“If Pirus and Crips all got along…”
In the year 2014, Kendrick Lamar as an artist has not only transcended today’s standards, but he has transcended the legendary expectations of old and new. After all, he had an absolutely stellar discography and reputation in the hip-hop universe—before he released his debut album, good kid, m.A.A.d city. good kid was everything we didn’t know we wanted to hear from Kendrick Lamar; stories from his childhood we didn’t know existed, one of the most cohesive concept albums in modern history, and impeccable technical skill all the way through. And then, there was the message. Kendrick Lamar has always been about the message. When I first stumbled upon Kendrick Lamar in 2010, something became quickly apparent—Kendrick Lamar does not release music without a definitive purpose.
Not only is he currently rap’s greatest “rapper”, he’s rap’s greatest tactician. Now, I don’t just mean this as every record he releases has dual meanings, extended metaphors, and numerous entendres—most rap records can reach for those claims in our era. The fact of the matter is that Kendrick Lamar’s records, especially his album records/singles are songs that are cunning and deliberate in meaning, release, and promotion, and actually affect culture in more ways than one. A retrospective glance back at his 2011 independent album Section.80 will show and prove this, as “A.D.H.D.” and “HiiiPoWeR” were not only the singles chosen for that record, but they are easily the most culturally advanced, profound, and important records on the album. Skip a year ahead, and you will find the first single for his debut studio album good kid, m.A.A.d city was a song called “Swimming Pools (Drank)”, which when released, left a lot of people scratching their heads after the first listen. A repetitive, pitched down hook ripping words from popular, vapid club records (“drank”, “faded”) while the most audible words heard throughout the entire song are “First you get a swimming pool full of liquor, then you dive in it/Pool full of liquor, then you dive in it”.
But, the more we listened to that track and started to decipher and metabolize his words, it became very clear that the song was not another hollow club record, it was a satirical play on the club records glorifying alcohol and all of it’s friends, while ultimately confessing and outlining the dark perils and pitfalls of alcoholism and peer pressure. In the album context, it is Kendrick’s character’s way to relieve himself of the stress invoked by the storyline, and in the album version of the song, he addresses those by his side watching him suffer from alcohol abuse with the words “Don’t you feel bad?/I probably sleep And never ever wake up/Never ever wake up, never ever wake up/In God I trust, but just when I thought I had enough” followed by the most critical piece of good kid’s narrative—Dave getting shot and killed. It is these layers upon layers of depth and significance that is important to keep imprinted in one’s mind upon the release of a new Kendrick Lamar record. He has proven time and time again that he is out to affect and alter culture, and use his voice and his stories to provide a message worth hearing about, no matter how polarizing it might be. Yet, it seems a good percentage of the internet and the general public forgot about this earned respect when Kendrick Lamar dropped his new single, “i” last week.
A funky Isley Brothers sample? A weird, skin-itching inflection throughout the whole song? A hook that literally just says, “I love myself”?!
Well, yes. Yeah. Pretty much. These are all factual, well-based observations about “i”. But I think the part being missed here, once again, is the message. Kendrick Lamar didn’t even stick to his own formula. He didn’t offer a satirical, witty jab at a social issue. He simplistically, genuinely, and elegantly offered his take on a completely global, introspective issue much more important than anything else: love. Kendrick Lamar says himself on good kid, m.A.A.d city’s “Real”, “But what love got to do with it when you don’t love yourself?”. This might be a very simple concept, but how many people really assess and evaluate a bar like that? The masses are much more likely to focus on and admire the “shock value” in that he mentioned a bunch of relevant rappers and how he wants to murder them and take their fans in 2013, but judging by the polarized response to this record, they will overlook and scoff at Kendrick Lamar worshipping and living by the ideology that before love and affection ever spreads anywhere to anyone or anything, it breeds inside of yourself first. It may not seem like it, but “I love myself” is a powerful statement. It bleeds and exudes confidence, affection, positivity, and optimism, all things that you would never expect to be uttered from the mouth of a human who is a product of one of the most stressful, unfortunate, dark environments in America. No, really. A kid from Compton, California who’s last album revolved around his real life accounts of trying to stay himself and innately positive around gang-violence, prejudice, misogyny, death, and religion just released a record about loving himself.
