Last week, Kendrick Lamar dropped “i,” his brand new single that’s been two years in the making, and it was met with mixed reactions.
Some heard strains of Outkast in the song, while others thought it was more Taylor Swift than “Rosa Parks.” The dominating opinion, at least online, seems to be that the song (propped up by a sample of The Isley’s “Who’s That Lady?”) is a little underwhelming, especially after his slash-and-burn technique on “Control.” The new song took everyone by surprise, and even Kendrick seemed to scramble for a defense amidst the uproar: “I want to retract the word ‘single,’” he said Friday in an interview with Power 106’s Jeff G. “ I want to call things I release ‘statements’ because this music is something that the world has to hear and it’s not only for me, but it’s for the stress.” So “i” is not the single…?
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It might be that he’s still a little hurt over the Grammy’s incident with Macklemore. The backhanded text he got from the Seattle rapper may be the stimulus for this new pop sound in the hopes of never losing to someone as corny as Macklemore ever again. Kendrick wants world domination, so his fans will let songs like this slide in order for him to get that spot. People have also pointed out that singles like “Swimming Pools” and “Poetic Justice” didn’t signify the overall direction of good kid, m.A.A.d. city, so we shouldn’t jump to judge the sound of his next album based on the first single. But there’s a third line of defense that makes no sense at all, and it’s called the Context Defense.
This is the basis of the Context Defense: “Wait until we hear the song in the context of the album. Then it’ll make sense.”
What the hell does this mean? In art, you learn it’s often the colors surrounding another color that bring the latter to life; in that sense, the context of the whole adds to the beauty of the individual. But colors need each other to blend and become new, more vibrant variations. Songs don’t. An album is simply a collection of individual songs. If each track doesn’t stand on its own, then on what basis can you say the album is good?
The effect of sequencing relies upon how the tracklist of the album is ordered. “Scenario” anchors Low End Theory, just like “Suicidal Thoughts” does for Ready To Die and “Regrets” does for Reasonable Doubt. Move these songs to any other place on the album, and the LP might be thrown off, but the songs stay the same. To hear “Scenario” at the very end of Tribe’s LP tips the scales of how you perceive the album as a whole, but not how you perceive that specific song. It’s an amazing finisher, but put it anywhere else on the album and the song is just as good. It’s the album’s formula that changes, not that of the song.
When you go to a restaurant and you eat an appetizer that isn’t too great, do you say, “In the context of this meal, the appetizer makes sense”? No, because the appetizer has nothing to do with the entrée or dessert. And what if “i” ends up not being included on the album, like what happened to the first single for good kid, m.A.A.d. city, “Recipe”? Can we then say, “This sounds good in the context of the leftover bonus tracks that weren’t good enough to make the album”?
In fact, context of any sort is never a justification for the judgment of a song. Journalism and comments from the artist can add dimensions to our understanding of a song or an artist, but it can’t fundamentally alter the essence of the music. Intention has nothing to do with reception. We can’t know what Kendrick meant to do with this new song; all there is to know about a song while you’re listening to it is what you can hear. Anything else is extraneous. If you learned that Kendrick rapped his verses while floating upside down in a spaceship, would it change the rhymes themselves, or just your perception of them?
If you’re a fan of Kendrick Lamar and you feel the need to defend “i,” the Context Defense isn’t doing you any favors. It’s a backhanded way of saying the song doesn’t stand up by itself. Better to be honest with yourself than shuffle for excuses. But who knows? Maybe this piece will only make sense in the context of other reviews about Kendrick’s new single.