Kendrick Lamar's New Single "The Blacker The Berry" Has Already Been Annotated By Novelist Michael Chabon
It’s barely been 24 hours since Kendrick Lamar dropped his latest single, the relentless and racially-charged “The Blacker The Berry,” but already the track is garnering accolades and mentions of greatness. In its searching inquiry of the struggles and contradictions of what it means to live a black life in 2015, Lamar’s single is a sign of his even more refined artistic approach. “The Blacker The Berry” demands that the rest of the culture not only listens, but contemplates and responds. One such response appeared today from Pulitzer prize-winning and best-selling novelist Michael Chabon, who utilized the annotation system of Genius (fka Rap Genius) to detail his deft interpretation of Kendrick’s searing verses.
Chabon’s notes on Kendrick focus in on the track’s final lines “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? / When gang banging make me kill a n**ga blacker than me? / Hypocrite!”–and dig into how such an ending reconfigures every single syllable that came before it. Chabon wrote:
In this final couplet, Kendrick Lamar employs a rhetorical move akin to—and in its way even more devastating than—Common’s move in the last line of “I Used to Love H.E.R.”: snapping an entire lyric into place with a surprise revelation of something hitherto left unspoken. In “H.E.R.”, Common reveals the identity of the song’s “her”—hip hop itself—forcing the listener to re-evaluate the entire meaning and intent of the song. Here, Kendrick Lamar reveals the nature of the enigmatic hypocrisy that the speaker has previously confessed to three times in the song without elaborating: that he grieved over the murder of Trayvon Martin when he himself has been responsible for the death of a young black man. Common’s “her” is not a woman but hip hop itself; Lamar’s “I” is not (or not only) Kendrick Lamar but his community as a whole. This revelation forces the listener to a deeper and broader understanding of the song’s “you”, and to consider the possibility that “hypocrisy” is, in certain situations, a much more complicated moral position than is generally allowed, and perhaps an inevitable one.
Chabon’s annotations make it a little easier to contemplate the narrative structure of “The Blacker The Berry,” which is loaded with Kendrick’s rebuffs of criticisms commonly slung at African American culture, but in its closing forces listeners to reckon with the fact that there’s also sins weighing on his own conscience. True, it’s but one famous author’s opinion, but the fact that such a sizable literary figure felt compelled to respond so quickly is another sign of just how much cultural power Lamar possesses.