A Deep Dive Into How Kendrick Lamar Made DAMN.

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He had much more help than just U2 and Rihanna. Photo: VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images

At first glance, DAMN., the fourth and latest opus from Kendrick Lamar, doesn’t seem as much of a group effort as his previous works. Compared to his last album, 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, it has a fraction of the featured guest artists and a shorter run time. But a look at the 14 one-word-titled songs that comprise DAMN. doesn’t tell the whole story. Beneath the surface, there’s a cavalcade of trusted collaborators (his TDE camp, Thundercat, Kamasi Washington), well-known names (9th Wonder, U2, James Blake, Greg Kurstin, Don Cheadle), and a sprinkling of fresh faces (Zacari, Bekon, Kaytranada, the Internet’s Steve Lacy). Let’s walk through the village it took to make DAMN.

When It Was Made

It’s difficult to put together an accurate timeline without knowing all the facts about when, exactly, Kendrick broke ground on DAMN. But there are bits and pieces to go by to get a sense of how long he worked on this album after To Pimp a Butterfly was released on March 15, 2015. Early last year, on March 4, 2016, Kendrick surprise released untitled unmastered — a series of leftovers from TPAB, some of which he’d previously performed in fragments live. The week after, his label president Dave Free posted vague videos on Snapchat of Kendrick in the studio, one with the manager of producer Cardo, who appears on DAMN. In early September 2016, Kendrick then filmed himself in the studio again, this time playfully rapping along to Lil Wayne songs as a plea to his idol not to retire, though it was unclear what he was in the studio for. (Features, perhaps?)

But the first inkling Kendrick gave that he was working on a new, proper album came last October in an interview with rap sensei Rick Rubin for GQ, where he told Rubin it was too soon to discuss the writing direction for his next album, but said, “I have ideas, though. I have ideas and I have a certain approach. But I wanna see what it manifests. I wanna put all the paint on the wall and see where that goes.” The two then ended the interview by recording in the studio together. (However, Rubin is not listed anywhere on DAMN.) It wasn’t until March 1, 2017, that Kendrick elaborated on those ideas, confirming to T Magazine that he was working on his next album and that its subject matter would be “very urgent” — so urgent, that it was inspired by “how wayward things have gone within the past few months,” and that he already had several tracks completed. On March 23, he first teased the album and released “The Heart Part 4” that same day, with a tentative album release date of April 7. A week later, we got the first single and video for “HUMBLE.” Finally, the album officially arrived on April 14.

That leaves us with quite a few gaps, some we can now fill. According to “LOVE.” collaborator Zacari, he sent Kendrick his beat for that song “toward the end of last year” and Kendrick requested the audio files for the production the next day. But it wasn’t until “three months ago or so” that Zacari says he found out that the song would be on the album. Meanwhile, DJ Kid Capri says he recorded his parts (all those ad-libs) just this past January or February in Manhattan. That means Kendrick likely wrote some of DAMN. at the tail end of 2016, during the election, and started finalizing its tracklist by early January 2017. (There are also references to Donald’s Trump’s inauguration and Barack Obama’s exit on “XXX.” and “LUST.” that place the album’s conception around that time.) However, producer Sounwave tells GQ that work on DAMN. began “as soon as [TPAB] was done.” “He goes into these phases where basically his mind is this big storyboard and he’s picking ideas: ‘What if we did this? What if we did that?’” Soundwave remembers. He also says that it took Kendrick and his producers camping out in the studio with sleeping bags — unlike TPAB, DAMN. was made entirely in the studio — and going through multiple versions of the album before landing on the final DAMN. (Though Kendrick himself has squashed fan theories that there’s a companion album coming.)

According to producer Terrace Martin, the song “LOYALTY.” dates back to the middle of the TPAB sessions. “Because we were already saying like, ‘Yo, you know we are trying to do what we didn’t do before.’ So we knew that the more extreme we went on Butterfly — musically and using influences from different genres of older music — that he was gonna use a different, opposite energy for the next record,” he tells The Fader. The Internet’s Steve Lacy says he was invited to a studio jam session, where Kendrick was freestyling, the day after last Halloween, and pitched his beat that made the album there; 9th Wonder also notes that Kendrick had been tinkering with parts of “DUCKWORTH.” since last summer, when he approached the producer for its beat; “LUST.” is another song Sounwave says has existed for some time. Don Cheadle, who stars in the video for “DNA.,” says he was only contacted last month about appearing in the video — though he and Kendrick had been in frequent communication since 2015 — and was given two days to prepare. Ultimately, Kendrick, in the only interview he’s given about this album so far, told Zane Lowe he’s “been attached to this piece of art for the last year and some change.”

