The Songwriters, Collaborators & Producers Behind Kendrick Lamar's 'DAMN.'
DAMN. is right. Like a cannonball leaping into the hip-hop pool, Kendrick Lamar dropped his splashy and highly anticipated fourth album (if you count the beloved Section.80) this week to near-universal raves from critics and a wave of adoration from fans.
His first studio album since the Grammy-winning To Pimp a Butterfly, DAMN. is classic Lamar in full glory: mellow, poetic and rough around the edges. Featuring a range of collaborators from all spectrums of music -- including superstar hip-hop producers, fresh up-and-comers, an experimental jazz quartet and even craftsman who created hits for Adele and Sia -- here are some of the most notable names who worked with Lamar to bring DAMN. to life.
One of Lamar’s most frequent and earliest collaborators, Sounwave (the moniker of Mark Spears) produced eight tracks on DAMN., making him the busiest name on the album. Makes sense, considering the Compton-raised producer is one of Top Dawg Entertainment’s in-house beatsmiths (dubbed Digi+Phonics) and worked with Lamar on his self-titled 2009 EP, as well as his breakout track “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe.”
“He knows what his sound is and he knows what he wanted it to sound like,” Sounwave told The Fader in 2012 about working with the rapper. “If he has a melody in his head he doesn't care what time it is, he'll show up at my house unannounced and just hum it to me. I'll play it on my keyboard, he'll probably take off and then an hour later I'll send it to him. That's usually how all our beats come about.”
Mike Will Made-It
One of three producers to receive sole credit on DAMN. (the others being Sounwave and The Alchemist), Mike Will Made-It’s production stylings can be heard on three tracks: lead single “HUMBLE.” as well as “DNA.” and the U2-featured “XXX.” The credit is just the latest notch on the superstar producer’s belt, whose debut studio album Ransom 2 dropped in March. He’s also the EarDrummers mastermind behind the success of Rae Sremmurd (producing their viral smash “Black Beatles” as well as initial hits “No Type” and “No Flex Zone”), and gave Beyonce a breakout hit with “Formation.” And who did Miley Cyrus call on when she was trying to shed her good girl image? You bet it was Mike Will, who produced her 2013 hit party anthem “We Can’t Stop.”
Alongside Sounwave, Greg Kurstin and Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith, DAMN.’s 10th track, “LOVE,” featuring Los Angeles artist Zacari, was co-produced by rising 24 year-old Teddy Walton. A Memphis native who was discovered by A$AP Yams, Walton broke onto the scene co-producing A$AP Rocky’s “Electric Body” from his second album AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP.
Walton and Lamar met through a Top Dawg rep, and the two hit it off. "[Kendrick] was like, 'Actually play anything... sounds... instruments... like anything you have, it don't even have to be a beat,'” Walton recently told Noisey. "So I just started playing all my older songs that I'm not even done with, just instruments and stuff and actually at that moment, he kind of didn't seem too interested in some of the stuff that I was playing.”
Later, a Top Dawg rep followed up. “They said, 'Send the tracks out, send the tracks out please. Send whatever you played.' That's how I found out I was officially on his album." According to Walton, Lamar himself had high hopes for the track. “Kendrick looked at me and said, ‘Yo, this is going to be big.’”
One of the more unlikely names found in DAMN.’s credits, Greg Kurstin is arguably best known for his collaboration with Adele on her earth-shaking smash “Hello,” a recent Grammy winner for song and record of the year. Kurstin also scored a Grammy for best producer, which could be why Lamar recruited his sharp talents to spruce up DAMN.’s 10th track “LOVE.,” originally concocted by the aforementioned Teddy Walton. The producer behind everything from Niall Horan’s debut solo single “This Town” to the 2014 Sia smash “Chandelier,” Kurstin is reportedly currently helping Paul McCartney craft the legend’s next album.
DAMN.’s fourth track, “ELEMENT.,” features both writing and production work from none other than the English singer-songwriter James Blake. Coincidentally nominated for the best new artist Grammy in 2014 alongside Lamar (both lost to, you guessed it, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis), Blake is no stranger to helping out with blockbuster projects. He’s collaborated in the past with a range of boldface names, from Frank Ocean (on his video album Endless) to Beyonce (on her blockbuster Lemonade).
