It may have been a snow day at Georgetown this Tuesday, but all Kendrick Lamar can think about is fire.
On the wake of his successful night at the 2015 Grammys—where the artist took home the awards for Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song for “i”—Kendrick Lamar released a new single from his upcoming album on February 9. Titled “The Blacker the Berry”, the song is produced by Terrace Martin and Boi-1da and features a hook from Jamaican dancehall deejay Assassin.
Lamar borrows the track name from Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life (1929), a somewhat revolutionary novel that tackles a young black woman’s struggles with having dark skin. In his song, Lamar explores similar themes of racism in the United States.
From the first seconds of the song, it becomes clear that K.Dot has no plans to hold anything back. Conjuring up images of senseless chaos and violence, he fills “The Blacker the Berry” with dark historical allusions and crisp, trenchant lines. In just one song, he manages to throw shade at the entire US law enforcement system, including the CIA, DEA, and the prison system. But more importantly, Lamar calls out African-Americans on black-on-black violence.
One of the most chilling lines comes with Lamar’s depiction of the streets of Ferguson after Mike Brown’s shooting. He raps, “Six in the morn’, fire in the street / Burn, baby, burn, that’s all I wanna see”. This post-apocalyptic, eerie vibe characterizes the rest of the song, as he repeats at the beginning of every verse that he considers himself “the biggest hypocrite of 2015”.
Instead of discarding black stereotypes, Lamar ironically embraces them and lets them empower him. He goes straight for the jugular and breaks the fourth wall, asking white people “you hate me don’t you?”.
There is one allusion in particular that is simultaneously horrifying and illuminating: a two-line history of gang violence. It goes, “You sabotage my community, makin’ a killin’ / You made me a killer, emancipation of a real nigga”. Apparently, the CIA helped introduce crack cocaine into poor, vulnerable black neighborhoods in Los Angeles in the 1980s— and profited from it. Of course, this drug influx resulted in an explosive atmosphere, rife with gang violence and drug wars responsible for hundreds of deaths in the black community.
It’s lines like these that remind us why Lamar became famous in the first place: he keeps it real. In his first major album, good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012), the artist discusses at length his desire to escape the disastrous, violence-filled environment of Compton: atrocious details and all.
And that’s exactly what he does throughout this track. Lamar destroys institutions like the mainstream media, which constantly appropriates him and other rappers like Nicki Minaj (and of course Kanye West), with his lyrics. He calls out Azealia Banks for dismissing his thoughtful opinion on the unrest at Ferguson. And he calls out corporate America for being unfailingly racist.
What holds my faith in Kendrick is that despite all his success, he consistently remains humble and sticks to his roots. In “The Blacker the Berry,” he bemoans rappers who spend more time bragging about their earnings than focusing on topics that really matter. He drops a few clever lines to flex his recent success, then immediately switches back to the important subject matter, which comprises the body of his song.
But it’s the third verse where Lamar really spits fire. He emphatically declares, “I’m African-American, I’m African, I’m black as the heart of a fuckin’ Aryan”. This sort of pan-African, double-conscious ideology typifies what he believes should be the ideal trajectory for black people in the United States. Instead of turning on each other in the forms of gang violence, which Lamar likens to tribal wars between Zulu and Xhosa in South Africa, black people need to unite.
The song’s third verse also marks where Kendrick finally explains the repeated line, “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015.” According to the track, Lamar admits to being responsible for the death of another young, black man. This signifies a lot, but most importantly it stabs at the listeners, who, Lamar implies, are all guilty of some level of hypocrisy. It repeats what Lamar mentioned earlier in the song: when he says “you hate my people” he doesn’t just want you to refer to racist, white people. He means that even as he condemns black-on-black violence, he’s guilty of it, although it’s in his past now. In that way, the song addresses all of us.
Race-relations are a complicated subject, but Lamar’s music and other positive influences make an effort to bring the racism and discrimination in our society to the surface. When, according to The New York Times, black men aged 20-30 without a high school diploma are more likely to be in jail than to have a job, there’s a serious problem ingrained in our country.
If you haven’t listened to it yet, please give “The Blacker the Berry” a try on Spotify or YouTube. Not only is a hype song, but it’s an educational experience. It’s more than worth your while.
Photos: thissongslaps.com, lilwaynehq.com