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.
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 began writing 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).