The Concept

Over the course of 14 songs, the narrative concept of DAMN. is dense, symbolic, and rarely linear — delving into it is a story for another day. (Just know religion, anxiety, intimacy, and political exhaustion are all major themes, and Kendrick has said it’s about the “idea I can’t change the world until I change myself.”) But the album’s sonic concept, as explained by those who helped build it, is fairly easier to navigate. Though Vulture looked to one of Kendrick’s earlier works Overly Dedicated for clues, it turns out his producers had Section.80 in mind. Longtime producer Terrace Martin had this to say to The Fader about the direction they were headed on DAMN.:

“We went back to Section.80 and started there. We went back to the essence, man. Samples, drums, just a little vibe, and just Kendrick rapping and writing. And he’s rapping his ass off. He’s writing some of the most prolific beautiful songs in the world today. You know, he’s writing songs that are gonna be in history books that are touching people but still with a high skill level being an MC over his power of music. That’s the real shit. ’Cause he ain’t and we ain’t giving up no time soon … The vibe in the studio was serious but fun. We tryna change shit. Like, let’s not do nothing we did. Let’s just go back to the essence. Let’s go back to the first point of direction, which was drum machines, boom-bap samples, and 808s. Let’s go back to the point of direction and find a new way.”

DAMN. also introduces a new Kendrick Lamar alter ego: Kung Fu Kenny. Of course, there’s a backstory there, too. According to Cheadle, Kendrick based Kung Fu Kenny off Cheadle’s character Kenny in Rush Hour 2, who owned a Chinese food restaurant and was a student of martial arts — a connection Cheadle failed to make until Kendrick debuted a short karate film, The Damn Legend of Kung Fu Kenny, at Coachella over the weekend. Cheadle was in attendance, but the homage was brought to his attention after people tweeted him photos of his character alongside Kendrick in the video for “DNA.,” wearing an outfit inspired by Cheadle’s Kenny. Cheadle recalls the story to Pitchfork: “I texted Kendrick and was like, ‘Hey man, am I the inspiration for Kung Fu Kenny? Because I’m going to say I am whether I am or not.’ He was like, ‘Fam, that was the surprise. So, surprise!’ Oh shit! I feel stupid now. I wonder what he was thinking the whole two days when we were together [filming the music video] and I hadn’t said anything about it.”

The Featured Artists

Rihanna: When Kendrick Lamar collaborates with a pop star, he goes big. The last major modern artist he put on one of his albums was arguably Drake (no disrespect to Snoop Dogg); now, he’s got Drake’s muse Rihanna on “LOYALTY.” And, according to the song’s co-producer Terrace Martin, it was an impulse decision backed by Kendrick’s confidence (and obvious industry clout) after he laid down his part. “Right there, on my mama, Kendrick said: ‘Imma get Rihanna on this.’ That day. Right when the drums started, he looked at me saying, ‘Aye, I’m gonna get Rihanna on this record,’” Martin remembers. “I’ve always wanted to work with Rihanna,” Kendrick told Zane Lowe. “I love everything about her. Her artistry, how she represents women to not only be themselves but to express themselves the way she expresses herself through music, and how she carries herself.”

U2: U2 need no introduction, but the connection to Kendrick Lamar that led to the band’s feature on “XXX.” does require a bit of an explanation. They seem to have crossed paths through multiple routes, starting with being signed to the same label. According to Mike WiLL Made-It, who produced the song, Interscope head Jimmy Iovine might’ve done a bit of matchmaking between U2 and Kendrick. Iovine personally introduced Mike to Bono at one of Iovine’s star-studded breakfasts at his home. “After that, we exchanged numbers, we exchanged emails, and we always said we wanted to work together,” Mike says. Mike assumes Iovine did the same for Kendrick at some point because Mike wasn’t aware that U2 would end up on the song until after the fact. Producer Sounwave adds: “Kendrick and Bono always talk back and forth through text and they always wanted to work with each other. It just never lined up. Whenever we’d be working on a project it just wouldn’t feel right. Until this came along. It’s like, ‘Yo, this is perfect timing.’ So Kendrick reached out to Bono and the rest is history.”

