When James Blake was revealed in the production credits for Kendrick Lamar's Damn, there was a lot of speculation about what the English musician was going to contribute to the project. He has donated his haunting, piano-heavy sound to rap remixes in the past, including a trippy version of Lamar's own "m.A.A.d City."
Blake wasn't a major influence on Damn, but he was part of one of the album's most popular songs, "Element," and it may have basically been an accident. Sounwave—TDE's in-house producer and a K-Dot accomplice—told Fader that as he and Lamar were in the midst of trying to alter a nearly finalized version of "Element," Blake swooped in unexpectedly and saved them:
The first version we had was a little too jazzy. It had a four-on-the-floor sound and it didn't feel right to us. The song was mastered and ready to go, but we were like, 'Hold on.' We went back to it, changed the drums up, gave it a little more bounce. As sson as we made those adjustments, it was like, 'Yeah, this is gonna be one of the fan favorites right here.'
James Blake came in at the last second. He constantly sends Kendrick stuff, and he just happened to send this crazy piano loop right as we started to feel like the first version wasn't it. He dropped it into his text messages at that moment. We incorporated his keys with the original and it became what it is.
For anyone out there who is afraid to pitch an idea or put themselves out there, remember a successful musician like Blake only made the cut on Damn because he stayed in Kendrick's ear until their visions aligned. Always shoot your shot!
Making Damn sounds like it was a hell of a time for the TDE crew—Sounwave described working with U2's Bono as a "bucket list" item for he and Kendrick—and even the longtime collaborator was taken aback by Kendrick's creative process from time-to-time. Rihanna's rapping feature on "Loyalty" caught most listeners by surprise, including Sounwave, but he says the one thing he's learned about working with Kendrick is to trust he knows what he's doing.
"Whenever you see a feature that you might question hearing with Kendrick, don’t judge it until you hear it," he said. "We’re not gonna do something that’s so far removed from what we do. We like to bring people into our zone."
The man has a point. When you can bring the likes of James Blake, Rihanna, and Bono onto one album, float it over beats from Mike Will Made-It, sprinkle in an O.G. like Kad Capri, and come out sounding like Damn does, you've earned the right to extensive creative liberties.
The kicker is what Sounwave claims is the driving force behind Kendrick's evolution as an artist. He says in K-Dot's earlier days, he wouldn't write down any of his rhymes, and instead would bounce them around in his head. Now, he says, "I'll catch him writing because he wants everything to be pronounced and felt that much more."
He wouldn't be the first rapper to work primarily in the space between his ears—Lil Wayne once claimed the abandonment of a notepad helped launch him to stardom—but for Kendrick to rise while using that style is a testament to his talent and recall. Now that he's equipped with any feature artist he wants and an attention to detail in his craft, it looks impossible to stop Kendrick Lamar.