Kendrick Lamar’s fourth studio album cannot arrive quickly enough. After pump faking an April 7 release date on “The Heart Part 4,” K-Dot dropped stark front and back cover images on and the tracklist for his next project, which is titled Damn (stylized as DAMN.) and is due on Friday. But what can we glean from the trail of breadcrumbs Kendrick may have already sprinkled?
Let’s first look at the album artwork. The images evoke everything about the message behind the lead single “Humble”; Kendrick is pictured without jewelry or fancy threads. There’s no obvious post-production—he’s “so fuckin' sick and tired of the Photoshop”—or large entourage in tow. (It’s the polar opposite of To Pimp a Butterfly’s artwork). Just Cornrow Kenny rocking a simple white T-shirt and solemn expression. The imagery is a sharp departure from the gaudy, comical “Humble” music video, perhaps suggesting that internal battle with ego—or Kendrick’s own humbling—could be an overarching theme. In this context, the title Damn could take two interpretations: Kendrick’s amazement at his own work (Damn!) or a realization of just how small he is on God’s green earth (Damn...).
The title of every song on Damn mirrors the one-word, punctuated format. Track names are mostly abstract concepts, like “Fear” and “Feel” and “Element.” The most specific is “Duckworth,” which is Kendrick’s last name and possibly a song that humanizes him beyond the rap megastar that he’s become. There are other possible familial themes at play, too. “Blood” could be a commentary on the eponymous gang and the family bond that its members share, while “DNA” might nod to a more genetic kinship.
Kendrick mentioned that his next project would have a spiritual slant in a recent interview with T: The New York Times Style Magazine, and some song titles particularly align with that idea (“God”). A four-track stretch juxtaposes concepts that carry religious connotations: “Pride” and “Humble,” “Lust” and “Love.” “Humble” is named for one of the Seven Virtues (humility), while “Lust” and “Pride” mirror two of the Seven Deadly Sins. All of this further suggests an underlying tension, perhaps a self-examination of Kendrick Lamar’s dueling Gemini halves. It also offers a darker interpretation of the title Damn: eternal damnation, or hell.
The back cover of Damn has internet sleuths getting their Matlock on, wondering whether the offset letters that end each line of the tracklist make up a hidden anagram. A Reddit user has decoded the message to read “Death 2 The Leadr” (although to be fair, by this logic “Let The Dad Hear 2” and “Lathered 2 Death” are both admissible, if unlikely, alternatives). This could be an encrypted political statement that also finds a home in Kendrick’s new music—if any ego needs humbling, it’s Donald Trump’s—or a message to pop culture’s leaders, asking that they too humble themselves. Kendrick initially toyed with the idea of naming his previous studio project Tu Pimp A Caterpillar as an anagramic homage to spiritual special guest Tupac Shakur, so it’s not necessarily a case of obsessed fans reaching.
One thing we can determine with 100 percent certainty is that Kendrick—unlike lyrical buddy J. Cole before him—will not go platinum sans features. According to the 14-song tracklist, there are two guests, and neither are rappers. Rihanna is credited on “Loyalty,” which marks her first collaboration with K-Dot (although he’s, ahem, lusted after her in past rhymes). The other spot unexpectedly belongs to long-lasting rock band U2, set to collide with Kendrick on “XXX” over a Mike Will Made-It production. U2 hasn’t done much collaboration with hip-hop acts, save for inviting Public Enemy on the Zoo TV Tour in 1992 and joining Rihanna and Jay Z on the 2010 Haiti tribute song “Stranded (Haiti Mon Amour).” And the last time K-Dot linked up with a rock band, we got the sub-par Maroon 5 collabo nobody asked for, “Don’t Wanna Know.” This is a Kendrick album though, so he probably has a very particular purpose for the Dublin band. Perhaps they’ll provide a worldly sound to Damn, or at least some crossover catnip for Grammy voters.
At the moment, Kendrick Lamar’s has 2017’s most anticipated upcoming music release. Whether he puts the whole industry on an ice pack or not, it’s likely we’ll all be saying Damn once it drops.