Kid Capri, who has worked with both Kendick and U2 and also has an ad-lib on “XXX,” tells Genius that, while the collaboration could’ve easily been a disjointed rap-rock mishmash, they jived more naturally than that. “This is the second time I got a chance to do a record with Bono. The first time was on Quincy Jones’s album with Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder,” he says. “It’s dope that Kendrick made this record the way he did with U2 on it; he made it real hip-hop. Instead of it being this big crossover record, he made it real authentic. That’s what makes it powerful.” All members are credited, but Bono sings the chorus on the song’s second half: “It’s not a place / This country is to be a sound of drum and bass / You close your eyes to look around.”

Zacari: His full name is Zacari Pacaldo, he’s a singer managed by TDE CEO Top Dawg’s son Moosa, and, thus, he’s also one of only three artists with a full featured credit on DAMN. Those are his silky vocals floating in and out of the hook on “LOVE.” He and Kendrick previously appeared together on TDE label mate Isaiah Rashad’s debut album, on the song “Wat’s Wrong.”

Kaytranada: Though hidden within the credits, the 24-year-old Canadian producer provides vocals on “LUST.,” a fact he’s tweeted about being especially proud of because he sang in Auto-Tune for the first time.

Anna Wise: She’s best known for being the most constant vocal presence in Kendrick’s oeuvre as a session singer (though she’s also a solo artist in her own right); once again, she pops on background vocals and with a writing credit on “PRIDE.”

Kamasi Washington: You’ll recognize his name from his expansive solo album, and his prominent work on To Pimp a Butterfly. Here, the jazz musician provides strings on “LUST.”

Thundercat: Another familiar face from the To Pimp a Butterfly crew, Thundercat provides bass on “FEEL.”

Kid Capri: The beloved DJ shows up consistently throughout DAMN., on production, scratching, ad-libs, and the album’s many vocal drops (that’s him hyping up each song with “New Kung Fu Kenny!” or “Another world premiere!”) And in an interview with Genius, he claims this is just a sampling of all the work he’s done with Kendrick. “I recorded a lot, and what you hear on the album is what he picked,” he says. “He has a lot more things that I did that I think he’s gonna use later on.” By Capri’s own definition, he says he considers himself the album’s narrator.

Chelsea Blythe: An A&R rep at Kendrick’s label Interscope, who offers additional vocals on “FEEL.”

Carl Duckworth: Though not technically an artist, Kendrick Lamar’s cousin Carl has more time than any other guest on this album via a split-up voice-mail recording that bookends “FEAR.” that has him delivering Kendrick a sermon through a litany of Biblical references and passages, specifically Deuteronomy 28 on the intro. “We’re gonna be at a lower state in this life that we live here in today, in the United States of America / I love you, son, and I pray for you / God bless you, shalom,” he preaches in the end.

The Producers

Sounwave: As one of Top Dawg Entertainment’s most prolific in-house producers and part of the team Digi+Phonics, who’s worked with Kendrick Lamar since his earliest projects — Kendrick famously rapped “Sounwave got a Grammy last year” on untitled unmastered — his prints are all over DAMN. He co-produced “LUST.,” “ELEMENT.,” “XXX.,” “LOVE.,” “LOYALTY.,” “YAH.,” and “FEEL.”

Mike WiLL Made It: One of the more influential producers of his generation, having also produced Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” the 28-year-old constructed the beats for “HUMBLE.,” DNA.,” and “XXX.” on DAMN.

Bēkon: The identity of producer Bēkon was a mystery — solved eventually by Pitchfork, which confirmed he’s actually producer Daniel Tannenbaum, once known as Danny Keyz, who’s previously worked with Dr. Dre, Eminem, and a few more of Kendrick’s idols. On DAMN., he co-produces most of the album and also provides background vocals throughout. (That’s him singing the “Goddamn you …” bridge toward the end of “FEAR.”)

