Kendrick Lamar released the song “i” back in September and as a solid fan of the kid from Compton I’m still at loss for how I missed it. When I first heard the single a week ago I didn’t love it. It’s impossible to resist The Isley Brothers’ “That Lady,” sample but I thought the song was a little too pop-rap for my liking. That is, until I listened to the lyrics.
As Lamar goes through the various trials he’s experienced—including depression, the rough atmosphere of his neighborhood and the general stress of being Black and male—he always comes back to the phrase “I love myself.”
Once it hit me that a young Black male was rapping unapologetically about loving himself I pretty much fell out on the floor. We have one of the most prominent rappers of the last couple of years, who is still in the process of evolving and shaping his music and who he truly is as an artist, shouting to all who have ears that he loves himself. Despite the police brutality, the small chances of him ever making it out of his disadvantaged neighborhood and the stresses of newfound fame, he loves himself.
The lyric “let my mama know I’m free/give my story to the children as a lesson they can read” speaks to Lamar wanting freedom and a legacy to be proud of most of all. Even if he’s no longer on this side of glory, he wants his life and his journey to be an inspiration to those who come behind him, especially the message of self-love.
The image of millions of Black and Brown boys hearing this song and shouting “I LOVE MYSELF” is almost too powerful for my mind to grasp. How revolutionary is this message in the age of Ferguson, mass incarceration and the constant devaluing of Black lives? Kendrick Lamar using his platform to speak that no matter what he loves himself is something very rare in mainstream music, especially from the voices of Black males.
With much of mainstream rap being about ‘money, cars, and hos’ it is almost jolting to hear a rapper decide to profess that he values himself with no qualifiers or caveats. The fact that Lamar is able to do it without sacrificing any of his lyricism or artistry further proves that he’s here to stay.
Also, let’s get into the images for the single for a minute. The cover art for the song features two men, who appear to be gang members from the colored handkerchiefs hanging out of their back pockets, with their hands in the shape of a heart. This imagery is powerful because instead of throwing up their appropriate gang signs they’re using their hands to express love. Y’all Kendrick out here trying to save lives.
The video for “i” further reinforces the song as an anthem of carefree Black boyhood. As Lamar dances on rooftops and hangs out the window of a car driven by Ronald Isley, the vision of what Black freedom could look like manifests before your eyes.
It’s not sparkly and filled with folks of all colors frolicking through a field of equality and colorblindness. It’s a young Black male and his friends being free even in their less than desirable neighborhood. It’s Black people being happy and uninhibited, dancing and celebrating life as they should be.
Because what else is there to do when you love yourself?