On DAMN., Kendrick Lamar’s third studio album, the Compton rapper takes the listener on a winding tour of his psyche. The album is perhaps Kendrick’s most self-conscious work, and its complex production — which constantly switches between lush instrumentation and warped samples — mirrors the ups-and-downs of Kendrick’s relationships with his past, his god, and his fame.
As many have noted, DAMN. is a big departure from the jazz and funk conjurings of To Pimp A Butterfly, but the record, was largely facilitated by the same producers who he’s been collaborating with for the past five years.
Sounwave, TDE’s in-house producer, has been providing the soundtrack to Kendrick Lamar’s expanding narratives since the release of the Compton rapper’s self-titled EP in 2009. “We could’ve easily done another To Pimp A Butterfly but there’s no fun in that, “ he recently told The FADER over the phone from Los Angeles. “We thrive off of pushing ourselves.”
In a recent conversation with The FADER, Sounwave took us through the eight songs he helped produce, explaining how last-minute bursts of inspiration altered multiple standout tracks and why he loved the conspiracy theories that have followed the album.
We take the sequencing of songs very, very seriously. Going from “DNA.,” which has so much energy, we couldn’t just hit ‘em with another energy record. “DNA.” was probably the second song we did on the project, so after that we had the [Fox News] clip and everything in there. Probably about a month before the album was done, we still didn’t have a song that felt like a track that lyrically matched up with “DNA.” “YAH.” came and it felt right. He felt the need to express a little bit further about that news clip.
With Kendrick, he’s all in his head and you won’t know what he’s thinking until he gets in the booth and actually says it. So, we were sitting in the booth, wondering where he was gonna go with it, and that came out. He has everything planned out perfectly in his head and you probably won’t understand it until it comes out.
"ELEMENT.” went through a few changes. The first version we had was a little too jazzy. It had a four-on-the-floor sound and it didn’t feel right to us. The song was mastered and ready to go, but we were like, “Hold on.” We went back to it, changed the drums up, gave it a little more bounce. As soon as we made those adjustments, it was like, “Yeah, this is gonna be one of the fan favorites right here.”
James Blake came in at the last second. He constantly sends Kendrick stuff, and he just happened to send this crazy piano loop right as we started to feel like the first version wasn’t it. He dropped it into his text messages at that moment. We incorporated his keys with the original and it became what it is.
Kendrick is hands-on — every album, with everything. “FEEL.” was the only record that wasn’t made in the studio and that’s because I had a family emergency. I had to take off to Atlanta, and I literally made that song on the plane. I sent it to him, and he sent it right back.
This was towards the end of the recording process for the album, and I knew it was missing a song like that. I had this family emergency but I couldn’t stop working at the same time. That was about two months before we turned everything in.
He’s always loved Rihanna — loved her work and her work ethic — but the opportunity for a collaboration never presented itself at the right time. When that beat was finally finished, it clicked in his head. He was like, “I want Rihanna on this, and I want her rapping.” We were looking at him like, Aight… I had never seen that, but I definitely could see it. For him to pick that and him to come out the way it came out — come on, man. She’s spitting bars.
Whenever you see a feature that you might question hearing with Kendrick, don’t judge it until you hear it. We’re not gonna do something that’s so far removed from what we do. We like to bring people into our zone.
That was a loop that [BADBADNOTGOOD] had sent to me a long time ago, probably about a year now. We always dabbled with it and made different versions with it. It really came about through me and [DJ] Dahi messing with drums, reversing stuff, bringing back the normal drums. It’s fun working on stuff like that — having complete creative freedom to try different, weird things and then it comes out the way you pictured it coming out in your head.
It didn’t become what it did until about two months before we turned it in. So much was done around that last two month mark. Everybody literally had sleeping bags in the studio at that point. Like, “If you leave, you’re not serious, and we don’t want you to come back.” That’s how it was. “You wanna go get something to eat? You’re not serious.” You’re gonna be in this studio and you’re gonna starve with us until it’s perfect. Luckily, it’s everybody we love — it’s like having a sleepover with all your cousins.
I think this was one of the easiest songs to do on the album. Zacari is a phenomenal artist. His vocals, the words that he picks, everything was perfect. I got nothing but good things to say about that kid. He’s super talented.
Kendrick definitely wanted to do one word titles, it just depended where the song was going to take him. He just wanted to make a song that made you feel like that one word.
Bono and Kendrick had been talking on the phone and they’ve wanted to work with each other for the longest. It was just all about opportunity and this was the perfect opportunity. To get a chance to work with U2 and have the song come out the way did it was a dream come true for me and for Kendrick. That was at the top of the bucket list.
I tweeted this video about what it’s like to engineer Kendrick Lamar, and it’s really like that. He’ll tell you the most outlandish things and it’s like, What are you talking about? But, when you do it, it sounds genius. He’ll be like, “Right here, I want the beat to switch up on that 15th bar and then come back in.” And it always works.
As far as the little things that he does in the studio, it’s the same. But with time, he’s become better. Things that he would do back then are enhanced times ten now. Practice makes perfect. He used to never write — it was a lyrical exercise thing in his head. Now, I’ll catch him writing because he wants everything to be pronounced and felt that much more.
Me and [“GOD.” co-producer] Cardo go way back. If you let him tell it, I’m bougie and don’t wanna work with him. But whenever he comes to L.A., he’s in my studio and I’m going to where he’s at. All those names that you see on the production credits were working at the same time on “GOD.” Everybody was plugged in, enhancing the beat at the same time. I had the MPC, Dahi had Ableton, Cardo was using what he was using — everybody was just linked in and it came out crazy. We could’ve made a full album, all of us at that moment.
If you look at the tracklist, you have “FEAR.,” where he’s kicking real bible stuff with references to scriptures that I haven’t even heard from him. The next song is “GOD.,” so fear of god. But there’s a bunch of different concepts that you can get from it, I don’t want people to feel like what I said is what the meaning is. I love the conspiracy theories. For you to be able to grab a brand new album and to get that from such a small amount of information is amazing to me. It let’s me know that our fans’s brains are somewhere else in an amazing way.