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32 Times We Thought We Were Getting Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. Follow-up

Photo: Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Since Kendrick Lamar released his fourth album, 2017’s DAMN., America has had a new pastime: trying to figure out when a new Kendrick Lamar album was dropping. For five years — starting mere days after his last record came out — fans have latched onto social-media moves, festival bookings, business shake-ups, and promises from the shifty folks at Lamar’s label Top Dawg Entertainment as signs of a new project to come. And who could blame them, after DAMN. cemented Lamar among hip-hop’s greats, earning the rapper the first Pulitzer Prize for non-classical or -jazz music?

Last month, Lamar finally put that speculation to rest. In a press release on his website, he announced his fifth album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, would be out May 13. (To be clear, it’s far from the first time we’ve gotten any new Kung Fu Kenny since 2017, with Lamar spearheading the Black Panther soundtrack in 2018 and recording an array of features in the meantime.) He’s been spare on more details, teasing that Mr. Morale could possibly be a double album before giving us a taste of his new sound with the surprise release of single “The Heart Pt. 5” and its deep-faked video on May 8. In just a few more days, fans will finally get what they’ve been waiting for. Until then, here’s a look back at the last five years of thinking new Kendrick was on the horizon.

April 20, 2017: When he said he had more after DAMN.
Lamar himself first put fans on watch just days after releasing DAMN., admitting on an Instagram Live that he had “more music.” That revelation came days after some hungry listeners theorized that Lamar would drop a whole second album for Easter. But a day after teasing that new music, Lamar walked back what he said. “None is coming,” he tweeted. He also thanked fans for “always anticipating new music of my own” — though he surely meant “obsessing over my every move in hopes of new music.”

August 29, 2018: When Top Dawg promised four more new albums in 2018

If you haven’t learned yet, you’ll quickly realize it from this timeline — don’t trust Top Dawg Entertainment when it comes to sticking to a deadline. With four months left in 2018, CEO Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith tweeted that he had at least two more albums coming that year, but was “trying for 4.” Of course, some thought new Kendrick could’ve been in the mix. Instead, the label didn’t even make two releases, only dropping a reissue of Reason’s mixtape There You Have It.

August 31, 2018: When Isaiah Rashad said he heard a “damn near” full Lamar album
TDE is a tight crew, so if anyone was going to know about new Kendrick, it would be the other TDE musicians … right? Wrong. One of the first people to claim Lamar’s new album was on the way was his labelmate Isaiah Rashad, who’d collaborated with Lamar on his 2016 song “Wat’s Wrong.” On an Instagram Live with Top Dawg, Rashad said he’d recently heard a “damn near” full new album from Lamar. That ended up being talk — just a day later, Top Dawg clarified on Instagram that new Kendrick was coming “no time soon.”

October 2, 2018: When he “closed” the chapter on DAMN.
Lamar ended his DAMN. tour with an Instagram photo dump and declared, “Chapter closed.” But when one chapter closes, another opens, right?

December 25, 2018: When Polydor Records tweeted Lamar on a list of new 2019 albums

Stans see clues everywhere, including on quickly deleted Instagram Stories from U.K. record labels. Polydor, the label partnered with Interscope (which distributes Lamar’s music for TDE) in Europe, ended 2018 by posting a list of artists it claimed was dropping in the New Year, including none other than K.Dot himself. Yes, Polydor then deleted the post, but not before PopCrave could snap a screenshot and share to the world, giving fans hope for 2019.

January 26, 2019: When he tweeted a Future lyric
Lamar is notoriously quiet on social media, so any activity sets off alarms — even tweeting a Future lyric. Some thought K.Dot was hinting at his future when he posted, “Protecting my heart like never before,” a line from “Some More,” which he deleted shortly after. Lamar’s song “The Heart Pt. 4” preceded DAMN., so that tweet very well could’ve been teasing “The Heart Pt. 5” and a possible new album to follow. Instead, it was just Lamar being a Future fan.

March 11, 2019: When he blacked out his Twitter
Speculation only heated up when, weeks after the Future tweet, Lamar changed his Twitter avatar and banner to black, something he previously did ahead of “The Heart Pt. 4” and DAMN.

April 29, 2019: When he signed a new publishing deal with BMI
2019 wasn’t just social-media crumbs — a bit of official Lamar news came when the rapper signed a new publishing deal with BMI, which touted him as “a major force in our industry for many years to come.” Did that mean he’d be proving that by publishing a new album soon? Nope.