Top Dawg: If the name Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith isn’t familiar to you, Kendrick’s frequent references to his label TDE’s CEO will be. (“Get Top on the phone!” he famously rapped on untitled unmastered.) Top Dawg is a mainstay on DAMN. — he’s credited as a co-producer and co-writer on the majority of the album — and he’s also essential to its story. On album closer “DUCKWORTH.,” Kendrick, for the first time, relates a harrowing anecdote about how his and Top’s lives were unknowingly intertwined long before Kendrick signed to TDE, while also telling Top’s life story. (One that Kendrick says he didn’t tell Top Dawg beforehand would be on the album.) As fate would have it, Tiffith met Kendrick’s father, Ducky, decades ago under precarious circumstances. Ducky was working the window at the same KFC Top once robbed and had come back to rob again one night while on the run from police. But Ducky got on his good side, avoided trouble from Top, and the rest is history, as Kendrick tells it: “Because if Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg could be servin’ life / While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight.”

BadBadNotGood: The Canadian genre-benders revealed themselves as co-producers on “LUST.” before the album even came out.

Terrace Martin: He’s one of Kendrick’s closest producers and confidants on all projects. For DAMN., he co-produced standout track “LOYALTY.” and masterminded the twist on its sample. (More on that below.)

DJ Dahi: Yet another TDE favorite, DJ Dahi is credited on production all over DAMN. “He comes from a different approach; like, this motherfucker is the fastest guy with ideas and drums,” Terrace Martin said of producing with Dahi on this album. “I’ve never worked with anybody in my life that was as fast and perfect as Dahi. I’m talking about every idea — experimental. Every idea — new.”

James Blake: Another surprise revealed in the credits is that James Blake co-produced and sang vocals on “Element.” (Blake had previously remixed “m.A.A.d. City.”)

The Alchemist: The legendary producer made the beat for “FEAR.” after previously producing Kendrick’s “The Heart Part 4.”

9th Wonder: Believe it or not, prior to the closing track “DUCKWORTH.,” Kendrick and the rap veteran 9th Wonder hadn’t directly worked together on a song for one of his albums. (Not for Kendrick’s lack of trying.) One of 9th’s artists, Rapsody, did rap on TPAB’s “Complexion (A Zulu Love”), but this is his and 9th’s first one-on-one collaboration. “I played him like 15 beats in the studio one night,” 9th recalled of their eventual union to Complex. “Out of the blue last summer, he sent me a text of just a short video of him playing part of the song that you now hear as ‘DUCKWORTH.’” The many beat switches you hear throughout the song were actually three separate songs, the beats for which 9th had shared with other rappers prior to Kendrick, but they all went unused. 9th tweeted that he inevitably combined them all into one song for Kendrick.

Greg Kurstin: Grammy-winning producer Greg Kurstin, best known for his work with Adele, co-produced the album’s rap-sung ballad “LOVE.” He previously worked with Kendrick on Sia’s “The Greatest.”

Steve Lacy: One of the many members of Syd’s (from Odd Future) band the Internet, he co-produced “PRIDE.” and sings its haunting intro. Lacy says the opportunity came from a chance studio session with Anna Wise (though he also knew the TDE crew through mutual friend DJ Dahi), where he recorded her acoustic vocals on his iPhone, produced over it, and then showed Kendrick the resulting beat on a whim. Kendrick immediately loved it, asked for Lacy’s phone number.

Ricci Riera and Tae Beast: The two members of TDE’s in-house production teams Digi+Phonics and THC co-produced “ELEMENT.”

Teddy Walton: This relatively unknown 24-year-old is responsible for a chunk of the production on “LOVE.,” including the parts sung by Zacari. Walton says he and Zacari presented Kendrick with the instrumental to the song with Zacari’s vocals already recorded on it, and Kendrick grew attached to it, despite showing the least interest in it of all the songs Walton brought him. Afterward, Walton says Kendrick allowed him to keep an eye on the song’s evolution so he could protect his original concept for it. “Kendrick is actually super open and that’s probably why he is one of the biggest artists. Because he listens a lot,” Walton says. “He was just very open to a new sound. He knew it was new and that he had never heard it, so he was like, ‘Whatever that you see on this vision, I’m just going to make sure that I can make it better.’” During those sessions, Walton says he was also the one who came up with the line “This what God feel like” that Kendrick quotes on “GOD.”

