“The Blacker the Berry”

There was actually another significant music happening, this one in the hip hop world, I’d intended to include with my last post, but which I think deserves to be more than a footnote. Kendrick Lamar dropped something that, in my opinion, carries more weight than either Kanye’s pulling-a-Kanye or Drake’s pulling-a-Beyoncé (seriously, surprise album releases are so 2013, and they don’t even end up winning you the Grammy riiiiiight?). At this point we’re all well aware that the past year-or-so has been a tough one, to put it lightly, for race relations in our country. Ideas of fairness and progress have been challenged; notions of privilege and disparity have been given unprecedented attention.

With these challenges and new perspectives has come a whole, confusing, spectrum of emotions for people of all colors. Kendrick’s never had a problem tackling the hard subjects in his lyrics, though. Section.80 was such a powerful and insightful album for me (I’ll never forget hearing, “‘How old are you?’ She say 22, I say 23. ‘Okay, then we all crack babies.'” for the first time.), and it opens with a pretty simple, if impractical, solution to the Race Problem: fuck your ethnicity. That said, Kendrick’s proud of his. While remaining true to his heritage, he goes to great lengths to subvert stereotypes about and realities within his community. His breakthrough hit “Swimming Pools” poses as a standard party anthem but is really a scathing critique of the shallowness of a lifestyle centered around excess. He shines on Pusha T’s “Nosetalgia,” using the tale of his rejection of the drug-dealing legacy handed to him by his father and grandfather (“Pops, your ass is washed up, with all due respect… Every verse is a brick. Your son dope!“) to counter Pusha’s sentimental reflection on his own crack-slinging days. And last year’s “i,” which the Academy did find Grammy-worthy, is a celebration– an affirmation of love even when the world’s a ghetto full of big guns and picket signs.

“The Blacker the Berry,” to use a completely unoriginal comparison, may well be the Malcolm X to “i”‘s Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s aggressive and pushes buttons. You’re supposed to feel uncomfortable in parts. Put simply, it’s an honest and heartbreaking glimpse into the mindset of a black man in America, revolving around an enigmatic ‘hypocrisy’. But I’ll leave the more knowledgeable interpretations to the Pulitzer Prize winners and bow out here. Remember this: every race start from the block.

In this final couplet, Kendrick Lamar employs a rhetorical move akin to—and in its way even more devastating than—Common’s move in the last line of “I Used to Love H.E.R.”: snapping an entire lyric into place with a surprise revelation of something hitherto left unspoken. In “H.E.R.”, Common reveals the identity of the song’s “her”—hip hop itself—forcing the listener to re-evaluate the entire meaning and intent of the song. Here, Kendrick Lamar reveals the nature of the enigmatic hypocrisy that the speaker has previously confessed to three times in the song without elaborating: that he grieved over the murder of Trayvon Martin when he himself has been responsible for the death of a young black man. Common’s “her” is not a woman but hip hop itself; Lamar’s “I” is not (or not only) Kendrick Lamar but his community as a whole. This revelation forces the listener to a deeper and broader understanding of the song’s “you”, and to consider the possibility that “hypocrisy” is, in certain situations, a much more complicated moral position than is generally allowed, and perhaps an inevitable one.

(Michael Chabon‘s two cents on Genius.com)