January 12, 2020: When a journalist reported Lamar finished an album that had “more rock sounds”

Columnist and former Billboard editorial director Bill Werde kicked off 2020 by fueling another year of speculation on new Kung Fu Kenny. Werde reported on Twitter that “several” people told him Lamar’s “new album may finally be done.” He quickly added a caveat: “Just because recording had hit a point where folks believe it may be finished — albums go back to the studio all the time after this point.” But Werde still has room to be proved right, given that he also reported Lamar was “pulling in more rock sounds” on the new album.

March 5, 2020: When he launched pgLang

Lamar did drop a project in 2020: his “at-service company” pgLang, which only further confused fans at the time. The company, a collaboration with former TDE exec Dave Free, has since proven to be a label–slash–production house and is set to co-release Lamar’s album Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers a whole two years after its debut.

March 12, 2020: When he was announced to headline Glastonbury
In an alternate, non-pandemic reality, Lamar would’ve quite possibly played new music at Glastonbury, one of the biggest and most prominent music festivals in the world. Instead, less than a week after Lamar was announced as a headliner, Glastonbury 2020 was canceled due to COVID-19.

March 27, 2020: When Thundercat said he worked on new music with Kendrick
Few musicians have worked with Kendrick Lamar more than Thundercat, who’s been credited with production or bass guitar on To Pimp a Butterfly, untitled. unmastered., and DAMN. He might be on Lamar’s new album too — at least he told Japanese outlet Neet Tokyo as much, saying he “worked on the new one a little bit.” Well, he thinks he did. Still, talk of new Kendrick is talk of new Kendrick!

April 20, 2020: When TDE released new music all week
TDE celebrated Top Dawg’s birthday (and kept fans entertained early into the pandemic) with the promise of a new release every day for the CEO’s birthweek. That kicked off with a rare freestyle from Ab-Soul, which some fans took to be a promising sign of what could come — like, you know, an even rarer Kendrick Lamar album. The week included new cuts from Isaiah Rashad and SiR, but ended without a peep from K.Dot.

May 18, 2020: When Top Dawg said Lamar was returning “soon”
Again: Don’t trust TDE. Fans once again learned their lesson when Top Dawg wrote in an Instagram comment that “king Kendrick will return soon.” If two years is “soon” to you, sure.

September 2, 2020: When he was spotted shooting a video

Few of us were going out in 2020, which made a Lamar appearance all the more exciting. When Lamar was spotted in Los Angeles in September, it wasn’t just a regular celebrity sighting — the rapper seemed to be shooting a music video. First, he was seen using a payphone in the city; later, he was spotted suspended above the ocean. We still haven’t seen clips that use those shots, meaning they very well could be part of the Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers rollout (and that Lamar really has been taking his sweet time).

October 19, 2020: When he talked to his cousin Baby Keem about his new sound
Lamar made a rare media appearance for the 40th-anniversary cover of i-D, interviewing his cousin, rapper Baby Keem. A K.Dot interview would’ve fueled enough speculation that the rapper could be entering his own promotional cycle, but then, during the conversation, Lamar slipped in a crumb of info about his own new album. “I spend the whole year just thinking about how I’m gonna execute a new sound,” he said, seeming to confirm that report that he’d make a shift on his next project.

October 19, 2020: When Punch said the album was coming “soon soon”

Five months after Top Dawg said Kung Fu Kenny would return “soon,” label president Terrence “Punch” Henderson provided an update. He told a fan on Twitter Lamar’s new music would come “pretty soon,” and then clarified that he meant “soon soon.” Sure.

October 27, 2020: When he signed a publishing deal with Universal
Okay, so we know what happened the last time Lamar signed a publishing deal — the rapper released just four features between his 2019 BMI deal and this one, an exclusive global deal with Universal. Still, if anything looked like gearing up for a new album, it’d be a second publishing contract in 18 months, right?

December 30, 2020: When a Danish festival said he’d be performing new music
After the pandemic put his live performances on hold, Lamar began rebuilding his tour schedule, once again fueling speculation that he’d be rolling out new music on the road. Roskilde Festival, a Danish festival Lamar has played multiple times before, announced K.Dot would headline its 50th festival — already reason to think he was readying an album. On top of that, in a press release, the fest added that Kendrick has “new material along the way.”

March 4, 2021: When he liked his first tweet in years
While Lamar rarely hits social media, his fans scour it, looking for signs of life. That’s how we found out he liked his first tweet in years in March 2021, possible evidence that he’d be returning to Twitter to prime fans for new music. Except the tweet in question? A video of a young Jack Harlow freestyling. After Come Home the Kids Miss You, let’s hope this one isn’t a sign of what’s to come on Lamar’s new album.

April 28, 2021: When TDE said, “THE WAIT IS OVAH!!!!!!”

