Note: for the purposes of the first listening post, I’ll be discussing the album version of “i” and not the shorter single version including a different vocal performance unless I specifically reference the single.

Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly released in 2015, a year that doesn’t seem very spectacular to many. However, this is just three years before murder rates tripled in Compton, LA, Lamar’s hometown and the main audience of the song.

This song serves as an anthem to the people of Compton, to which Lamar feels are beaten down, discouraged, and lacking self-confidence. Compton is well known for its gang violence, particularly the conflict between the Crips and the Bloods, two rivaling gangs portrayed by the color blue and red, respectively. It’s also home to popular 80s rap group N.W.A. The group consisted of some of the most popular pioneers of rap as we know it now, including Eazy-E, Ice Cube, MC Ren, and DJ Yella, and were the subject of their own biopic regarding their development despite Compton’s crime, poverty and police brutality. The biopic, Straight Outta Compton was released in 2015, less than a year after the release of “i” as a single and just five months after the release of To Pimp a Butterfly, the album containing “i.” The single version of the song also features reference to gang violence, with two people making heart symbols with their fingers, one dressed in blue and the other in red. Lamar grew up in Compton, though, and witnessed the violence and crime his entire life. However, he felt in 2015 that it was most relevant to create this body of work, in which he attempts to uplift his community through helping them to recognize their importance and their value.

What’s also important about the song is that, while it’s hip-hop, it samples the Isley Brothers’ “That Lady” as the entire beat in and of itself on the single version. On the album version, the Isley Brothers are still credited, though it seems as though there are newly recorded drums and bass over the song, keeping with the original feel of “That Lady” while providing a punchier sound. The Isley Brothers are Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members, with a career lasting more than six decades. They were most well-known in the 1960s-1970s, with other massively successful songs, some of which going on to also become instantly-recognized hip-hop samples, such as Ice Cube’s sample of “Footsteps in the Dark” in his song “Today Was a Good Day.” The Isley Brothers’ funk-soul sound helped shape the genre of its era and is an important part of Black musical culture. This is incredibly similar to Kendrick Lamar, whose jazz, funk, and R&B influence have created a distinct style that is incredibly important to the rap community. As a genre, rap started as means of Black protest, and the status of “i” as a hip-hop song is not only intentional, but crucial to reaching its audience of Black citizens of Compton, a city incredibly important to the hip-hop community.

There are several writers credited on “i” including the Isley Brothers, though Lamar is responsible for the lyrics and message of the song, whereas the other contributors were more involved in production and instrumentation. The song features Lamar proclaiming in its chorus the phrase “I love myself.” The song attests to the ways in which you can only come to love the world after you learn to love yourself, opening with the lines “I done been through a whole lot / Trials, tribulations, but I know God / the Devil wanna put me in a bow tie / Pray that the holy water don’t go dry.” This line acknowledges the struggles that so many people of Compton have experienced and the ways in which they often turn to religion to absolve them of their struggles, though ultimately their religious hope doesn’t offer much more than its name suggests. This, in turn, is a critique of mindset: the ways in which the Black community (of Compton but also generally) tend to view themselves: in negative and non-selfish ways. This brings us to the title of the song. “i” serves as a personal pronoun, carrying with it a strong personal history and all of the ways in which one perceives and carries themself. The first verse strives to address the roots of the community’s problems with self-confidence and empowerment:

“They wanna say it’s a war outside, bomb in the street
Gun in the hood, mob of police
Rock on the corner with a line for the fiend
And a bottle full of lean and a model on the scheme, uh
These days of frustration keep y’all on tuck and rotation (Come to the front, yeah)”

In this, we see Lamar reference the excuses that outsiders often use in regards to Black communities to explain away their struggles, blaming it on things like addiction and gun control when discrimination is often the root of the problem. In this, he states “These days of frustration” are responsible for people’s desires to stay high to cope with these issues (with “tuck and rotation” referring to smoking marijuana). In a community like Compton, one can see how easy it might be for people to blame gang violence for the community’s struggles when the issue isn’t only much deeper, but also negatively affects Black people’s self esteem in their conditioned beliefs that they must not be deserving of as much as others by virtue of their skin tone.