Wednesday, 27 May 2015

The Blacker the Berry - Kendrick Lamar

Rusty's waltz wednesday presents: The Blacker the Berry, by Kendrick Lamar

Boy has it been a while! Sometimes you just gotta give the people what they want, so rusty's waltz wednesday is back, again.

Kendrick Lamar:

I remember when I was 18 or so and getting heavier in to hip hop - feeling unimpressed by contemporary raps that weren't G-funk - thinking "eventually some rapper will come along, around my age, who's been rapping his whole life who will just blow everyone away". I think kendrick lamar is that guy. Just listen to a variety of his songs and you'll hear the depth of his style. Unlike so many charlatans who have turned their mediocre rap skills into fame, this guy's verses are long, lyrics complex, and vocal sound varied in both timbre (gritty to nasal), volume, and pitch.

His last album was called Good Kid Madd city, and is a great listen, especially if you listen to it as a complete work as he weaves a narrative of his 16 year old self.

His most recent album came out a few months ago, titled To Pimp a Butterfly. This is a more serious work, reflective of both a more serious time (Black lives matter, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner), and an older maturing Kendrick. On to the song.

Aside from the "conscious"-heavy subject matter, one of the most striking things about this album is the musical freedom it employs, reminiscent of works by artists of an older generation like blackalicious, early Outkast, or Black Starr. It has moments of funk, soul, and jazz blended seemlesly together with Kendricks raps.

The song:

For the record, thid is the third hip-hop song on waltzwednesday, but comes with a caveat: The song doesn't actually hit a 3/4-multiple time signature until the end. No matter though since anyone listening to this track will undoubtedly hear the part, and since virgin radio would never air this song (prove me wrong, richard branson, whoever you are), the end won't be lopped off.

I hear four conflicting themes: the burden of racial prejudice, pride in his heritage despite the former, black-on-black violence that is a reality where he grew up (by "reality" I mean that it's impossible for me to fathom having any of my friends killed in gang violence), and police violence against black people.

Now, much has been written about this song, summarized here. Briefly, and for the sake of describing the lead-up to the 6/8 (waltz * 2) portion of this song: he foreshadows "I'm the biggest hypocrite in 2015" at the beginning of every verse, and climaxes in the bottom half of the last verse, after describing gang warfare in compton, only to reveal his hypocrisy:

So don't matter how much I say I like to preach with the Panthers Or tell Georgia State "Marcus Garvey got all the answers" Or try to celebrate February like it's my B-Day Or eat watermelon, chicken, and Kool-Aid on weekdays Or jump high enough to get Michael Jordan endorsements Or watch BET cause urban support is important So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me? Hypocrite!
Whereupon the rhythm completely changes from a bass-heavy drum-machine heavy minor key to a smooth jazz in 6/8 led by overlapping sample vocals and a silky (tenor?) saxophone and syncopated drumming. It's a powerful switch, as if after explaining his hypocrisy there was some cathartic release. Listen to the whole song for the full effect of the waltz*2 portion which begins at 4:33.

It's my experience that so many people who are hip-hop heads listen almost exclusively to hip-hop, so it strikes me that for some people it's one of the rare occasions they might listen to something in a non 4/4 beat, even though kendrick doesn't rap over it, which I hope he eventually does.

Until next time, god bless.