Cardo: Having previously worked on untitled unmastered, Cardo lends co-production to “GOD.”

Yung Exclusive: He also co-produced with Cardo on untitled unmastered and does so once again on “GOD.,” in addition to providing vocals at the song’s very end.

Mixed By Ali: As always with any TDE project, no other engineer’s hands touched DAMN.’s final mixing more than the label’s secret weapon, Mixed By Ali.

The Samples

“BLOOD.”: The album’s opening song ends with a sample from a Fox News clip criticizing Kendrick Lamar’s performance of “Alright” at the 2015 BET Awards where he condemned police brutality. One host quotes Kendrick’s verse “and we hate po-po …” and another host reacts: “Oh please, ugh, I don’t like it.” On later song, “Yah,” Kendrick goes after Geraldo Rivera directly, who was part of the segment, saying, “”Fox News wanna use my name for percentage … Somebody tell Geraldo this nigga got some ambition”; he also says “You overnight the big rifles then tell Fox to be scared of us” on “XXX.” Rivera has since responded in a long-winded Facebook video saying that, while he thinks Kendrick is “probably the best hip-hop artist out there today” aside from Drake, he still believes hip-hop and rappers are “the worst role model. It’s the worst example. It’s the most negative possible message.”

“DNA.”: This song uses yet another line from that Fox News soundbite — Rivera saying, “This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years” — and moves on from it straight into a sample of Rick James’s “Mary Jane” (specifically, the line “give me some ganja”).

“ELEMENT.”: If you never thought a James Blake–produced rap song would sample Juvenile’s “Ha” (with Kendrick also borrowing that flow), think again.

“FEEL.”: The drums on this song are sampled from O.C. Smith’s “Stormy,” while the melodic samples at both ends of the song are from Organic Future Hip-Hop and Fleurie’s “Don’t Let Me Down.”

“LOYALTY.”: Though barely recognizable, this entire song is structured around a sample of Bruno Mars’s “24K Magic” (the very beginning notes of “Toniiiight, I just want to take you higher”). Terrace Martin says he received the sample first from a 9th Wonder protégé, but then had the unconventional idea to “replay it, reverse it, change the key, add a third harmony” and give it a “different edge” without totally destroying the original after “putting it through the ringer.” To him, the freedom to take risks allowed the song to sound unlike anything else Kendrick’s ever made: “[The song] was done with a different impulse than the last couple of records. DAMN. feels like now — it gets into your heart, but it feels like the future, man. You know? I feel like it’s the future because it’s incorporating a lot of other influences.” (The song also samples bits of Kendrick’s own “The Heart Part 2,” and interpolates the hook from ODB’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” and the line “It’s a secret society, all we ask is trust” from Jay Z’s “Get Your Mind Right Mami.”)

“LUST.”: A line from English artist Rat Boy’s 2015 song “Knock Knock Knock” is briefly sampled at 1:52. After hearing the sample, Rat Boy tweeted, “That’s mad one of my favourite artists what a compliment damn.”

“XXX”: This U2-featured song samples the scratched horns of James Brown’s “Get Up Offa That Thang” and Young-Holt Unlimited’s “Wah Wah Man.”

FEAR.”: “FEAR.,” which was produced by the Alchemist, also samples his own beat from Kendrick’s “The Heart Part 4.”

“DUCKWORTH.”: The most sample-heavy song comes from 9th Wonder, who uses four samples to make the song’s three beat sections. He samples Ted Taylor’s “Be Ever Wonderful,” (the same sample you might remember from Ludacris’s “Splash Waterfalls”), Hiatus Kaiyote’s “Atari” (whom Drake also recently sampled), September’s “Ostavi Trag, and Fatback Band’s “Let the Drums Speak.” “People always ask me, why do I choose samples the way I choose samples? I don’t usually choose samples with voices in them, because I care about what the soul singer is saying,” 9th says. “It’s more of the instruments behind it. I’m trying to capture the instruments behind what the sample is saying, instead of the Blueprint algorithm where the sample says something, and you have to rap around that.”

This post has been updated throughout.

Your Guide to Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN.