Ever since "i"—or really, ever since "Control"—Kendrick Lamar has shed his layers of subtlety, and that's possibly a powerful maneuver, a good thing. Yesterday he dropped "The Blacker the Berry," the latest single from his pending album, and now Kendrick's plot is coming together, in fact starting to resemble hip-hop's last grand tribute to ascendant blackness, Watch the Throne, in which Jay Z and Kanye West wrecked and desegregated the very notion of luxury. Kendrick Lamar isn't such an extravagant persona, of course, but his latest music is indeed so bold. With "i," he recommitted himself to theories of self-esteem, black transcendence, and such. With "The Blacker the Berry," he's confirmed that these themes are his priorities and, overall, his new mission. On his 2Pac shit in explicit terms.
Like "i," and the untitled track that Kendrick teased a couple months ago on one of the final episodes of Colbert, "The Blacker the Berry" is a fully, unmistakably black pronouncement. A few critics have initially heard it as a conservative restatement of the respectability politics that Kendrick broached in his January cover story interview with Billboard; previously he suggested, vaguely, that self-respect is crucial to the cause of black transcendence, and here he is wondering whether police brutality and gang violence aren't overlapping tragedies. I've repeatedly wondered whether Kendrick is as politically driven as we are on his behalf. It's one thing to make a song that illustrates racial profiling, and a whole 'nother notch to shout, "Fuck the police." That latter pose isn't quite what Kendrick Lamar is about; by now, that much is clear.
Like many of my race, class, and generation, I'm invested in Kendrick Lamar's narrative for reasons that have as much to do with music as they have to do with, well, race, class, and age. With my nose pressed to the glass, at invasively close range, yes, you could accuse me (and many other critics, and many other fans) of sweating this kid's every move.
I've repeatedly wondered whether Kendrick is as politically driven as we are on his behalf.
This is somewhat due to Kendrick's fringe relatability, I suspect. Though he may well be a cool guy, Kendrick Lamar is not a cool kid; he's not making cool music for cool kids to wild out to, coolly. Kendrick Lamar is not, say, Future, who, in fairness, offers his own, more visceral sort of transcendence. Whereas Kendrick's "i" is a decidedly uncool rap single, that nonetheless appeals to millions of people, on some intimate level. The song has a hold on me to this day not because it is better than any of last year's hit rap singles, but because it is something different altogether. A song for introspective consumption in isolated moments. One freezing evening late last year, I walked the three miles from my office to my apartment, just to spend an hour with "i." That's not just me.
The sort of purist fanatics who would go so far as to shove "i" down your throats tend to overlook this point, that there's no formal case to be made; you enjoy the song, or you don't. "i," which just won Kendrick two Grammys, is popular enough on its own strength, and so the popular, obnoxious urge among fans to lobby Hip-Hop Culture or the Black Community to "support" Kendrick's "message" does the musician no favors. Let's give Kendrick more credit than that. Let's be honest about these songs.
"The Blacker the Berry" isn't medieval calculus; it's a straightforward, plainspoken song in which Kendrick Lamar and dancehall artist Assassin account for white outsiders' many stereotypes and transgressions against blackness; and for the abundance of self-esteem crisis within blackness itself. To some extent, he's possibly acknowledging the backlash regarding his Ferguson comments while anticipating more of the same ("Once I finish this, witnesses will convey just what I mean").
In direct comparison (because we must), "Berry" is much of what "i" was missing sonically, and it's a much clearer piece of songwriting. A drill sergeants' grimace as he spits the bars as if they were a black nationalist preamble, he's preachy, yes, "a proud monkey," "a real nigga," "black and successful," but without a whiff of condescension, though his equivocations are misguided. "The biggest hypocrite of 2015" struck gold with a Boi-1da beat so percussive and ig'nant that Kendrick's nuance is hardly missed, and the intellectual nitpicking therefore seems irrelevant. Assassin's hook is appropriately ragged and loud, plus that beat knocks like the reaper, so I am disarmed. And we are done, I suspect, promoting Kendrick's newest music from a defensive crouch, as if his fanbase were marketing broccoli to restless infants.
While I'm replaying all these Kendrick singles now and mulling them over, I think instead of "POW," the explosive first track from Graham Central Station's 1978 album, My Radio Sure Sounds Good to Me. "POW" is a playful, immediately zonked song, in which Larry and the band repeatedly tease, "What did you expect?" between parody renditions of various genres: classical, opera, country, what have you. The point being that funk is unpredictable and evasive of even your wildest expectations. I would trace Kendrick's new direction to that unconventional urge, in the spirit of funk that likewise explains Kanye West's having just made a pop-folk song with Rihanna and fucking Paul McCartney, of all people.
Many would prefer that Kendrick Lamar make a worthy "Swimming Pools" encore, and here he is instead making the Jay Electronica album. What fresh and funky hell.
On its own merits, however, "The Blacker the Berry" is the most encouraging release from a so far jarring, divisive rollout of his follow-up to good kid, m.A.A.d. city. I'm excited, finally. "I want this album," my colleague Jinx just leaned over and told me. "The Blacker the Berry" is the first moment where I'm pounding my desk, co-signing that demand.