- Courtesy of Kendrick Lamar
On Monday afternoon Kendrick Lamar released a new song called “The Blacker the Berry,” and most of the ensuing coverage has referenced Sunday night’s Grammy Awards. The connection makes sense on a basic-news-cycle level considering the Compton MC won two awards for his decent, but not outstanding, 2014 single “i.” The power of Lamar’s new song underlines the insignificance of a perfectly manufactured TV event centered on glamorous people collecting shiny trinkets.
“The Blacker the Berry” is a tremendous exploration of race and class. It’s the kind of track that forces you to drop anything else that might demand a sliver of your attention in order to take in every syllable, inspires gushing bouts of hyperbole, and can find its way into your stomach and brain and sit there for days and weeks while you sort through every complex turn of phrase. “The Blacker the Berry” shares its name with a 1929 novel by Harlem Renaissance writer Wallace Thurman, and Lamar’s song is steeped in history: the MC references Marcus Garvey, racist stereotypes of African-Americans, and warring between the Zulu and Xhosa people.
Lamar spits venom on the track. His words are barbed, his delivery is aggressive, and the grit in his voice evokes all the tension and anger embedded in his words. Lamar ratchets up the intensity as the song progresses, and while “The Blacker the Berry” ends after five and a half minutes, it sounds like he could continue rapping till his voice gets sore. The slightly sinister instrumental heightens the feeling that this song is big—when sharp organ notes pop up as Jamaican dancehall singer Assassin delivers the song’s hook in a thick patois, it feels like bolts of lightning are crashing down on the earth.
“I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015,” Lamar raps at the top of three different verses. He closes the song with the lines, “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? / When gang bangin’ make me kill a nigga blacker than me?” These lines reference Billboard‘s recent cover story on Lamar, but more specifically the criticisms he faced because of a specific quote about his response to the death of Michael Brown:
Asked about the high-profile killings of African-Americans by police in 2014, from Ferguson, Mo., to Staten Island, he says, “I wish somebody would look in our neighborhood knowing that it’s already a situation, mentally, where it’s f-ked up. What happened to [Michael Brown] should’ve never happened. Never. But when we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within. Don’t start with just a rally, don’t start from looting—it starts from within.”
Lamar’s clearly bolstering his initial points with “The Blacker the Berry.” But he also maps out the complexities of race, pushes back against stereotypes, and explores the gray area of prescribed roles for young African-Americans. In a way it also reminds me of the response to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and in particular the criticism that hip-hop artists failed to properly respond with music. It’s a criticism I found hard to unpack. For one thing rappers and producers weren’t the only ones who were affected by these deaths, and to expect leagues of rappers to throw down thoughtful songs immediately afterwards might even suggest that these deaths were easy to process.
But I understand why MCs carried this weight of responsibility, especially Lamar—he’d already made trenchant, absorbing songs about growing up in the U.S. as an African-American. With “The Blacker the Berry” he’s channeled the feelings of confusion, hopelessness, and anger that spiked with these high-profile deaths last year, feelings that were there for decades before Brown and Garner passed. Lamar offers no easy answers with “The Blacker the Berry,” but that only adds to the song’s greatness.