We pride ourselves at The FADER on scouring the globe to introduce you to some of the most left-field music around. But in our monthly column Popping Off, Aimee Cliff takes the temperature of mainstream pop music.
The internet isn’t sure how to feel about Kendrick Lamar’s new song “i.” Debuted a couple weeks ago via Top Dawg Entertainment, the track features a prominent strutting sample from the Isley Brothers’ “That Lady” and declares I love myself! (the exclamation feels necessary) no fewer than 16 times. For all its funk-driven pomp and wailing car horn eccentricity, “i” is a hell of a lot brighter and more overtly optimistic than anything Kendrick’s put out before, and that has been enough to raise the hackles of a section of fans and commentators, who hardly would have filed his nightmarish 2012 opus good kid m.A.A.d city next to The Isley Brothers’ back catalogue. Rap critic Jeff Weiss wrote of his disappointment with the track’s “saccharine” tone, claiming its radio-friendly bounce “feels incongruous to everything we understood about Kendrick Lamar.”
There was anger like this back when Nas dropped “I Can.” Like Lamar, Nas came up telling faithfully documented and intimately woven tales of his city, and so his Beethoven-sampling, children’s-choir-backed, anti-drugs 2003 single pissed off some of his most devout listeners; Rolling Stone famously called it “a silly stay-in-school ad.” But that single had its day, and has, in retrospect, become a vital part of the Nas canon. Critical voices who were quick to dismiss it as corny missed something absolutely crucial, the same thing that many are still missing today: the fact that a black artist’s declaration and promotion of empowerment, positivity and self-respect is inherently political.
For a full dissection of why the declaration of self-love is such a politically significant act for black artists, it’s worth referring back to Heben Nigatu’s awesome 2013 defense of Kanye’s vanity for BuzzFeed: “To assert that, despite the boundaries of a racist world that strangles your every view of what is possible, you are still going to be out here stuntin’ on everyone, that you will love yourself and love yourself excessively, is powerful beyond measure,” she writes. In the same stroke, Nigatu quotes the poet Audre Lorde, who says that, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Weiss’s description of Lamar’s hook as a “self-love platitude” is oxymoronic: placed in its social and historical context, this self-love is radical.
If you’d been paying attention, you’d see that the message is not incongruous to Lamar’s previous output. He’s always been bravely self-congratulatory, as we can hear on the 10 year old “I’m Da Man” verse that re-surfaced and went briefly viral last week. More to the point, though, it also shouldn’t be so surprising to see Lamar making a subversive turn-up anthem that invites more interpretation than first meets the eye; last year, “Swimming Pools” had everyone in the club going up to a song about the hopeless drowning sensation of alcoholism. He voiced not only his own internal monologue—cut through with painful memories about how drink had damaged his family life—but the oblivious chants of the partygoers around him, as well as the sage advice of his conscience brought to life, all within the context of a tune that was played relentlessly to wasted crowds who echoed back his call to diiiive in it.
“Never Catch Me,” Lamar’s new track with Flying Lotus that’s sitting parallel to “i” right now with almost 1.2 million plays on YouTube, is another piece of the puzzle. In his deadpan rhymes that skim like sharpened rocks over FlyLo’s fluid jazz production, Kendrick takes the opportunity of having a more freeform, open space to muse on all the different aspects of his character. Like any of us, he’s complex and multi-faceted, and he’s got darkness in him. This doesn’t make him less likely to make a happy, toe-tapping piece of funk-pop for the radio—rather it means you should be prepared for him to throw absolutely anything at you next. On “Never Catch Me,” we hear Lamar reflect on whether he’s been sincere enough so far in his career. An artist openly asking this question is not an artist who’s about to turn around and make an insincere pop song just for the fun of getting on the radio; and if it sounds like that’s what he’s up to, you might safely assume there’s a bit more going on than meets the eye.
Kendrick Lamar understands pop. He’s been singing along to The Isley Brothers since he was a child, but he only sat up and paid attention to their lyrics recently. He told Flaunt in 2013, “I know all these songs, because they were playing in my house growing up, but I didn’t know what I was singing… Now, I realise they were talking about some serious relationship shit—being in love, being out of love…They were on some grown shit.” It’s this quality of memorable hooks and familiar structures that makes pop music so likeably uncontroversial, and it’s also what makes it subliminally marketable on a mass scale. Most people know about the concept of payola, and the depressing fact that even sub-par music can be made likeable by sheer exposure, because our brains are just wired to like stuff we’ve heard before. Ever been in your car and absent-mindedly started singing along to a song on the radio, only to realise that you don’t remember consciously learning the lyrics; ever been shocked to realise what you’re actually singing? After the wildfire spread of Robin Thicke’s rape-y mantra last summer, it’s something we could call “the Blurred Lines effect.”
Cynics seem to think that Lamar is mimicking The Isley Brothers’ euphoric sonic qualities simply in order to go down the same route as Thicke, making a song with a feel-good hummable hook that’s about to get playlisted on every major station. But while the “Blurred Lines” effect is about shifting units, Lamar is all about shifting his message—because why would he feel any pressure to make a song that sounded like “i” after an album as acclaimed as good kid m.A.A.d city? Think of Lamar and Thicke as your two witches of Oz; one of them using the distracting, serotonin-rush qualities of pop music for good, and the other for evil.
What Lamar is doing actually has a closer alignment with the canon of Kanye West. As Nigatu pointed out in her BuzzFeed post, since the very first song on his very first album, Ye’s been condensing angry political messages into chart-baiting tracks that managed to slip his views directly under the noses of the masses and into the mouths of children. As he bragged on “Jesus Walks,” he has a gift with production and flow that means he can talk about pretty much whatever he wants to, including God, on the radio. Fast forward to 2013, and that wasn’t enough any more: the subliminal came rupturing up to the surface on Yeezus as Ye found himself repeating I am a God over weaponized beats—keeping the production so sparse that the listener had nowhere to look but straight into his stony expression—and literally screaming on his tracks. For some, this was a revolutionary moment in which West was more honest than he’d ever been. Maybe it would be truer to say that he was honest all along, but that not enough of his listeners had actually been listening.
So back to “i.” That description of the track up top—of “funk-driven pomp and car-wailing eccentricity,” yeah, I’ll quote myself—is the first layer of the track. Anyone who listens to this song and hears a two-dimensional platitude of pop positivity is listening about as hard as baby Kendrick was listening to those Isley Brothers records he heard around his childhood home; because Kendrick is on some grown shit. Around the edges of the luminous, attention-stealing hook, he weaves a story of depression, violence and marginalization that not only affirms that he’s painfully earned the right to declare his self-love, but that his cry of I love myself! is closer to a desperate plea than it is to a confident assertion. As the volatile production, more unwieldy and gloomy than many have given it credit, rumbles through the soulful sample, Kendrick grows increasingly frantic, saying he’s ready to lay his body down in the street. He claims that all he wants is for children to hear his message, implying that this will come at the cost of his own safety or integrity. He spells it out: he’s bawling I love myself, trying his hardest to believe it and project it (despite the fact he’s duckin’ every other blessin’ and can never take the message himself) because he wants young people to hear that statement, and to own it for themselves.
“i” is Lamar’s “Hey Ya,” no cornier and no less genius. Like Lamar’s affirmation of his own complex self-identity, Andre 3000 emphasized his in the video for the ATLiens’ pop crossover hit by acting as every member of The Love Below, a band that’s consistently screamed over by the crowd for the duration of the song. In the video, Andre’s smile gleams like plastic as girls objectify him, squeal over him, and dance in front of their TV sets without watching him at all; because y’all don’t want to hear me, you just want to dance. When you watch Lamar perform this song live, you can tell he’s having a blast, and you know “i” is going to be bumping out of every pop radio station you can name for weeks to come. So what if the track is, as Weiss argues, “genetically modified for the basics starting their Pandora station with ‘Robin Thicke.’” Genetically modifying a subversive tale of self-love in the face of societal marginalisation, physical/emotional trauma and depression “for the basics” is not as basic as it may seem.