Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence?

Kendrick Lamar begs this question of the listener as he closes out his fourth studio album, DAMN.

Released last month, DAMN. has been received very well by fans. Billboard reported that the album took up spots 1 through 9 of the On-Demand Streaming Songs for the week of May 6. The album also sold 600,000 units in its first week, a record that beat out that of Drake’s More Life by almost 100,000.

So what is it about DAMN. that makes it such a success? It’s been hailed as one of the best rap/hip-hop albums of the year, but in what ways does DAMN. differentiate itself from other releases of 2017 or some of Kendrick‘s other work? 

The reason Kendrick is arguably the best rapper alive is because his music is not only a commercial success but maintains lyrical and conceptual artistic style. Kendrick is, first and foremost, a storyteller, and DAMN. takes his storytelling abilities to new heights. Exploring themes like fate and spirituality, Kendrick takes us deep into his personal mindset and gives us an intimate look at the way he views the world.

Throughout the album, Kendrick makes many references to God. In the track “FEAR,” he compares himself to Job, a disciple of God whom God tests by ruining his life. Kendrick raps, “All this money, is God playin’ a joke on me?/Is it for the moment, and will he see me as Job?/Take it from me and leave me worse than I was before?” This is a personal insight into Kendrick‘s relationship with God, as he questions whether or not God will test him as He did Job. Kendrick even has a track titled “GOD.” In the song “FEEL” he raps, “ain’t nobody praying for me.” He feels like he is making this music to serve God and help save society, but he is alone with nobody praying for him. This ties back to the mood of the album as a whole, as the whole album has a depressed undertone.

My favorite track on the whole album is “DUCKWORTH.” This song is an example of Kendrick‘s ability to tell a narrative through his music. It starts out by telling the life of Anthony, the boss of Top Dawg Entertainment, otherwise known as Kendrick‘s label. Then it goes into the life of Kendrick‘s dad, Ducky. Kendrick goes on to say that Anthony almost killed his father, who at the time worked at KFC, but spared his life. Kendrick says that his father and Anthony met again at a the recording studio where Kendrick is now employed by Anthony. The rapper explains in “DUCKWORTH” that, if Anthony had killed his father, he would be serving life in prison. Kendrick would have been fatherless and, according to him, would have never grown up to be the greatest rapper alive, but instead would have probably been shot in a gunfight. “DUCKWORTH” is the masterpiece of the album, and it gives a lot of personal insight into Kendrick‘s conception of fate and choice.

Another one of Kendrick‘s skills is his ability to give individuality to his work. DAMN. sounds completely different from his third studio release, To Pimp a Butterfly. TPAB was a jazzy, lively album, where DAMN. serves as an emotionally sad album reminiscent of the style of rap found in the 1990’s.

However, Kendrick does pay homage to his third album throughout DAMN. The rapper received criticism from Fox News for his song “Alright” from TPAB. The news group claimed that the song was bad for black culture and society. Kendrick responds to this critique on his new release, using clips of the news anchors throughout the album. At the end of the first track, “BLOOD,” we hear this audio recording from Fox News, ending with an anchor saying, “Oh please, I don’t like it.” Kendrick takes this adversarial relationship further in the next track, “DNA.” It appears the Fox News anchor wants to portray him as a stereotype, so Kendrick delivers a trap banger filled with references to drugs and violence. This is an example of Kendrick‘s creative ability to respond to criticism. 

The album as a whole shows much musical versatility. Featuring artists like Rihanna (“LOYALTY”) and U2 (“XXX”), DAMN. showcases Kendrick‘s range as an artist and his creative development overall.

DAMN. is also a tribute to his perception of fame. In back to back tracks “PRIDE” and “HUMBLE,” the listener sees both Kendrick‘s anxiety about maintaining a positive public view (“See, in the perfect world, I would be perfect, world”) to his thoughts on the irony of being consistently told to be humble.

The album features beats and lyrics that will appeal to listeners of all genres. It’s a testament to Kendrick‘s mastery as an artist that the album maintains an intellectual narrative while also producing some sure summer bangers.