Hip-Hop Hour: Kendrick celebrates himself

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Does anyone remember when “i” first dropped? It had been two years since we were hooked to the atmospheric swirls of Good Kid, and the thirst was real.

Then we were caught off guard. The dense, syrupy fog of Good Kid had been lifted, and what we heard was chipper. It jived. It rode the sunny groove of the Isley Brothers. The chorus was simple and almost too catchy — “I love myself!” — which was the most terrifying thing about the song.

After Good Kid M.a.a.d City was snubbed for Macklemore’s pop-rap blockbuster The Heist in 2014, Kendrick Lamar finally won his first Grammy with “i,” and it’s clear to see why.

We know that the stodgy, old, white men who run the Grammys have had real trouble “respecting the artistry,” especially the complex artistry behind acclaimed hip-hop. It seems that Lamar was desperate to write a song with the pop appeal that these music executives wanted, replete with a goofy, throwback beat and a positive message for the kids. You know, kind of like “Thrift Shop.”

Compared to the trap-influenced underworld of Good Kid, “i” is the sound of a muzzle over Lamar’s mouth — there’s no menace left in his bite. They killed his vibe. Even his delivery sounds tired and defeated. His voice wilts as he sings, “Everybody lack confidence.” It’s too easy to imagine his eyes cast down on the floor and his tail between his legs.

But that’s not what Lamar is about. Any fan could tell you that. On the single version of “i,” Lamar sounds almost too keen, too self-aware of what the industry wants. I think there’s a pretty confrontational “fuck you!” embedded into the song.

Now that we have all 78, mesmerizing minutes of To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar’s apparent Grammy thirst is even more mind-boggling. The album is a lot of things — confessional, complex, adventurous — but “commercially friendly” is not one of those things. In fact, Lamar lost quite a few fans in the haze of his jazzy experimentation.

Most fascinatingly, the combustive sparks on the album version of “i” are worlds apart from the single version — more than two planets away. When the single version sulks, the album version snarls and howls from the megaphone of Malcolm X. It’s so unpolished, but it’s riotous, and it finally sounds sincere. The beat’s practically the same, but the mere shift of Lamar’s delivery sets the whole song ablaze, and suddenly Lamar’s voice is cracking in between screams, amid the electric cacophony of funk. Finally, Lamar packs enough ammunition to make “a war outside, bomb in the streets” a convincing statement.

The contrast gets deeper. What else do you hear on the album version of “i”? Not just Kendrick Lamar, that’s for sure. There’s a backing band, tuning its guitars. There’s a pack of rambunctious fans. There’s an MC. Although an announcement preludes both versions, the single sounds like it has a radio DJ bellow, “This is a world premiere,” but there is no doubt that the album performance is meant to be live. It’s the sound of Lamar coming home to Compton. In essence, you can hear a community in the album.

And what does it mean, when the polished, Grammy-award winning version of “i” has to abandon the sounds of its community? After all, To Pimp a Butterfly tells the narrative of Lamar taking flight — away from the hungry caterpillars on the gang-ridden streets of his hometown — and then dealing with “survivor’s guilt,” a phrase that rings throughout the album.

The narrative of how “i” has changed explores the estrangement that the hip-hop artist faces under commercial pressures. Among a network of 16 other songs, the track “i” resonates deeply. It has context. One can even say that the song finds its roots, inheriting a wealth of meaning from the tracks that came before.

But severed from the pack, as a single, “i” sounds purposeless and dulled. It stands cowardly in its lowercase. Lamar knows that the industry just wants a tamed version of the authentic, wild energy on the album — he sings on “i” that they just “want to put (him) in a bowtie,” ready for an awards speech. That’s what the industry does.

Lamar is our modern-day Odysseus. After an epic voyage to stardom, all he wants to do is go home. But the music executives are that crazy sea god, blowing him further away from his family, trying to squeeze as many record sales from him as possible. And Compton is his Ithaca. And Sherane is … Penelope? Or Calypso. I don’t know. I honestly never read the book. So much for my English degree.

More importantly, Lamar might be our modern-day Walt Whitman, who wrote an anthem with a similar theme: “Songs of Myself.” Similar to what Whitman says, we now know that the single “i” isn’t about standing alone at all. If you truly only love yourself, then you’ve sold out. But understanding the depth of “i” means that you hear the sounds of home, community and history embedded into the DNA of the song, and its title suggests that this is an analogy for Lamar’s conflicts with his own identity.

So when Lamar howls, “I love myself,” he is far from egotistical. Lamar might as well sing — straight from “Leaves of Grass” — “every atom belonging to me … belongs to you.” That democratic “I” contains just about everyone he loves. That’s something that the executives will never hear.

Jason Chen is the assistant arts editor and writes Monday’s column on hip-hop.