After depicting the streets of South Central L.A. up close through his personal iPhone camera, Kendrick Lamar has widened the focus on "i." Released before breakfast on Tuesday, and an online hit by lunchtime, the positive heatseeker is the L.A. rapper's most overt flirtation with the mainstream to date. (And a Minneapolis-bred producer is in on it.)
And why not go for Red State fandom? With 2012's Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, he's already got a platinum rap album that everyone with a working ear and a moderately cultured soul knew should've beaten Macklemore at the Grammys. His "Control" invasion proved the filthiest guest verse in recent memory, and Pitchfork boosters got him a thrilling headlining slot at their festival this past summer. Especially with Kanye West stuck on a motorcycle or yelling/not-yelling at fans in wheelchairs, now it's time for Kendrick to talk to the nation.
In terms of charts, Lamar's "Swimming Pools (Drank)" reached number 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 and he can take partial credit for propping up A$AP Rocky's "Fuckin' Problems" (with Drake and 2 Chainz) to number eight. You'd think his Dr. Dre collaboration "The Recipe" would've fared better as the feel-good frolic through the summer of 2012. Despite its infectious beat, nicked from Twin Sister, the "women, weed, and weather" subject matter didn't cross over.
Here's why "i" should fare far better nationally than anything Lamar has done prior. (Don't sleep, Twin Cities radio programmers.)
The Beat (Produced by South Minneapolis Talent) Kills
DJ Khalil protégé Columbus "Rahki" Smith -- from here, but based in L.A. -- has created beats for 50 Cent and Eminem, and is credited on Good Kid, m.A.A.d City. For "i," he's professed the sole credit for its production, but mega daps are in order to the Isley Brothers' guitarist Ernie Isley. His murderous, pedal-powered riff originally arrived in the Bros' '73 hit "That Lady" and was later sampled for the fourth section of the Beastie Boys' epic "B-Boy Bouillabaisse." As we come to expect with Kendrick, this is a piece of music that swerves, evolves, and arrives at unexpected addresses.
After a bellowing intro echoing tried-and-true speech sampling bombast, the Southern-fried thump begging for "moar cowbell" takes over. Then at 2:45, it's a bass-brawling detour that'll please fans of OutKast's "Wheelz of Steel" and further cement Lamar's frequently received comparisons to everything ATLiens. Funk bass strikes harder on the song's outro, and sweetens the thought of Kendrick doing it again with a live band, like the one backing him last summer at Pitchfork Festival. Paging Ernie Isley for the Grammys 2015!
It's Lyrically Uplifting Without Killing the Vibe
Remember when [pretty much every rapper ever] tried to channel their previous rap agility into a positive, feel-good anthem that their grandmothers could listen to -- and it turned out amazing? For the most part, I don't either. Aside from guys like Kanye West, a few Rhymesayers, and Andre 3000, a rapper trying to soften their aesthetic a little usually ends up getting out the Taco Bell sour cream gun and pulling the trigger 'til it goes click. Kendrick Lamar avoids these pitfalls without coming off as cold.
By now, it's no shock to hear Lamar step into character with his words. "Peace to fashion police/ I wear my heart on my sleeve," he declares. With a high, Southern patois resembling Three Stacks just a tad, he speaks of folks lacking "confident" instead of "confidence" and plays out the days of frustration and depression with as much singing ("Fe fi fo fum") as rapping. The easy hook remains "I love myself," but there's a rapid-fire sub-hook underneath for those blessed with breath control to lock step. The message lets the warfare decried attach to the crisis most familiar to the listener -- be it Ferguson or Fallujah.
Teased in mid-September, the single's cover art shows men dressed in Blood and Crip colors forming hearts with their hands. This is only one song, and it is attached as a single off an as-yet-untitled album still progressing with no set release date. But what a way to begin. As it's said at the outset, "If you read between the lines, you'll learn how to love one another."