“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?