Earlier this week, Kendrick Lamar released the music video for his latest single, "i." When the song initially dropped, it was greeted by many of his fans with a shrug, or even outright ire. On the surface, it seems like a pretty hard song to hate. Its message, that self-love is good, is something that no rational person would ever disagree with. Its melody, copped from the Isley Brothers' "That Lady" and fleshed out and gritted up by a murder’s row of session players including West Coast bass virtuoso Thundercat, is beamed down straight from The Mothership, the musical spacecraft from which all funky things come. Its music video features the rapper doing a goofy jig that he probably learned from his grandfather, the guy on good kid, m.A.A.d city whose fucking Domino's never came.
So why do people seem to hate it so much?
Well, it’s complicated. Kendrick Lamar means many things to many people. Over the past few years, Lamar has earned his status as hip-hop’s most promising young rapper through not just mic skills, but by cultivating in his fans a sense of optimism, that they were listening to the next Greatest Rapper of All Time. He had an ability to capture the moral ambiguity of the hood with a novelistic eye for detail. His songs were complex as they were catchy. He knew how to create tension, maintain a narrative, cultivate drama, and then deflate it all with a good joke. Despite a hefty Dr. Dre cosign, he did all of this without compromising his loyalty to the West Coast underground that he came up in, mining the murkier end of hip-hop’s sonic spectrum while being so damn good at what he did that people couldn’t help but notice. Simply put, following the release of his masterful debut album good kid, m.A.A.d city Kendrick was hailed by many as Rap Jesus. Or perhaps more accurately, Rap Luke Skywalker, the one who could bring balance to The Force, bridging the gap between underground and pop like few artists before him.
Each song he appeared on following that record only built anticipation for what he’d do next. A$AP Rocky's "Fuckin' Problems" proved he could effortlessly hold down a party-rap posse cut—even though Drake was rapping about the goddamn Beatles, the line everyone remembers from that track is Kendrick’s effortless, stutter-stepped boast, "Girl, I’m Kendrick Lamar / a.k.a. Benz-Is-to-Me-Just-a-Car." Fredo Santana's "Jealous" found Lamar playing a wizened Chicago bluesman, raunchy and rhythmic and depressing and inspiring and cocky in turn.
And then there was "Control," which featured The Verse—nearly three minutes of uninterrupted vitriol towards his fellow rappers, in which he pulled a Kurupt and started calling out names, going so far as to diss Big Sean and Jay Electronica, who shared the goddamn song with him. Not since the halcyon days of T.I. vs. Ludacris has a rapper exhibited such temerity. Spending two hundred seconds placing yourself in the canon of the greats while trashing your contemporaries is certainly an attention-grabbing move, almost akin to musical clickbait—it certainly garnered more attention for Kendrick than if he’d simply concentrated on making music of such quality that critics and fans would naturally place him alongside Jay Z, Eminem, and Nas. Then again, sometimes it pays for the heir to bum-rush the throne—Lamar is too dexterous and intense an MC to ignore when he bares his teeth and goes for the jugular.
With that verse, the world anointed Kendrick Lamar the Best Rapper Alive, Drake's only competition for the king of contemporary rap. Rap kings don't retain their crowns by retreating back to their constituency; they conquer uncharted territory and create something that everyone can enjoy. And Lamar's proverbial stab into enemy lands is, for better or worse, "i."
On the surface "i" is bright and sunny, and features the same type of big-ass chorus and Velcro-catchy hooks as Pharrell’s "Happy," OutKast's "Hey Ya," and Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," three songs to which "i" has oft been compared. It can be read as Lamar turning his back on his fans, selling out, or as simply a bad song. And if you think "i" is a bad song, there is probably nothing I can tell you to convince you otherwise.
But still, there is something dark, perhaps desperate and dangerous in the undercurrent of "i.” Maybe it’s the way Lamar begins the song in a meek, tinny voice, and ends it damn near screaming at the top of his lungs. Maybe it’s the video, which depicts poverty, police action, and suicide. Kendrick hangs out of the window of a car, looking just like The Joker in The Dark Knight, and leads a march through a neighborhood past cops arresting a black man. Such imagery is trenchant, and when confronted with it I can’t help but think of Ferguson, Missouri, and the underlying truths that it revealed about American society. "i" exists in a world in which black bodies are penalized, scrutinized, and victimized for simply existing. Hip-hop, to many in mainstream, Fox News’s America, is still viewed as something inherently wicked and not to be trusted.
"i" is a product of someone who innately understands this dark, dark reality. When, as Lamar says, "it's a war outside and a bomb in the street / And a gun in the hood and a mob of police / And a rock on the corner and a line full of fiends"—in other words, when the world is out to get you because of who you are and where you live in very real ways, the strongest and bravest thing you can do is stand up for yourself. In this way, "i" contains the radical positivity of "Jesus Walks," crossed with the pop sensibility of "Touch the Sky." Lamar isn’t hanging out of the car window in the video because he thought it looked cool; it serves as a reminder that you shouldn’t be silenced just because someone else automatically views you as a threat. Just like Lamar passed off the anti-alcohol "Swimming Pools" as a party song, he's twisting, politicizing, and undercutting feel-good pop with "i."
In an interview with FADER, Lamar said of the track’s tepid response, "That's great. I would hate to stay stagnant. I would hate for you to say there's no growth. You're supposed to innovate and not only challenge yourself but challenge your listeners… When you're an artist, nobody should dictate what you should do, you should just do it." He’s got a point. "i" isn’t Kendrick going pop, not really. There are a million trillion different things he could have done that would have been a legitimate cynical pop crossover move. He could have gotten a beat from DJ Mustard of Mike Will, gotten Max Martin to write him a hook, or even teamed up with mutual admirer Taylor Swift and made something that would have made his appearance on Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive" remix look like a Company Flow b-side. But he didn’t. Kendrick Lamar has all the underground and overground cred he could possibly want, and he still managed to do the last thing that anyone expected of him. He made a song about black self-love that sampled one of the most beloved black bands of all time, and he sugarcoated it to the point that people hated it, almost proving his point for him. In a way, "i" is the most punk move he could have made. He could have done what rap fans wanted him to do and conquer the rap game through war-ready raps and righteous fury, but that would have been predictable. And who wants that? Certainly not Kendrick, and certainly not I.
Drew Millard is Noisey's Features Editor. Follow him on Twitter.