By Aaron Hartley–

Kendrick Lamar’s latest record begins with his death. The opener, “BLOOD” features Lamar being shot by a blind woman. The track sets the stage for “DAMN,” a cerebral, cryptic and heavy project, unlike anything the Compton rapper has made, while staying intelligent and introspective.

The production on “DAMN” is trimmed and sparse, down to drum, bass and synth.

Unlike the grandiose nature of his past work, “DAMN” feels compacted, as if it takes place in a void. As a result, there exists an eeriness that pervades the album’s vibe. With Lamar shot in the first track, these could be a rush of thoughts through his head before he die.

Apart from giving the album its own signature feel, the stripped-down production also makes the album much more accessible, but no less thematically varied. Bangers like “DNA,” which rockets off the opening track like a fist to the jaw, the lead single “HUMBLE” and “XXX” (featuring U2, no less) will more than satiate those looking for something to bounce to, but they are all introspective and pointed.

Other tracks explore new sounds and ideas to huge success. “LOVE” is a beautiful, melodic track that is new territory for Lamar, while “FEAR” feels bleak and vulnerable. “PRIDE” is a spacey jam, glazed with distorted guitar strums and falsetto. These variations in sound and ideas are threads that tie the album together, but is ultimately a look inside Lamar’s head; an intimate study of what he believes his place in the hip hop scene is and the value of life.

Lamar accomplishes so much so incredibly well. “DAMN” is a solid as bricks in its structure. The final track, “DUCKWORTH” (Lamar’s real last name), rewinds itself to the opening lines of the record, suggesting an infinite cycle.

Lamar takes on the rap industry and media perception while simultaneously exploring his own feelings on life, death, love and identity, all while shifting to new musical territory he has never explored before. And he makes it seem easy. In “HUMBLE” Lamar states that “If I quit this season, I’ll still be the greatest.” Whether intended to be taken as irony or not, he’s probably right.