If you don’t like what you’re hearing from Kendrick Lamar, just wait a while. Compton, California’s self-crowned King of New York never changes his essence, but multiple voices and multiple perspectives are central to what he does, from the larger-than-life braggadocio of “Backseat Freestyle” to the internal conflict of “Swimming Pools (Drank).” When King Kendrick released his most recent single, “i,” last year, the smoothy approachable Isley Brothers-based instrumental and radically self-affirming theme divided longtime listeners. When he told Billboard last month, in regard to the recent police-involved killings, that the solution “starts from within,” he didn’t do himself any more favors.
Lamar’s latest studio track — and first new material of any kind since debuting on an untitled new song on The Colbert Report late last year — is a sharp pivot. If “i” was intended to woo new audiences, it must’ve worked, considering Sunday it finally won him first two Grammys (for Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance). “The Blacker the Berry,” by contrast, brooks no compromise with those who might not accept Lamar at his most intense. He reaches a gravellier lower register, rapping furiously over murky, turbulent backing. It’s quotable after quotable, though few of them would be polite enough to reprint unexpurgated in, say, The New York Times. It’s a song we’ll almost certainly be considering again at the end of 2015, and it’s a powerful promise for Lamar’s long-hinted follow-up to 2012′s good kid, m.A.A.d. city.
It’s also a track rich with historical resonances. The title alludes to the landmark 1929 novel of the same name by Wallace Thurman, a Harlem Renaissance-era examination of skin color within the African-American community. More recently, that title was used by the Georgia rap duo Field Mob on “Blacker the Berry,” from 2006′s Light Poles and Pine Trees. Given that Lamar has previously covered Tupac Shakur, he might also have in mind Shakur’s use of the phrase on, as Billboard notes, 1993′s community-analyzing anthem “Keep Ya Head Up.”
Other associations on “The Blacker the Berry” are more recent. Producer Boi-1da is a Canadian most closely associated with Drake, who’s often pitted in the media as a Lamar rival. Boi-1da’s work these days ranges from Jay Z to Tinashe to Lecrae, but one of his signatures has been the influence of Jamaican dancehall, and that recurs here. Dancehall performer Assassin, who sings the defiant hook, previously appeared on Kanye West‘s own challenging 2013 opus, Yeezus.
Outside of collaborators, another reference on the album could be ripped from the headlines. “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015,” Lamar raps repeatedly on “The Blacker the Berry,” with a different meaning each time. By the song’s end, he flips this in a way that dovetails with his contentious Billboard comments: “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? / When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me? Hypocrite!” This comes after Pharrell‘s dancers put their hands up at the Grammys, in a reference to the Michael Brown shooting. The same event ended with Common and John Legend performing a song, “Glory,” that connects the marches in Ferguson, Missouri, after Brown’s death with Martin Luther King Jr.’s marches.
Lamar isn’t the first person to debate how much racial disadvantage in the United States might be cultural rather than structural. Former Times music critic Kelefa Sanneh has a must-read piece on this uncomfortable tradition in last week’s issue of The New Yorker; its conclusions suggest Lamar is probably being too hard on his old community. Here, though, in character, he clearly doesn’t care what I might think, and that’s part of what makes “The Blacker the Berry” so thrilling.