“The Blacker the Berry”: Kendrick Lamar’s Complex Portrait of American Race Relations

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Yesterday brought the greatest musical gift of the year so far: a new Kendrick Lamar song! It’s called “The Blacker the Berry,” and it’s a striking piece of work, built around verses that provide an unflinchingly bleak assessment of race relations in America circa 2015. It’s related in the first person, and at first listen it seems to stand in direct contrast to the upbeat nature of “i,” the first single from his still untitled third record. Where that song was defiantly positive, based around the repeated assertion that “I love myself,” this track seethes with anger and resentment.

As ever with Lamar, though, “The Blacker the Berry” is more nuanced than it seems on first listen. For a start, one shouldn’t be too eager to conflate one of Lamar’s first-person narrators with the rapper himself — throughout his career, he’s created narratives from the perspective of other characters, and also from other versions of himself (the brash, insecure braggadocio of young Kendrick in “Backseat Freestyle,” for instance). If anything, this narrator sounds more like the one who relates the first verse of “Sing About Me/I’m Dying of Thirst,” the jaded gangbanger who’s reflecting on a life of violence and destruction.

There’s certainly plenty of violence and destruction to reflect on here, and the song’s shot through with a visceral anger at its ultimate source: the way that the structure of American society continues to oppress African Americans. Notably, though, Lamar introduces each verse with the assertion, “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015” — although the reasons for this remain unclear until the song’s very last lines, where the lyric is given a twist that seems to redefine its entire meaning: “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street/ When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?” The narrator’s hypocrisy is that he’s complaining about white oppression while at the same time being an instrument of oppression himself.

The most superficial reading, then, is that this is a song about black-on-black crime, something that would perhaps tie into the controversial interview that Lamar gave to Billboard last month: “But when [black people] don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect [white people] to respect us? It starts from within. Don’t start with just a rally, don’t start from looting — it starts from within.” On Twitter, Azealia Banks called this comment the “dumbest shit I’ve ever heard a black man say.”

Banks wasn’t the only one to take issue with the interview, which probably did Lamar no favors in the PR department. But then, it’s not exactly the first time he’s been critical of aspects of black culture. Pretty much all of good kid, m.A.A.d city is about initially embracing and ultimately rejecting the gangbanger lifestyle — about, as his mother puts it in the album’s closing monologue, “[rising] from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person.” The key point is also found in that monologue, though, where Kendrick’s mother exhorts him to “give back with your words of encouragement, and that’s the best way to give back to your city.”

If you look at the song in that context, it takes on a different complexion, one in which no one comes out well. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Lamar endorses his narrator’s sentiments, related as they are from the perspective of experience and constant disillusionment: “Been feeling this way since I was 16, came to my senses/ You never liked us anyway, fuck your friendship, I meant it/ I’m African-American, I’m African… My hair is nappy, my dick is big, my nose is round and wide/ You hate, me don’t you?/ You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture.”

It’s not like the song’s twist invalidates any of this; and indeed, the more you think about it, the more the twist reveals itself as primarily a postscript to the verses’ observations, rather than anything that undermines them. The song is a portrait of systematic oppression in all its manifestations, including the way in which those victimized by the system tend to pass on that oppression themselves, just as abused children can grow up to be abusers. Lamar’s certainly condemning this tendency, but that shouldn’t overshadow the oppression that breeds it in the first place. It’s like the dark flip-side to the positivity of “i” — a song that demands self-love as a counterbalance to oppression, rather than the perpetuation of violence. In this respect, the song is doing exactly what Lamar’s always done: exhorting people to be better, balancing hard truths with compassion and encouragement.