“I'm not on the outside looking in, I'm not on the inside looking out,” Kendrick Lamar says toward the end of his debut album, 2011’s Section.80. “I'm in the dead fucking center, looking around.”
It’s a good mission statement for the 27-year-old Compton rapper, who some say is the new king of hip-hop. It’s a good mission statement for anyone, really—the reminder that your point of view is your point of view, irreducible and distinct. And it’s a line that comes to mind listening to Lamar's new track, “The Blacker the Berry,” which in less than 24 hours racked up more than a million streams, was knighted as an early contender for song of the year, and sparked controversy related to the Black Lives Matter movement.
At the age of 16, Lamar as the song's narrator says he “came to [his] senses”—an awakening of racial consciousness, the realization that powerful parts of America hate him. The response is defiance and pride, delivered with creative venom that made headline writers scramble for to find synonyms for “pissed off” (it’s “blistering,” “scathing,” “seething”)—
I'm African American, I'm African
I'm black as the heart of a fuckin' Aryan
I'm black as the name of Tyrone and Darius
Excuse my French but fuck you—no, fuck y'all
That's as blunt as it gets, I know you hate me, don't you?
“As blunt as it gets,” yes. This is no-filter, cathartic venting, part of a long tradition that includes Public Enemy and Kanye West. In one devastatingly concise couplet, Lamar describes the psychological baggage placed on so many black men: “I mean, it's evident that I'm irrelevant to society. That's what you're telling me: Penitentiary would only hire me.” His only solace is the classic hip-hop kind: trumpeting his blackness and flaunting his personal success, calling himself a "proud monkey" driving a “muscle car like pull ups.”
But there’s a twist at the end of the song. At the beginning of each verse he confesses to being “the biggest hypocrite of 2015,” but we don't understand what he means till the closing words: “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street, when gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me? Hypocrite!” The surface message: The narrator of the song has killed black people: What right does he have to be mad at whites who have done the same?
It’s a shocking line. Echoing divisive comments Lamar made to Billboard recently (“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 at first comes across like an attempt to invalidate complaints about police aggression in Ferguson and elsewhere by raising the issue of “black-on-black crime.” Which is an empty attempt to change the subject, Ta-Nehisi Coates and others have argued:
People tend to kill the people they live around. Black people are among the most hyper-segregated group in the country. The fact that black killers tend to kill other black people is not refutation of American racism, but the ultimate statement of American racism
Does Lamar get this? Some listeners worry not. Shortly after the track hit the Internet, BuzzFeed's Joel D. Anderson tweeted that "the last line of the new Kendrick joint is the same jazz Darren Wilson supporters were spitting at protesters," referencing the man who shot Michael Brown. Today, Stereo Williams writes at The Daily Beast that it's a "great song" that's "derailed by a misguided intention … If there is a hypocrisy, doesn’t it fall on those who would use gang violence to silence public outrage against oppression while ignoring the fact that the gang violence is also a product of that same racist oppression?”
There are other interpretations, though. Complex's Justin Charity hears Lamar as "wondering whether police brutality and gang violence aren't overlapping tragedies." And at Genius.com, Michael Chabon (yes, that Michael Chabon) suggests that the final couplet makes listeners “consider the possibility that ‘hypocrisy’ is, in certain situations, a much more complicated moral position than is generally allowed, and perhaps an inevitable one.” This reading lines up with the rest of Lamar’s output, from that “dead fucking center” lyric I mentioned to the narratives on 2012's Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, where he continually insists that he’s the good kid of the album title even as he's dragged into a world of drugs and crime. Ambiguity and internal conflict are as much his muses as inner-city life is.
But those muses don’t have to be separate, and the most interesting interpretation of “The Blacker the Berry” comes from fusing them. Lamar has long rapped about loving yourself in a culture that degrades you, but he's exploring that theme more and more lately, it seems. His recent single “I” was a jaunty self-affirmation that struck some listeners as corny and others—Grammy voters—as charming. Though the song's Isley Brothers sample makes it seem breezy, Lamar has said in interviews that the track's supposed to be a tool to use against one's own self-hatred; it's not an expression of contentment, but of struggle.
“The Blacker the Berry” is a grimmer take on the same idea. The narrator of the song wants to show off black pride as fiercely as he can, and yet the memory of his past actions are getting in the way. Listen to the whole song (“you made me a killer” he snarls at the end of the first verse) or to the rest of his catalogue, and it seems pretty clear Lamar would say that those actions in large part were caused by a racist system. But that doesn’t change the fact that they happened, and that they come to mind when he talks about black lives mattering. The Lamar of "The Blacker the Berry" may not be a hypocrite, but the world has made him to feel like one.
Even if I'm not getting Lamar's intention's exactly right, it seems safe to assume that he's not trying to lecture anybody. After all, “The Blacker the Berry” ends with a question: Why? The rest of the lyrics do provide an answer, and it’s a painful one.