A Tale Of Two Kendricks: "i" Vs. "The Blacker The Berry"
We compare and contrast the two singles from Kendrick Lamar's next album.
On paper, the two new Kendrick Lamar songs we've received in the past six months couldn't be more different. The first, "i", was deemed a departure from his acclaimed 2012 album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, and compared to Pharrell's "Happy" and OutKast's "Hey Ya" in varying degrees of disdain by fans on Twitter. "The Blacker The Berry", released yesterday, was another story entirely, receiving much more acclaim from HNHH users and prompting many to proclaim "Kendrick's back."
Look a little beneath the surface, though, and these two tracks are less different than they initially appeared to be, and when viewed together, give us a few clues about K Dot's new album. In this feature, we've broken down the differences and similarities of "i" and "The Blacker The Berry", as well as the conclusions we can draw from them. Read on to get a better understanding of Kendrick's two seemingly-incompatible singles.
Alright, let's start with the obvious: "i" and "The Blacker The Berry" sound almost nothing alike. The instrumentals, produced by Rahki and Boi-1da, respectively, reflect very different eras and genres of music, with the former being built around an almost completely un-doctored sample of The Isley Brothers' big hit "That Lady", and the latter featuring a trendy beat (that somewhat resembles 1da's "5AM In Toronto" beat for Drake) and a chorus from Jamaican dancehall artist Assassin. This stylistic disconnect means that "i" is something you could envision baby boomers dancing to, as it hearkens back to an earlier era of music and isn't very aggressive or abrasive. "The Blacker The Berry", on the other hand, features militaristic drums and a squall of distorted guitars, not to mention Assassin sounding like he's foaming at the mouth on the hook -- basically, not something you'd expect 60-somethings to love.
The there's the timbre of Kendrick's voice -- something that he's been known to alter within individual songs, sometimes even from one line to the next. Both of the new singles are no exception to this rule, as they both feature several of Kendrick's "voices," but if you had to make a cut-and-dry assessment, there's no question that he sounds angrier and rawer on "The Blacker The Berry". For the most part, "i" has him adopting a softer, more childlike tone when he raps and sings, which definitely adds to its uplifting vibe.
It's not everyday that a rapper follows up a positive track like "i" with a song that contains lines like "Sometimes I get off watching you die in vain" in its first 45 seconds. Yes, Kendrick adopts a much more nihilistic, biting tone ("I'm black as the heart of a fuckin' Aryan") on "The Blacker The Berry," no longer dreaming "of reality's peace" like he was on "i". Sure, plenty of negative things are mentioned on "i", but Kendrick walks away from them, preaching, "lift up your head and keep moving" as a method of coping and/or survival. With this and the unforgettable refrain of "I love myself" in mind, the internal struggle apparent in "The Blacker The Berry" is all the more shocking. Here, we see Kendrick falling into the depression and self-doubt that's only mentioned in passing on "i" ("I've been with depression ever since an adolescent"), with each verse opening with the line "I'm the biggest hypocrite of 2015" and Kendrick focusing in on the very issues he seems to ignore in favor of loving himself on "i". This time, he hones in on those who hate him and the fact that they made him a killer, asking them to "curse" him while admitting that he's also part of the problem at hand.
"i" opens with a monologue that sounds like a preacher declaring Kendrick something of a savior for his generation -- not unlike the "Black Messiah" described by a late Black Panther chairman on D'Angelo's recent track "1000 Deaths". It goes on to wrestle with many other religious themes -- the devil, holy water, Psalm 23:4 (AKA the "valley of the shadow of death" passage that Kanye's also referenced), "the good book", "the glory to the feeling of the holy unseen". In contrast, "The Blacker The Berry" deals with explicitly secular imagery, and makes no appeals to a higher power, presenting a grim portrait of life much more grounded in realism.
Whereas "i" deals with global and urban chaos exclusively in vague terms ("It's a war outside and a bomb in the street", etc.), "The Blacker The Berry" alludes to many current events. The concepts of the prison-industrial complex and the school-to-prison pipeline are hinted at, as is tribal warfare in Africa, and most auspiciously, the murder of Trayvon Martin. The mention of Martin, which appears in the penultimate line, is highlighted by author Michael Chabon as a "surprise revelation" that reveals the song's true meaning: Kendrick's hypocrisy stems from weeping for Trayvon while himself once being responsible for the death of a young black man. By painting in less broad strokes on "The Blacker the Berry", K Dot creates a contrasting effect between the two songs, which has its parallels in the work of other social justice-minded songwriters. If we imagine Kendrick as Bob Marley, "i" is his "So Much Trouble In The World" (an overarching, non-specific anthem for peace) and "The Blacker The Berry" is his "Buffalo Soldier" (a song that uses a well-defined historical moment as a symbol of black resistance).
