The Irony, Grief & Terror in Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker The Berry”
Kendrick Lamar reminds me that I like simple, neat art more than I realize. I can rant about the silliness of ignorant rap and mock the “DIPSET” chant but guess what? When Bobby Shmurda says he wants hos and money, he’s being pretty straightforward — which makes it easy to categorize his music and/or ignore it altogether.
Peeling apart Kendrick’s songs, however, requires humility. It’s a fool’s errand to sift through his music, so anyone who publicly pontificates on the excellent and haunting “The Blacker The Berry” would be remiss if they didn’t admit they don’t know everything he’s trying to say in this track (not to mention his incredibly layered album, To Pimp a Butterfly). I’ve heard it said, “you’re not supposed to listen to your knee, jerks, you listen with your ears.” We can only try.
“Berry” starts with a straightforward proclamation of guilt: “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015.” The song’s suspenseful like a well-paced David Fincher film, carried by an unnerving Boi-1da arrangement that would fit wonderfully in Fincher’s scores. “Unnerving” is also a good descriptor of “Berry”’s subject matter throughout. Kendrick angrily tells his unnamed enemy — an oppressive, apparently white hierarchy — to “F*ck your friendship.” That’s the tame part. The harder pill to swallow is the unveiling of white America’s worst prejudices unspoken in polite company, with allusions to Jim Crow-era coonery as Kendrick boasts in his nappy hair, “big d*ck,” and broad nose so his audiences knows why they can “f*ck ya friendship”: “You hate me don’t you/you hate my people/your plan is to terminate my culture/you’re f*cking evil!”
Kendrick is too ambitious, however, to leave the listener with a passionate sociology lecture. In verse three, he demonstrates why we should see him as a hypocrite. In a Shyamalan-esque one-eighty (though one that’s far more artful than After Earth), attention is drawn away from the white man and his system to the black man and his apparent vices. What are these vices? Kendrick gladly enumerates exaggerated stereotypes of outspoken, defiant black identity:
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
Finally, he cashes in on the breadcrumbs of remorse from the song’s beginning and reveals the apparent vanity of his Afrocentric self-esteem:
So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?
When gangbanging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?
A straightforward listen would interpret Kendrick himself as guilty, but there’s nothing straightforward about “Berry,” so we won’t settle there. Besides, his uniquely transparent and philosophical catalog gives armchair musicologists like myself a clearer window into his world.
A faithful K.dot fan would know he’s always been critical of what he perceives as black dissonance and dysfunction, much of it from his Compton background. In his heralded Overly Dedicated mixtape, Kendrick deftly mocks gang life by adopting a gangsta rap persona, and closes his alter-ego’s bombastic boasts with “ignorance is bliss.” Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, the Dr. Dre co-signed breakout album, is an exposition on the tension between living an upright, faithful life and falling prey to thug life’s youthful allure. Pick any song and you’ll hear an observation of upholding religious values in the hood, an exploration of the urban decay that marked Kendrick’s childhood, or a veiled commentary on the follies of banging on the block. You’ll also hear that in spite of everything he’s claimed to have seen, either literally or through proxy of his inner city personifications, he’s not a thug.
So if Kendrick isn’t a thug, then who is he speaking for when he talks about killing a “nigga blacker than me”?
We’ve established he’s no banger in real life. He’s not even a fake banger. This isn’t 50 Cent’s cartoonish “I’ll Still Kill” after releasing two platinum albums and moving to suburban Connecticut. He has utter disdain for gang life and the havoc it wreaks. “Berry” isn’t a testimonial, not in the way we’re familiar with. It seems best to understand his alter-ego as a personification of a broader black identity he shares with a community, an identity endemic to black America that’s comfortable with protesting the unjust homicide of a child while killing other black children without remorse. It’s as if he’s telling his audience — especially his black audience — “shame on you for grieving when you do the same thing under a different name.”
This conclusion grieves me. But why should it bother you? Start with Kendrick’s false parallel between the intra-community black crime he understandably condemns and the rhythms of culture, policy, and perspective that killed #TrayvonMartin, #MichaelBrown, #EricGarner, #AkaiGurley, #JohnCrawford, #RenishaMcBride, #TamirRice, and my heart can’t take another dead black person’s trending hashtag. It’s quite the stretch to compare the death of an unarmed teen with the scrums of gang life. And I’m angered by the insinuation that any facet of “Berry”’s composite black identity bears the responsibility; Trayvon’s blood isn’t on your hands or mine, and it ain’t on Tookie’s either.
Lest you think I’m proof texting a rap song, consider what Kendrick said in an interview with Billboard published a few days before “Berry” leaked:
I wish somebody would look in our neighborhood knowing that it’s already a situation, mentally, where it’s f–ked up. What happened to [Michael Brown] should’ve never happened. Never. But when we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within. Don’t start with just a rally, don’t start from looting — it starts from within.
I can’t imagine what Michael Brown Sr. must have thought when Kendrick suggested that Michael Brown Jr. — or any of the people who respected Mike’s life enough to get maced, tased, assaulted, jailed, fined, and slandered by the press — really needed to “start from within.” I wish Kendrick respected the remarkably peaceful, nonviolent acts of love shown for dead black men and women that started in Ferguson’s streets.
Kendrick wants “u” to love yourself, and “i” love him for it, even as I long for a fully realized understanding of what black self-love might look like. As essayist and Twitter personality Shrill opined about the politics of respectability:
[It’s] a false narrative, but it maintains its power because, like so many powerful lies, it sits adjacent to the truth and set slightly askew: they are looking for a way to turn you into a nigger, and if necessary, they will find one. You will never leave a body pure enough to not be judged complicit in its own destruction.
Shrill’s take makes Kendrick’s lament over the “nigga” blacker than him unintentionally ironic. Whether “Berry”’s fictional victim was wearing navy Crip colors or his university blue, a “post-racial” America can swiftly identify their inner n-word.
Even so, “Berry” is brilliant because Kendrick’s talent eclipses his worldview. “Berry” is uniquely terrifying: not in an Odd Future-esque shock rap sense but because Kendrick expertly paces his lyrics towards a sobering end. It also chills beyond mere artistry and its twist. It’s chilling because he reflects how young black American men must feel if they are to ever grapple with their dissonant behavior and beliefs in a meaningful way. Like Kendrick, they love themselves except when they don’t.
You know what else is scary? America doesn’t love them either. And if Kendrick struggles to find sufficient reason to love himself, and the world around him sure as hell doesn’t, then who’s going to love him?
I’m not certain if Kendrick knows he needs to respected and loved without condition, but I think he knows that he needs to know. That deep longing is exemplified in the pondering of “Kush & Corinthians (His Pain),” a deep cut off 2011’s Section.80. Kendrick asks:
How far is heaven? Let’s see
Is it in the clouds like they said it would be?
I wonder when I die will he give me receipts?
I wonder will the eyes of the Lord look at me?
Look at me, look at me, I’m a loser, I’m a winner
I’m good, I’m bad, I’m a Christian, I’m a sinner
I’m humble, I’m loud, I’m righteous, I’m a killer
Like Shrill said, look hard enough, and you’ll find enough reasons to see yourself as a nig-… as a loser. Or a hypocrite, like “Berry”’s nameless killer. No one could possibly count their iniquities without their knees buckling in remorse. Thankfully, the right of black lives to be respected isn’t merited by measure of moral consistency or the fleeting promise of white approval, but rather, was granted at birth and embedded in their person. As a man constantly wrestling with his faith, Kendrick himself may have even better news for why his own black life matters. The eyes of the Lord aren’t looking to tally losses and wins, but are searching for those covered by his Son’s atoning blood.
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