Launching his career upon giving Wiz Khalifa beats after the rapper’s show, Denver, Colo., native Cardo (real name Ronald LaTour) has since produced tracks for everyone from Drake to Jay Z. Cardo co-produced DAMN.'s 13th track, “GOD.,” a collaboration between him and Lamar that began when the two worked on music for his 2016 compilation untitled, unmastered.
According to Cardo, when speaking to Complex last year, Lamar told him: ‘"Bro, you’re not going to put out another album without me being on it.’ We both just started laughing, and he’s like, ‘I got you, I got you.’ I was like, ‘Come on, bro, I need to be on the next project.’ That eventually happened, and I thought that was really, really crazy."
Co-Producing “LUST.” (alongside Sounwave and DJ Dahi) is Toronto quartet BADBADNOTGOOD (Matthew Tavares, Chester Hansen, Leland Whitty, and Alexander Sowinski). Bursting onto the scene after releasing jazzy and experimental covers of tracks by everyone from Kanye West to Odd Future, the band has also collaborated with a host of other artists including Earl Sweatshirt, Snoop Dogg and Danny Brown. "LUST." also features original vocals courtesy of the rising Kaytranada, an announcement BADBADNOTGOOD made on Twitter.
Credited on seven songs throughout DAMN. ("BLOOD.", "YAH.", "ELEMENT.", "PRIDE.", "XXX.", "GOD.", "DUCKWORTH.") , it's a feat that could mark Bekon’s big break after working for the better part of the last decade under the name Danny Keyz and crafting tracks for a range of rap legends including Eminem, RZA, and Snoop Dogg. Last year, Bekon nabbed a Grammy nod for his co-writing work on BJ the Chicago Kid’s album In My Mind. Bekon (real name Daniel Tannenbaum) also co-wrote and lent his vocals n the Dr. Dre Compton cut "All in a Day’s Work."
Another one of DAMN.’s jazzy contributors (in addition to the aforementioned BADBADNOTGOOD), Martin is a Grammy-winning producer who previously worked with Lamar on his landmark To Pimp a Butterfly. Teaming up with everyone from Stevie Wonder to Busta Rhymes, Martin is now reportedly at work producing new music for jazz legend Herbie Hancock.
One of the most veteran collaborators Lamar worked with on DAMN., The Alchemist (born Daniel Alan Maman) has been a major player in hip-hop since he was part of the duo The Whooliganz in 1991 (His partner was the actor Scott Caan). Since taking a solo rap career, he’s done everything from create the soundtrack for GTA V to DJ for Action Bronson. Of course, he’s produced as well, crafting tracks for Bronson, Dilated Peoples and Joey Bada$$. On DAMN., The Alchemist co-produced “FEAR.”
Is any hip-hop record worth their salt this day and age without a song featuring Rihanna? Hot off of her recent team-up with Future for “Selfish” off his HNDRXX album, the superstar lends her impressive, yet sometimes elusive, rap skills to “LOYALTY.” Elsewhere on DAMN., Lamar mentions Rihanna’s multi-million dollar 2012 lawsuit against her former accountant stemming from shady business practices. (The two later settled out of court for a cool nine million bucks.) "I read a case about Rihanna’s accountant and wondered/ How did the bad girl feel when she looked at them numbers?” he raps on “FEAR.” “The type of shit’ll make me flip out/ And just kill somethin', drill somethin'.”
Lamar and U2 may sound like an odd team-up, but the superstar band and Compton rapper meld together perfectly on DAMN.’s edgy track “XXX.” Produced by the aforementioned Mike Will, the song is a politically charged anthem that touches on various themes concerning post-Obama America and features the legendary Bono belting out “It's not a place/ This country is to be a sound of drum and bass” in his full glory. This isn’t the first time Lamar collaborated with a rock band, teaming up in the past with the likes of Imagine Dragons and sampling indie rock favorites Beach House on his album good kid, m.A.A.d. City.