Yes, despite the glaring differences, there are some similar musical elements at play on the two songs. Behind the seemingly at-odds production styles of Rahki and Boi-1da are two behind-the-scenes maestros with more in common. Bass virtuoso Thudercat lends a slippery outro to "i" and multi-instrumentalist Terrace Martin seems to have been given a similar task in the fourth quarter of "The Blacker The Berry". While the bodies of both songs reflect different genres -- classic funk/R&B on the former and modern rap and dancehall on the latter -- there's no denying that jazz plays a subtle, but important role in both outros. People worrying that Kendrick's new album wouldn't have "bangers" like "m.A.A.d City" on it are clearly wrong at this point, but the project seems like it will definitely bear a more organic, jazz-influenced sound than its predecessor.
Amid two varying depictions of urban strife -- one general, the other specific -- various signifiers and images pop out as bridges between the two. For instance, "i" mentions a "bomb in the street" and in "The Blacker The Berry", it's a "fire in the street". Kendrick also mentions mental illness on both tracks, depression on the former and schizophrenia on the latter, and both are presented as afflictions caused by his surroundings. The horrors he's seen in Compton led to the depression and the schizophrenia that people diagnose him with is a product of his societal surroundings -- the fact that he can't speak on Ferguson without attracting rage, the fact that people attacked him for the positive message of "i" amid times of strife.
Kendrick also addresses (and, for the most part, decries) stereotypes of black and hip-hop culture on both songs. The most obvious example of this is on "The Blacker The Berry"'s final verse, where he says that Black History Month, watermelon, chicken, Kool-Aid, Michael Jordan and BET are not central to his identity. In "i", it's the darker side of "hood" tropes like gangs, crack, lean and automatic weapons that get lambasted, with Kendrick attempting to side-step these in order to preserve his life and love.
Although it's certainly an angrier song than "i", "The Blacker The Berry" is also rooted in a positive message of self-love. It's named after a 1929 novel by Harlem Renaissance author Wallace Thurman that's essentially about a dark-skinned woman overcoming black (and white) culture's bias towards lighter-skinned individuals throughout her life and eventually drawing power and self-love from her body. So while Kendrick may be focusing more on American culture's hatred of him (including his physical traits), the song is surrounded by the message that "black is beautiful". When coming from Kendrick's mouth, the central phrases of "I love myself" and "The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice" mean essentially the same thing.
The songs may seem to be at odds on an emotional level, but they really address two sides of the same coin. As an African American man, Kendrick cannot proclaim to love himself and his people without also lashing out at the powers-that-be that have always attempted to keep that message down. Central to this is his mid-sentence correction of himself on the new song: "Fuck you -- No, fuck y'all". Kendrick isn't lashing out at one specific person (that would contradict the previous message of self-love), but rather the institution, "the man" if you will. Kendrick's two new songs represent the full spectrum of human emotion, and to expect him to only show one side, whether "angry" or "happy", is both limiting and inaccurate.
When viewed together, "i" and "The Blacker The Berry" give us clues as to what Kendrick's impending album will sound like. As mentioned in the "similarities" section, the underlying jazz vibes on both tracks suggest that the album will have a more organic sound than good kid, m.A.A.d city, which synthesized West Coast, boom-bap and trap strains of hip-hop into a product that appealed to a very wide rap audience. This time, Kendrick seems like he'll go back further than the '90s, mining for sounds that will again broaden his fanbase.
That being said, this new sound doesn't seem like an attempt to pander, but rather to pay homage to his stylistic and philosophical forebears, as R&B, funk, jazz and reggae have all hosted their fair share of protest songs. D'Angelo's Black Messiah was also mentioned earlier, and the more you think about it, Kendrick's album seems like it might be a perfect companion piece for that December release. Instead of continuing the silky R&B of his prior albums, D'Angelo took cues from Sly & The Family Stone, Prince, Marvin Gaye and Parliament-Funkadelic in an attempt to join the ranks of those artists' culturally significant works. He was certainly successful in that regard.
When we put these two singles next to the other song Kendrick's played from his new album (which also featured Thudercat and Terrace Martin), it seems even more like he's trying to subtly disengage himself from the prevailing trends in hip-hop in order to connect with a larger through-line of black music in America. This move from genre specificity to a more timeless, rootsy sound is also echoed in the new songs' subject matter, which is much broader than the clear narrative presented on good kid. Whereas that album had Kendrick recounting his Compton-based adolescence in vivid, intensely-focused detail, he seems to be focusing on greater and more universal issues in society on this new one (another album track is rumored to be titled "Kunta Kinte"). Call it a sign o' the times, or an artistic leap, but Kendrick will really take on the "big issues" in the world on this project.
Aside from all of this, Kendrick seems like a genius for releasing the songs when he did. "i" hit just a week before the eligibility period for last weekend's Grammys' closed, and with its inoffensive vibe, classic sample, and life-affirming message, it's not surprising that it won King Kendrick his first two trophies. With those gold symbols of societal acceptance and respectability in his hands, the Compton rapper let his new song go live less than 24 hours after the ceremony, effectively gaming the system to his benefit. "The Blacker The Berry" seems to spit in the face of the establishment with its non-politically-correct sentiments and chest-beating affirmation of racial inequality. There's no way that it, as an individual song, will be nominated for a Grammy next year. Sure, "i" may have made some core fans displeased, but can you fault Kendrick for being all, "if they hate then let them hate and watch the trophies pile up" before giving them what they wanted? We think his new album has the potential of being even better than its predecessor.