On the next song, “Complexion”, Kendrick, Rapsody, Pete Rock and JaVonte work together to tell a very simple but effective message. This is said well with the simple line from the chorus, “Complexion don’t mean a thing.” Kendrick also tells this simple message in perhaps the most understandable way by relating it to love between two slaves. The first verse has him rapping about atrocities committed against slaves, but does it in a subtle way by saying he would do these things for a fellow slave girl.
In the second verse, he picks up exactly where he left off by saying his take on skin color and bringing us to the answer he must’ve gotten from God through his own life. Here, he says to his fellow black man that they can’t allow their differences to divide them with the lines, “Beauty is what you make it, I used to be so mistaken. By different shades of faces. Then Whit’ told me ‘A woman is woman, love the creation.’ It all came from God, then you was my confirmation. I came to where you reside. And looked around to see more sights for sore eyes. Let the Willie Lynch theory reverse a million times.”
The Willie Lynch theory comes from an 18th century letter where it is said that the best way to control slaves is to pit them against each other through their differences. Kendrick defies this by saying that light skinned, dark skinned, blue eyes, brown eyes, and all other differences don’t matter because we were all made in God’s image. Rapsody carries this message over to her verse, which is coincidentally enough, the only actual feature verse on the whole album.
She certainly makes it count however, by bringing up aspects that Kendrick brought up but also adding some new layers to it. This is presented in the end of the verse when she says, “I’m talkin’ about days we got schools watching movie screens. And Spike your self-esteem. The new James Bond gon’ be as black as me.” With these lines, she is referencing multiple significant black celebrities (Spike Lee and Idris Elba) in an attempt to empower her community and show them that anybody can be successful.
Sonically, every verse is smooth and the production sounds straight out of the ‘90s. Rapsody steals the show with an incredible verse but she also closes it in a way that perfectly hints at the black-on-black violence subject matter of the next song, “The Blacker The Berry”. In addition, the production goes with this transition by taking an incredibly moody turn with Kendrick’s outro to the song. This transition is the only real space we have between the significant juxtaposition of these two songs and really gives us a chance to hear some of Kendrick’s darker thoughts on his community.
These darker thoughts very much carry over to “The Blacker The Berry”, which I easily consider to be the most gritty and explosive track on the album. This song confronts all sorts of systemic racism, black stereotypes, riots, different kinds of violence against black people and all of this is especially hard-hitting due to the fact that Kendrick even began writing this song immediately after Treyvon Martin’s murder. Naturally, for these reasons there are many layers to peel back.
To speak immediately on the sound of the song, Kendrick’s delivery with every word sounds so full of anger and works perfectly to set the mood. The intro to the song is just as powerful as every verse with him almost channeling a certain energy to spit the upcoming verses. After this he delivers a chilling pre-chorus that certainly sounds like he’s speaking from the perspective of somebody who just found out about the murder of Treyvon Martin.
This is marked by the following lines, “Six in the morn’. Fire in the street. Burn, baby, burn. That’s all I wanna see. And sometimes I get off watching you die in vain. It’s such a shame they may call me crazy. They may say I suffer from schizophrenia or somethin’. But homie you made me. Black don’t crack, my ni-.” First of all, the riot references are obvious from the very first line and then Kendrick goes further by saying he loves to watch the system that shuns his community burn. He closes this off geniusly by saying that all of this resentment, gang violence and these riots are all the making of the institutional racism that much of this album is about.
In addition, Assassin delivers a fantastic chorus that both shows how far the black community has come but also how far we have to go as a society in terms of dismantling systemic racism. I think it’s especially potent the way that he mentions jewelry and cars, which are nice but without true equality it doesn’t matter.
Speaking to the three monstrous verses, Kendrick makes it a point to start each verse with the words, “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015.” This statement constantly reappears to expertly build anticipation towards the fiery ending of the track. The first two verses showcase the prior themes that I’ve talked about, but once we get to the ending of the third verse we come to realize what this song is truly about.
“It’s funny how Zulu and Xhosa might go to war. Two tribal armies that wanna build and destroy. Remind me of these Compton crib gangs that live next door. Beefin’ with pirus, only death settle the score. So don’t matter how much I say I like to preach with the panthers. Or tell Georgia State, Marcus Garvey got all the answers. Or try to celebrate February like it’s my B day. Or eat watermelon, chicken and kool-aid on weekdays. Or jump high enough to give Michael Jordan endorsements. Or watch BET ‘cause urban support is important. So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street. When gang-banging made me kill a ni- blacker than me? Hypocrite!”
