TDE / Interscope Records
TDE / Interscope Records

When will Kendrick Lamar make his return? That's the question rap fans and critics alike asked throughout the early part of 2017, until the rapper finally answered with a declaration on March 23 in the form of "The Heart Part 4," the first song he dropped to break his silence before his fourth album, DAMN., arrived: "Y'all got til April the 7th to get your shit together." While it took another week for DAMN. to officially debut, the album solidified his welcomed return.

DAMN. finds the native son of Compton taking rival rappers, society and himself to task. Whereas good kid, m.A.A.d. city was an album about coming of age, and To Pimp a Butterfly centered on internal conflict and survivor's remorse, DAMN. is an album full of questions that have been weighing on his mind as of late and are embedded throughout its 14 songs.

Following a cryptic intro that begins the album with a literal bang, Kendrick kicks off the proceedings with "DNA.," a charged-up opener produced by Mike WiLL Made-It that captures moments of introspect and boisterous boasting. "I got dark, I got evil, that rot inside my DNA/I got off, I got troublesome heart inside my DNA," Kendrick delivers, before giving a rare glimpse into his understated life of luxury.

Throughout his career, family has always been a looming theme in his music and has accounted for some of the more memorable gems in his discography. Whether layering his albums with words of wisdom from his parents or touching on subjects that hit close to home within song, Kendrick has never been wary of shedding light on the inner-workings of the Duckworth household. Previously expressing his guilt of being unable to prevent his younger sister from becoming a teen mother on the To Pimp a Butterfly cut, "u," Kendrick now refers to what was once perceived as a tragedy as a blessing on "YAH." "My latest muse is my niece, she worth livin'/See me on the TV and scream, 'That's Uncle Kendrick!'," he rhymes, displaying the dichotomy of tragedy and joy, and life and death, both of which are constant parallels throughout DAMN.

Not one to continuously revel in his excess, Kendrick finds joy in other ways, particularly by nipping at the heels of rappers that dare test his might or question his dominance. Although the MC doesn't address any targets by name on the album, one of the rappers who is rumored to have found himself in Kendrick's line of fire is Big Sean. Though K. Dot has never called out Sean Don by name in a diss, hip-hop heads feel like Sean is the target here. The two previously collaborated on the atomic bomb track that was "Control" in 2013, and also appeared together on DJ Khaled's 2016 song "Holy Key," but haven't been connected since.

Kendrick seemingly addresses Big Sean repeatedly throughout DAMN., beginning with "ELEMENT." Produced by James Blake, Sounwave and Ricci Riera, the track is a free-wheeling selection that allows K.Dot to get loose lyrically, but finds him taking time out of his third verse to levy a few subtle threats to rappers who frequent his city without paying its residents' a self-imposed toll. Another instance where Kendrick appears to be mocking his newfound nemesis is on "HUMBLE.," the first single released from DAMN. Produced by Mike WiLL Made-It, the song is a trunk-rattling affair infused with Cali flavor and finds Kendrick hijacking Sean Don's "Hol' Up" and using it throughout, asking "Who dat nigga thinkin' that he frontin' on Man-Man?" which could be another delayed reaction to Sean's words on his own track "No More Interviews."

While DAMN. contains an ample amount of aggression directed towards the opposition, it is not derailed by that fixation and finds Kendrick Lamar venturing out of his comfort zone with winning results. "LOYALTY." features Rihanna and contains a sample of "24K Magic" by Bruno Mars, over which K. Dot and RiRi trade bars, while "PRIDE.," one of the LP's most enticing offerings, combines Kendrick's forces with that of Steve Lacy. Lacy, a member of the group The Internet, croons "Love's gonna get you killed/But pride’s gonna be the death of you and you and me," before Kendrick swoops in with a pair of poignant stanzas.

Ardent rap fans may turn up their nose at the Rihanna collaboration "LOYALTY.," for its deep dive into radio-friendly territory, or the Zacari-assisted "LOVE." for it being just that, a love ode, but those are the kinds of tracks that showcase another dimension of Kendrick's lyrical wit and versatility.

DAMN. may be Kendrick's most commercially viable body of work to date and contains a number of breezy tunes that should keep him on the Billboard charts for the foreseeable future, but it is at its best when the rapper delves inward. The result is emotionally evocative material that sparks the mind and tugs at heartstrings. "FEEL.," produced by Sounwave, with Thundercat on the bass, is among the more soul-stirring compositions of Kendrick's career. Attacking the track and unpacking his mental luggage, the rapper conveys his bitter sentiments about the world around him and the people in it, barking, "Feel like I don't wanna be bothered/I feel like you may be the problem/I feel like it ain't no tomorrow, fuck the world, The world is endin'/I'm done pretendin' and fuck you if you get offended."

The most enthralling offering on DAMN. is "FEAR.," a transparent account of Kendrick's fears, ranging from the fear his mother instilled in him as a youth, to his fear of "losing it all." Produced by The Alchemist, the song features Kendrick finding words of wisdom through the spirituality of his cousin Carl Duckworth and touching on how he's grown accustomed to his flings of panic and uncertainty. Much of Kendrick's music is steeped in the spiritual, with religion being a common thread within the web of parables he's released over the past decade—this trend is continued on "FEAR."

"DUCKWORTH.," an autobiographical closing cut, chronicles the lives of Kendrick's father and TDE founder Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith, whose lives intertwined in unconventional ways, only to come full circle decades later as K. Dot was molding himself to become the supreme soloist that he is today. The account, which stands to be a fan-favorite due to the MC's storytelling abilities, deserves to be brought to life in visual form.

Much has been said of where Kendrick Lamar currently stands in terms of his legacy and whether or not he has already surpassed the rap greats that came before him. While he's one of the few rare artists in rap history to come out the gate with three arguably classic albums, Kendrick has a few more rungs to climb and artistic heights to reach before being definitively on par with any of the top five, dead or alive. However, he's well on his way to legendary status and is in the unique position of chasing ghosts at this point in his career. Hip-hop's landscape may be as sprawling and expansive as its ever been, with plenty of talented artists in the mix, but it's clear that Kendrick Lamar is the current king of the hill and rap's preeminent lyricist after unleashing DAMN.

Twitter Describes Kendrick Lamar's DAMN. in Three Words

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