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Earlier this semester, after months of silence, King Kendrick finally dropped his new single. The world lis­tened to his new offering. The birds sat silent on their branches out of respect for the king. And when the last echo of Kendrick’s voice had faded, the world tilted its head to one side and uttered bemused “huh.”

Let me explain, starting with the song itself. The new single bounces over a sample from The Isley Brothers’ 1973 hit “Who’s That Lady,” and con­tem­po­rizes the funk-rock fusion with thick bass hits and jittery snares. Over this track, Kendrick spits about self-love and over­coming neg­a­tivity with his usual dex­terous flow. The lyrical com­plexity that rap fans have come expect from Lamar becomes abridged here to match the straight­forward message. Kendrick calls it “blatant, bold, simple.”

Cer­tainly, “i” sur­prised the world. After the initial bemusement dis­si­pated, lis­teners scrambled to form opinions on what they’d just heard. In the wake of this scramble, con­sid­ering the main responses to “i” reveals the reca­pit­u­lation of a nar­rative often applied to rappers, the “he-went-pop” nar­rative.

“Brother Kendrick,” say the purists, “the authentic Compton emcee just beginning to resus­citate rap with old-school albums like ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city,’ has gone pop.” So the nar­rative goes. It is a recycled nar­rative, a nar­rative of decline. It plays out with each iter­ation of hip hop’s “next savior.”

The tra­jectory of the he-went-pop nar­rative follows this general arc: a young, tal­ented artist breathes life into the dying craft of rap, giving fans and critics a ray of hope for the genre. However, after reaching a certain critical mass of fame and shifting his style, the artist “goes pop” and becomes a vacuous puppet of the great enter­tainment-indus­trial complex, à la Jay‑Z. The purists weep and rend their gar­ments and prophecy a hip hop future pop­u­lated by war­bling clones of Iggy Azalea.

Kendrick is simply the latest traitor figure in this nar­rative. Listing a few of his pre­de­cessors places him in esteemed company: Andre 3000, Dr. Dre, Eminem, and many others have endured this sort of backlash after devi­ating from their ear­liest musical aes­thetic.

The aes­thetic of “i” is cer­tainly a sur­prising departure from the gadfly grit of “good kid,” and the listener’s concern that Kendrick is spi­raling down into a Mack­le­morish sen­ti­men­talism grows with each rep­e­tition of the chorus.

Still, dear reader, let me reassure you that the voices responding to “i” do not belong uni­formly to haters. Others have responded pos­i­tively, arguing that the sim­plicity of the song is the natural end of Kendrick’s the­matic tra­jectory from “good kid, m.A.A.d city.” Having con­fronted his spir­itual demons and sweated out his toxic neu­roses, Kendrick finally emerges at a place of genuine spir­itual sta­bility and self-love in “i.” Fans with this under­standing of Kendrick’s work con­sider “i” a rev­o­lu­tionary new step in his career.

As soon as he released it, Kendrick himself awaited the det­o­nation of  “i” with a wry fore­knowledge of the backlash it would provoke. In an interview with New York City’s Hot 97, Kendrick gave his thoughts on the song’s mixed reception: “From the jump, I think the clas­si­fi­ca­tions of music [are] totally twisted, because now we have a gen­er­ation where, if you take an Isley Brothers sample — which is soul — the world con­siders it pop. And I knew that would come, of course. But as a leader in music, I want to revamp that whole thing and bring it back to its origins. I have to step out and say, soul is not pop. This is not that. This is black, and you kids gotta know this.”

Maybe Kendrick is just the latest artist claiming to bring authen­ticity — whatever that word means — back to rap. Maybe he is going pop. But I’d like to imagine that he’s dif­ferent. I’d like to imagine that he’s trying to show the world that rap still vibrates to the strings of soul, still res­onates with genuine hip hop culture.

Maybe “i” is Kendrick trying to show us some­thing by dis­guising a soul jam as a pop song to gently remind us of where this music comes from.

If this is the case, I think he’s right. We kids, we gotta know this.