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.