'The Blacker the Berry' ; Unraveling the Riddle That Is Kendrick Lamar's Provocative Hit Song

By James, Marlon | International New York Times, March 12, 2016 | Go to article overview

'The Blacker the Berry' ; Unraveling the Riddle That Is Kendrick Lamar's Provocative Hit Song


James, Marlon, International New York Times


Who gets to say how black people see themselves?

Nearly every rap album has that one moment you can't get with. If you're a woman, there are at least five. It's been almost a year since I first heard Kendrick Lamar's "To Pimp a Butterfly," an ambitious, spellbinding, masterpiece of a rap album, and it took me nearly a year to like it. The main reason: the 13th song, "The Blacker the Berry." Up to that moment, musically if not lyrically, "Butterfly" is almost a quiet storm of an album, a record that gazes more inward than out, even as it tackles institutional racism and hood politics. Then comes "The Blacker the Berry," all booming drums and NWA-style rage. For the first time, homeboy is furious, as if he has just realized that the only response to the stereotype of the angry black man is to get angrier. It's the part where I thought I would be most engaged, but it turned into the part that locked me out.

"Butterfly" arrived at an unprecedented moment in pop. Black artists, as they conquered the mainstream, were getting even blacker. Kanye West might have gotten there first with "New Slaves" and "Black Skinhead," and now even Beyonce is place-checking New Orleans and image-checking the Black Panthers. But Kanye was still speaking to the white gaze, the hatred and desire in it, and taking revenge by getting all black-sex-machine on somebody's white wife. "Butterfly" is instead Toni Morrison circa "Sula": not looking outside for either validation or opposition. Black love, black empowerment, black history and black wisdom are explored so deeply and intelligently that you assume that conservative media fetish, black-on-black crime, will never show up. But then, in the third verse of "The Blacker the Berry," when Kendrick is waxing lyrical on Trayvon Martin's death, it does. All of a sudden "Blacker" becomes a song about black accountability while black men are being murdered and the implausible logic of slamming two ideas into the same thought. I was right there with him until that third verse.

You can't be a hip-hop head and not be hit by "The Blacker the Berry." It brings the boom-bap from the get-go, dropping funk on the one, like an update of the drum break that opens NWA's album "Straight Outta Compton." And even though I was tired of people's mapping anger onto blackness, Lamar's detonation of rage and wit was (and is) unmatched in hip-hop. He grabs at stereotypes as if they're slipping out of his fingers ("My hair is nappy," he says. "My nose is round and wide") and throws them right back at whoever would deploy them. He's not even rapping so much as spitting fire, jumping on a line, retracing it, firing it back at you, like the boxer Jack Johnson when he said: "I'm black, they never let me forget it. I'm black, all right, I'll never let them forget it." Kendrick fuels his "I'm black" with the knowledge that ain't a damn thing changed.

The second verse widens the focus and ups the power. Part of the thrill as a listener is hearing him go there, go further than anybody else. ("Church me with your fake prophesizing / that I'mma be just another slave in my head / Institutionalized manipulation and lies.") He takes church, the black community's own sacred cow, and minces it, turning the noun into a verb that means "to spread deceit."

The last couplet on the second verse echoes the first, with a crucial change: "You sabotage my community, makin' a killin' / you made me a killer," turns into, "How can I tell you I'm making a killin'? / You made me a killer" -- and the different spin on "killing" weighs a ton. In the first instance, exploitation and indifference make him a killer. In the second, his success comes from America's obsession with his assuming he looks like one. It was almost unbearable to anticipate what this prophet of rage was going to drop next.

And then he dropped it.

I could feel the verse pulling away from me as soon as he got halfway into it. It turned into call-and-response, me and this third verse, which went a little something like this:

"It's funny how Zulu and Xhosa might go to war. …

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