Kendrick Lamar, the standout rapper who skyrocketed to fame after the release of good kid, m.A.A.d city in 2012, released a new single this morning. Racking up nearly 1 million plays in 6 hours, ‘I’ tackles the importance of self-love in a chaotic, complicated world. It’s the 2014 hip hop version of Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise.’
I is a very upbeat song. But its underlying theme is introspective: No matter what is going on around you, there is power in viewing yourself positively; regardless of the terrible things that happen in the world, you can look inside yourself to find the strength you need to survive.
I opens with a man praising Lamar for his talent and wisdom in front of a loud audience. “We got a young brother that stands for something. We got a young brother that believes in all of us,” the voice, presumably a pastor, says. “Brother Kendrick Lamar: he’s not a rapper, he’s a writer, he’s an author. And if you read between the lines, we’ll learn how to love one another. But you can’t do that, I said you can’t do that, without loving yourself first.”
“And I love myself,” repeats in the hook, reminding us of the history of black artists addressing a way to find positivity in the harrowing realities that plague black communities, just as Angelou did in that famous poem.
There are equally relevant — and more subtle — parallels between the two, too. Here’s a close read of the text:
Referring to a dirty double-mirror, Lamar’s first verse dives right into the challenges he’s faced in his lifetime. “I done been through a whole lot….so many motherfuckers wanna down me. But ain’t no nigga never drown me. In front of a dirty double-mirror they found me.” In other words, his past isn’t squeaky clean.
Still I Rise similarly centers on the imagery of dirt. “You may write me down in history, with your bitter, twisted lies. You may trod me in the very dirt. But still, like dust, I’ll rise.” Angelou associates dirt with human cruelty. The poem ends with a discussion of slavery, where being dragged through dirt symbolizes the dehumanization of a person.
In their unique voices, both pieces of art equate dirt with struggle. But, following this theme of finding positivity in a bleak world, both actively work to shrug off that dirt and emerge cleaner. Dirt signifies the starting point from which they gradually develop self-love. Like everyone else, the two artists grapple with their identities to determine how to love themselves.
I‘s second verse is a continuation of Lamar’s journey into loving himself by defying societal expectations. Lamar says, “Everybody looking at you crazy. What you gone do? Lift up your head and keep moving, Or let the paranoia haunt you? Peace to fashion police, I wear my heart on my sleeve, let the runway start.” He’s argues that everyone passes judgment about him, but he refuses to let people’s words and actions guide his behavior or shape who he is; he won’t let the fashion police determine what he can and cannot wear, so to speak.
Compare that to Angelou, who also questions what people expect her to do in response to trials and tribulations, and scoffs at their unsolicited opinions. “Did you want to see me broken? Bowed head and lowered eyes? Shoulders falling down like teardrops, weakened by my soulful cries? Does my haughtiness offend you? Don’t you take it awful hard, ‘cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines diggin’ in my own backyard.” Neither Angelou nor Lamar will succumb to the challenges people throw their way. Moving beyond the dirt of their past, the next step in their journey to self-love is being confident in themselves and not allowing society to define them.
The third verse of I describes how Lamar prevails despite external turmoil in the world. In the face of violence, questionable policing tactics (a possible reference to Ferguson), and the prevalence of substance abuse, Lamar remains firm in his self-conviction. “They wanna say there’s a war outside and a bomb in the street,” he sings, “and a gun in the hood and a mob of police, and a rock on the corner and a line full of fiends, and a bottle full of lean and a model on a scheme, yup…the strong in me, I still smile.”
Angelou takes the deeper, more historic lens but ultimately the two confront the same issues. They allude to systemic problems that haunt the communities they belong to, but consider self-love the best weapon to overcome those obstacles. “Out of the huts of history’s shame, I rise. Up from a past that’s rooted in pain, I rise. I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide, welling and swelling I bear in the tide. Leaving behind nights of terror and fear, I rise. Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear, I rise. Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave.” In the final state of their journey to self-love, the rapper and poet acknowledge the structural issues that have contributed to their inner conflict. But again, a positive sense of self is what they need — and what everyone needs — to succeed in addressing those issues.