TDE set off all alarm bells when it posted a teaser of a loading symbol on social media, with the caption “THE WAIT IS OVAH!!!!!!” and a teased date of May 7, 2021. After months and years of empty promises from Top Dawg and Punch, this seemed like Kendrick levels of excitement — with an actual date, no less. Turns out, it was for an even longer awaited return: Isaiah Rashad dropped “Lay Wit Ya,” the first single off his album The House Is Burning, which came after a five-year wait since 2016’s The Sun’s Tirade.

June 12, 2021: When he booked his only American show of 2021
The only place you could see K.Dot in the U.S. in 2021 was at hip-hop festival Day N Vegas. And while the poster promised his set would span “From Section.80 to DAMN.,” Kendrick fans are a stubborn bunch, and many thought he might throw in some new music. Turns out that was a warning to not expect anything new from him in 2021.

August 20, 2021: When he said he was working on his “final” album for TDE
Lamar made his first major public statement of 2021 on his own “oklama” website, writing a letter about working on his new album — which, he revealed, would be his last for TDE. From the man himself, it was confirmation that new music would be coming at some point. Lamar also gave insight into his creative process, writing that he’d spent “months without a phone” and been “collecting old Beach cruisers.” “There’s beauty in completion,” he added. What about completing that album?, millions of fans wondered.

September 4, 2021: When he registered new songs with ASCAP
If changing publishing deals is a business step toward releasing new songs, one of the next would be registering them with ASCAP, the music-licensing organization. That’s what some noticed Lamar did in fall 2021, quietly listing at least 32 songs with the group, with titles including “Before the Hangman’s Noose,” “Blow Ya Mind,” and “Driving Down the Darkness.” Artists registering new tracks with ASCAP isn’t quite an event, but don’t be surprised to see some of these titles pop up on Mr. Morale.

September 10, 2021: When he guested on three Baby Keem songs
Kung Fu Kenny has cut features here and there in the years since DAMN., mostly for TDE labelmates and friends like Beyoncé. He did the same for his cousin Baby Keem, trading bars on the fittingly titled “Family Ties,” released August 27, 2021. But that wasn’t all he had up his sleeve. When Keem released his debut The Melodic Blue, Lamar appeared on a total of three tracks, with another feature on “Range Brothers” and vocals on “Vent.” It was the biggest Kendrick drop since the Black Panther soundtrack.

September 30, 2021: When he was announced to headline the Super Bowl
A Super Bowl headlining set is usually a greatest-hits parade — but artists also don’t typically go there without something to promote. So with Kendrick Lamar announced, alongside four other hip-hop icons, as a halftime headliner for the 2022 Super Bowl, fans thought he wouldn’t come empty-handed. They were wrong.

November 11, 2021: When Adele said she heard new Kendrick
Lamar’s rapper friends teasing his new music is one thing. But when even a global superstar like Adele says she’s heard new Kendrick — as she told Rolling Stone in a profile around her own long-awaited comeback, 30 — then the days really are numbered.

November 13, 2021: When he told Day N Vegas he’d return “very soon”
The tagline was right — Lamar stuck to Section.80 to DAMN. for his Day N Vegas performance. But he made another promise after the set, telling the crowd, “’Til next time. And when I say next time, very soon.” Soon: It carries a bit more weight coming from the man himself!

January 1, 2022: When longtime producer Sounwave said he was working on new music
As far as sources on new Kendrick go, you can’t get much more trusted than Sounwave, one of the rapper’s go-to producers since his mixtape days. Sounwave has kept tight-lipped about new Kung Fu Kenny specifically, but he did kick off 2022 with an Instagram post about working on “new creations.”

February 14, 2022: When an Italian festival said he would be performing new music
After Roskilde came and went with no promised “new material,” it’d be wise to take what those European festivals promise with a grain of salt. But still, the Italian Milano Summer Festival turned heads when it announced K.Dot would headline and “play the pieces of the new album,” per a press release.

March 2, 2022: When Rolling Loud Miami said his headlining set “means exactly what you think it means”
You could blame translation errors on overseas festivals reporting Lamar would play new music. But when Rolling Loud Miami tweeted (and, guiltily, deleted) that a Kung Fu Kenny headlining set “means exactly what you think it means,” the festival was speaking fans’ language.

March 4, 2022: When he was announced to headline Glastonbury … again
How’s this for déja vù? Two years after Lamar’s original Glastonbury announcement, the rapper was once again announced as a headliner for the 2022 festival, the first since the pandemic. But this time, it actually was a sign of an album, with Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers announced the following month.

32 Times We Thought We Were Getting New Kendrick Lamar