With DAMN., Kendrick Lamar pulls back from the epic scope that defined To Pimp A Butterfly to deliver a rawer, more personal album. The lyrics revisit the issues of race, politics, fame, and self-worth that have long pushed the rapper, while the production draws from contemporary trap, pop, and R&B. As has become typical for the Compton MC, the album draws deeply from many beloved artists. Here are 10 contemporary tracks that influenced DAMN.
“Ha” was the initial breakthrough single for Cash Money Records, offering a fresh perspective on New Orleans life missing from the party-first ethos of city rivals No Limit Records. DAMN.’s “ELEMENT.” scans as minor-key version of the track, with Lamar borrowing bits of Juvenile’s flow as he calls out “wack artists.”
Kendrick Lamar, “Ab-Soul’s Outro” ft. Ab-Soul
Lamar’s Section.80 set the stage for his mainstream success, but he ceded the penultimate track of that record to fellow Black Hippy rapper Ab-Soul, the most introspective member of the crew. Ab-Soul raps about a man’s soul transcending his race as astral-traveling free-jazz horns explode in the background—both ideas which have continued to inform Lamar’s music.
BADBADNOTGOOD, “Hyssop of Love”
BadBadNotGood are a four-piece instrumental group from Canada that has little use for genres — they’ve worked with hip-hop royalty like Ghostface Killah, Danny Brown, and now Kendrick, as well as jazz greats like Roy Ayers. “Hyssop of Love,” from their latest album IV, features Chicago rapper Mick Jenkins and recalls the slightly dour production they contributed to DAMN.’s “LUST.”
Vince Staples, “Big Time”
Kendrick and Vince Staples share similarly weary world views, and both chronicle life amidst LA county’s urban sprawl — Lamar in Compton, Staples in Long Beach. They’re also both fans of UK beatsmith James Blake. Blake produced Staples’ “Big Time,” and he’s credited as a producer on Kendrick’s “ELEMENT.” Both tracks bear the dubstep crooner’s signature narcotic flourishes.
Kanye West, “Jesus Walks”
“They said I could rap about anything except for Jesus.” Those were Kanye’s famous words on “Jesus Walks,” a sentiment he doubled down on with The Life of Pablo‘s gospel undercurrents. Like much of Kendrick’s previous work, DAMN. is full of biblical allusions, such as the nod to Deuteronomy on “YAH.”
Killer Mike, “Reagan”
Killer Mike has long been one of hip-hop’s most outspoken political critics. On “Reagan,” from his pre-Run the Jewels album R.A.P. Music, he delivers a brutal screed against the former president and the pain he caused black communities. It’s a sentiment that’s directly echoed in the words Lamar has for Fox News and Donald Trump.
A somewhat surprising producer on DAMN. is Atlanta superstar Mike WiLL Made-It. The Miley Cyrus producer often sticks to either the pop or trap lane, so his work with Lamar recalls the political turn he provided on “Formation” for Beyoncé, where Queen Bey adopted a terse and effective rap flow.
Little Brother, “For You”
With producer 9th Wonder behind the boards, now-defunct North Carolina rap duo Little Brother struck the right balance of fun and genre criticism on “For You,” from their debut album The Listening. The track’s early ‘90s boom-bap sound became 9th Wonder’s signature, and can be heard once again in the producer’s contribution to “DUCKWORTH.” off DAMN.
Notorious B.I.G., “Things Done Changed”
Capturing the tension between society and the self has been a recurring theme in hip-hop for decades, but few MCs mined this territory more successfully than Notorious B.I.G. on “Things Done Changed.” The standout track from the classic Ready to Die examines the toll of generational violence on both Biggie and his community, and it’s easy to hear why Kendrick — himself a gifted chronicler of America’s moral contradictions — has repeatedly cited the Brooklyn MC as a primary influence.
KAYTRANADA, “Glowed Up”
Montreal producer KAYTRANADA has become a hot commodity in 2017 by crafting a sound that explores the sonic intersectionality of modern black music. He also runs in the same boho rap set as Kendrick, working with Anderson .Paak, fellow DAMN. producers BADBADNOTGOOD, and Stones Throw stalwart Karriem Riggins on his debut LP 99.9%. KAYTRANADA’s guest vocals on DAMN.’s “LUST.” help advance Kendrick’s aesthetic vision of shattering boundaries between black genres.