Kendrick Lamar boasts the overlap of two elusive things in hip-hop right now: A megaphone large and loud enough that most everyone hears, and something politically and socially charged to say behind that megaphone.
Few have one or the other. Even fewer -- maybe only Kendrick, Kanye West and J. Cole (and perhaps Run the Jewels) -- have both. Kendrick makes people feel something with his music. Something beyond, “Damn, this sh-t is hot” -- which, granted, is usually where it starts. He makes people think with his music.
With his latest, “The Blacker The Berry,” he does all of this.
In addressing perceptions of blackness as well as ongoing and historical acts of violence against black people, he manages to further an ongoing public debate, weigh in on that debate, challenge your notions of your position within that debate, consider and accept the levels of your own hypocrisy and humanity, and confront the prejudices you may harbor towards those like or unlike you.
That's a hell of a lot to do in under six minutes.
But let’s just forget the message for a second, simply to revel in his technical abilities as a rapper. There’s the usual immaculate annunciation (should we get Ariana Grande some lessons from dude?), with every P and T pronounced as if someone held down the shift key on his vocal chords; the vivid visual imagery of his descriptions; and the generally meticulous and layered wordplay throughout.
And then there’s the actual writing structure of the song: The brilliant play on your emotions, the ability to suck you into feeling a level of comfort with the direction of the song and his viewpoint -- only to betray what he’s built up in his first two verses with his final one.
I was with Kendrick on The Blacker the Berry... until the last verse. Siiiiiiiigh.— J.A.B. (@MsJamilaAisha) February 10, 2015
Nahhh Kendrick snapped on that last verse !!— Zamel Johnson (@Zig_ThaKidd) February 10, 2015
Those early verses are spent both examining and celebrating black stereotypes: "My hair is nappy, my d--k is big, my nose is round and wide/ You hate me don't you?/ You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture," he raps in the first verse, while also pointing a finger at white America.
In his last, it becomes apparent why, "I'm the biggest hypocrite of 2015," was the opening to all three. "So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?/ When gang banging make me kill a n---a blacker than me?/ Hypocrite!"
Regardless of how you feel about the actual stance that he’s taken once the song is complete, that proverbial bait and switch is no doubt a thing of beauty.
i don't think ppl really listened to what kendrick said. it was the black ppl's "look in the mirror" moment. last verse. love it.— MR. VALENTiNE (@mr14th) February 9, 2015
Back to the content, though.
In a January interview with Billboard, Kendrick took a lot of heat for his comments on the shooting of Michael Brown.
"I wish somebody would look in our neighborhood knowing that it's already a situation, mentally, where it's f--ked up," he said. "What happened to [Michael Brown] should've never happened. Never. But when we don't have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within. Don't start with just a rally, don't start from looting -- it starts from within."
That last kendrick verse said everything I been saying for the past 3 years— Arik Stewart (@The4upz) February 9, 2015
Many criticized K. Dot, accusing him of using "respectability politics" -- an idea that problems within the black community can be solved from "within," regardless of the external factors at play.
That last verse on the Kendrick is the most eloquent I've heard the respectability politics argument.— Rod TBGWT (@rodimusprime) February 10, 2015
While he doesn't necessarily abandon this in "The Blacker The Berry" -- the idea that violence within the black community is a problem -- he comes at it in a more full and nuanced view. He addresses the existence of institutional racism while also questioning what he can do to help himself and those around him. There's nothing wrong with coming at something from multiple angles -- it can surely be beneficial, in fact -- and that's what he seems to do here.
What's more, the Compton native acknowledges the reality of hypocrisy. Though the word "hypocrite" has an almost entirely negative connotation, it's certainly something that we've all been at some point. And Kendrick knowns and owns this, and in doing so reveals the fullness of himself as an individual.
Kendrick has addressed his own duality often -- notably as far back as 2009's "Vanity Slaves" (as have others in his class, including Cole and Big K.R.I.T.) -- and by doing so again here, once more makes himself a man of the people, rather than above the people.
White folks after listening to "The Blacker the Berry" pic.twitter.com/LNH3hAFcNH— The Smoothest™ (@ShannonMoorer) February 9, 2015
"The Blacker The Berry" is a difficult and complicated song that reminds us how difficult and complicated these issues -- and, quite frankly, the human condition -- are. They can be solved neither with empty "pull up your pants" platitudes nor with a simplified "the cops want to kill us" stance. And it's sparked an important discussion among fans.
The raw honesty and pain of J. Cole's "Be Free," released just days after Brown died, was haunting; Game's star-studded emotional "Don't Shoot," also released that month, was an essential unification of rap's trendsetters; the anger in Uncle Murda and Maino's "Hands Up" is justified.
This new Kendrick is fye. That last verse kinda questionable though. Really tired of the "but what about black on black crime" rhetoric.— Espresso Banks (@espressobanks) February 9, 2015
What Kendrick is able to do here -- he acknowledges that the recent-headline grabbing incidents exist not in a vacuum, but as pieces of a larger ecosystem crucially tied to the historical conditions from which they arise -- is the kind of approach we don’t normally get in music.
This slots in surprisingly well next to the self-love anthem "i," and I can only imagine what we'll get when all the pieces come together for his upcoming album.
Below, Kendrick addresses very similar ideas in the context of "i."