This is one of the most powerful moments on the album and reminds me why I love Kendrick so much. He is willing to very much point the finger at himself on the way to making real change and in this specific scenario, he’s pointing the finger at his community in a way. I think he delicately (ironic because the song is so angry) sends this message across by first saying all the things wrong with America and saying that none of this is the fault of his community. He does however, believe that they need to rise above the pointless gang violence that creeps in and if they want to truly make change for their fellow black man, then they need to work together to achieve it and not let things like tribal loyalty or gang colors get in the way of true unity.
In addition, I also think that when he references the stereotypes such as eating watermelon he is also saying to our country that these half hearted efforts at making things equal don’t really do anything when the system itself is broken. This rings especially true now that this album is five years old yet all of these words could easily be said today except using the name of different victims.
From this incredible ending, we get a pretty mellow instrumental outro that brings us to the more laid back, “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)”. I think this song pairs pretty nicely with the aforementioned, “Complexion”, in the sense that it’s a pretty simple message that Kendrick doesn’t try to get too fancy with. It’s a simple message, however the genius lies in the different walks of life that the message can relate to.
First, the song can apply to Kendrick simply being back in the hood, telling people that they don’t have to pretend to be something they’re not to hang out or “kick it.” The more interesting interpretation and what I think Kendrick really wants us to pick up is that he’s more talking to his fellow rappers who are promoting this gang lifestyle. He is talking to his peers in the rap game because when they promote a lifestyle of violence and drug use, it gets in the way of working to make positive change in the world.
Interestingly with this interpretation, it also explains the placement of this song being after such an aggressive song, like “The Blacker The Berry” because the promotion of the gang lifestyle is what causes many impressionable young people to continue the cycle of violence that Kendrick speaks on. This also continues the theme from the end of “The Blacker The Berry”, where Kendrick says that they will continue to lose the battle of fighting for equality if his community can’t unite amongst themselves.
The song has the term “Momma Said” in the title because all of this comes off as motherly advice with Kendrick yet again shifting his vocals to send this message across. In the final verse we begin to see the end of Kendrick’s journey with him finally realizing from his mother’s words that he’s too hard on himself and the work he does is good enough. Finally, on this album we begin to truly feel Kendrick accepting himself for who he is, which carries over into “i”, the penultimate track on the album.
On “i”, we finally see what the whole album has been leading to with a very clear message of self love that works very well on its own, but on a whole different level in the context of the album. Here, Kendrick is standing victorious after the incredible journey that he’s been on in his rise to fame. From the lows of many of the tracks like “u”, Kendrick has made his way to “i”, a brilliant juxtaposition in both subject matter but in track name as well.
This is portrayed immediately with a grand introduction summarizing what he’s been through along with a nice acoustic guitar beat that easily stands out as some of the more upbeat production on the whole album. Lyrically, the verses are pretty simple with Kendrick basically saying that through the different trials and tribulations of life, he will continue to love himself and come back stronger.
With “i” being the lead single for the album, it’s very radio friendly with a somewhat poppy sound but if somebody was to only hear the single version they would truly be missing out. This is because not only is the album version live, but it also adds an incredible outro where Kendrick brings back the extremely prevalent theme of race relations.
At the beginning of this outro, Kendrick is speaking directly to his community to unify and fight the powers that be in order to reach the true equality that he speaks of. From here however, we then get an incredible acapella verse from Kendrick where he basically talks about his community having respect for themselves. In order to put this message across, he talks about the use of the n-word.
He says that a lot of the times when the word is used by his fellow black man, they continue to give power to the word that was/is used so cruelly against themselves. Kendrick, however, has a different definition of the word.
“So I’ma dedicate this one verse to Oprah. On how the infamous, sensitive N-word control us. So many artists gave her an explanation to hold us. Well, this is my explanation straight from Ethiopia. N-E-G-U-S definition: Royalty; king royalty- wait listen. N-E-G-U-S definition: Black emperor, king, ruler, now let me finish. The history books took the word and hide it. America tried to make it to a house divided. The homies don’t recognize we been using it wrong. So I’ma break it down and put my game in a song. N-E-G-U-S, say it with me, or say it no more. Black stars can come and get me. Take it from Oprah Winfrey, tell her she right on time. Kendrick Lamar, by far, realest Negus alive.”
This is a lot but Kendrick is saying here that this is a word that has been stripped of its true meaning to turn African-Americans against each other very much akin to the aforementioned Willie Lynch Theory. To battle this, he states the often misused definition at the beginning of the verse but then in these lines uses what it means to him to not only empower his community but himself thus, successfully tying together both self love and black unity.
Most albums would end with this triumphant message but Kendrick’s journey is not quite over as we continue the revelations on the epic “Mortal Man”.
Cristian Valentin can be contacted at: