know that the environment he has occupied during that time has also had an immense influence on his identity. Kendrick Lamar’s personal story of change, self-discovery and inward honesty is what he tells in“DAMN.”

With song titles like “LOYALTY.,” “PRIDE.” and “GOD.,” it is quite clear that the entire album functions for Kendrick Lamar as a diary of sorts. He candidly takes to task the realities of his own life post-“To Pimp a Butterfly.”

One of the most potent revelations comes from “FEEL.,” an  undeniably sad song. Kendrick enumerates the various forces that make him feel confused and powerless, even if he should be feeling on top of the world considering the success of his rap career.

Drearily, he says “ain’t nobody prayin’ for me/ain’t nobody prayin’ for me/I feel like a chip on my shoulders/I feel like I’m losin’ my focus,” and in a later verse, continues “the feelin’ is toxic, I feel like I’m boxin’ demons/ Monsters, false prophets schemin’/ Sponsors, industry promises/ N*ggas, b*tches, honkies, crackers, Compton/Church, religion, token blacks and bondage.”

The album also attempts to separate the person of Kendrick Lamar from the messages that he preaches in his music. On “XXX.,” featuring the legendary U2, Kendrick honestly outlines the things he would do to anyone who deeply transgresses him, even if it were to make him a
violent hypocrite.

He raps “if somebody kill my son, that mean somebody gettin’ killed/ Tell me what you do for love, loyalty, and passion of/ All the memories collected, moments you could never touch/ I’ll wait in front a n*gga’s spot and watch him hit his block/I’ll catch a n*gga leavin’ service if that’s all I got/ I’ll chip a n*gga, then throw the blower in his lap/Walk myself to the court like, ‘B*tch, I did that!’” Grim? Yes, unfortunately so. But honest? Yes. This rawness is what makes “DAMN.” so excellent.

The musical additions and production on “DAMN.” also mark a drastic shift from the styles that were implemented on “To Pimp a Butterfly.” Back in 2015, Kendrick had artists such as Thundercat and  Pharrell Williams in the studio with him.

Now, he has switched out the personnel that created the funky, unashamedly black sounds of “To Pimp a Butterfly” with producers who are more known for their work in neo-soul, contemporary R&B and atmospheric pop.

Steve Lacy, founding member of the Grammy-nominated group the Internet, received a writing credit for “PRIDE.” Up-and-coming jazz superstars BadBadNotGood received a production credit for “Lust.”

Even Greg Kurstin, the music producer best known for helping Adele find her voice during the recording process of “25,” received a writing credit on “LOVE.,” the album’s most saccharine display of vulnerability and sentiment.

Expressing in a single review all that makes Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN.” so damn amazing is difficult. This article does not touch on the extraordinary true story told on “DUCKWORTH.,” Kendrick’s still evolving understanding of the concept of blackness or even the ground-breaking visual artistry that is seen in the music video for “HUMBLE.” that was released before the album.

Ultimately, the world has come to love 29-year-old literary, musical and conceptual genius Kendrick Lamar because through the entirety of his career — even with all of the heavy themes, innovative concepts and expertly-told narratives — Kendrick’s albums are still the ones that listeners bump in the summer with shades on and the top down. Thankfully, Summer 2017 will be no different.