But, after all, it is still a Kendrick Lamar record. After first listen, it is once again apparent that there is still another dimension to this groovy, feel good record. Underneath him boldly yelling “I love myself!” on the record, he shrewdly says “The world is a ghetto with big guns and picket signs/But it can do what it want whenever it want, I don’t mind” and, “He said I gotta get up, life is more that suicide/One day at a time, sun gon’ shine”. With context, this song becomes less of the rap version of Pharrell’s “Happy”, and more of a darker-tinged record that almost sounds like talking somebody down from the ledge. Kendrick almost seems like he’s quoting what somebody once said to him, and he repeats this idea on the final verse of the song as he confesses “I’ve been dealing with depression ever since an adolescent/Duckin’ every other blessin’, I can never see the message”. These fragments of context are vital to fully digesting this record for what it is, as it becomes very clear that Kendrick Lamar is in fact not just making a feel-good pop anthem, but making a positive street-mantra bred out of his own past experiences and tribulations with self-hate and sorrow, likely due to his lifestyle and the constraints of his environment. He is repeating and enforcing the fact that loving himself is not an action of arrogance or conceit, but it is an action of survival—it becomes glaringly evident that if he didn’t love himself, no one else would.
But why in this fashion? Well, let’s break this down a little bit. From a perspective outside of Kendrick wanting to be influential and culturally important and yadda yadda, it also serves as a perfect set for whatever spike he is currently crafting in the studio. Think about it. What was Kendrick’s last large, talked about record he was involved with?
Now, releasing an album following something like that, or even choosing to not release a single similar to “Control” is a difficult task for more reasons than one. For instance, take into account the average hip-hop consumer’s expectations for a Kendrick Lamar album following a record like that. It really starts to craft a box around Kendrick’s creative freedom and control to release his uncompromised art, because of his posture and position in the industry, as the last thing everyone remembers him saying was crowing himself the king of both coasts, comparing himself to the dead greats, and “dissing” everyone’s favourite rappers. “i”, then, stands as a pivot for Kendrick, to shift the listener’s perception of what could come next from him. I think “i” is polarizing by design. “i” is something that makes you think about what you are hearing before bobbing your head and is meant to be poppy and upbeat, because absorbing the message from a record concealed to be something else is a much more effective approach than just blatantly addressing self-confidence and love in a generic sense. Kendrick says himself on the song, “Give my story to the children and a lesson they can read” making it clear that the intention of the record is to be polarizing and easily listenable to make the delivery as simple as the message itself: “I love myself.”
This message, and the fact that it is being expressed the way it is by someone like Kendrick Lamar in a hip-hop single in 2014 is not only extremely important for music, but it is imperative for the advancement of culture in general, and for the youth and the the masses alike to really soak in this message. After releasing globally appealing records and earning a large platform and respect in the industry, it takes a certain breed of artist to take the microphone and just purely innovate and aim to radically change the sonic landscapes and the mental barriers of the masses instead of doing what got them there in the first place. Kendrick Lamar has dislocated every allegiance and expectation of being a “lyrical” or “conscious” rapper and instead has chosen to follow his mother’s advice given to him on good kid, m.A.A.d city, as she advises him,
“If I don’t hear from you by tomorrow, I hope you come back and learn from your mistakes. Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton. Let ’em know you was just like them, but you still rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person. But when you do make it, give back with your words of encouragement, and that’s the best way to give back. To your city…”
However, Kendrick has eclipsed just speaking to his city—the whole world is listening. And with as many ears as a hip-hop artist could ask for in this day and age, Kendrick Lamar decided to break his long silence by stepping up and saying “I love myself”. And it was one of the best things to happen to music in 2014.