Kendrick Lamar is full of himself. Growing up in a society that pushes down members of his community and destroys their self-esteem, he refuses to feel ashamed of who he his or where he comes from; and he wants to use his platform to spread his philosophy to the world around him.



Born and raised in the city of Compton in Los Angeles County, California, Kendrick has been dealing with violence and racism in his community his entire life. Coming to terms with this upbringing is one of the biggest themes of his 2015 Grammy-winning album, To Pimp a Butterfly, widely hailed a masterpiece by music lovers and critics alike, described by Billboard as a “politically charged” conscious rap album. This album came just two years before Lamar became a Pulitzer Prize winner. His song “i” serves as an anthem of self-empowerment to the people of his community who he feels are beaten down and discouraged.

The community of Compton wasn’t always victim to the gang violence, poverty, and systemic racism that it suffers from today, and Kendrick wants to celebrate his community for their individuality and worth in an attempt to uplift the people of Compton and restore their sense of purpose

Before the second World War and continuing several decades after its conclusion, the white working class suburb called Compton started to experience a drastic shift in demographic. As marketers highlighted the affordability of houses in what they were calling the “ideal home city” due to its proximity to Los Angeles County’s industrial centers, the Eastside Industrial District, and the Central Manufacturing District, thousands of midwest migrants flocked to Compton through the 1970s. With its status as a hopeful, rising middle-class community, the city attracted a more diverse population, the majority of which were working class Black families. But as more Black families moved to the up and coming city, white families started to flee.

In an interview with NPR’s Jonaki Mehta as part of a piece on the history of the city,  Juanita Sanchez described the change to the neighborhood she witnessed since her earliest days in Compton in the late 1950s, attributing the white flight to fear of people of color. This quickly devalued the houses that now sat in a now-primarily Black neighborhood, impeding Black families from creating generational wealth. This was common in transitional neighborhoods in LA and the rest of the United States.

Kendrick is acutely aware of these issues that hold back the Black community economically, and he combats the racist narrative that the struggles Black people experience are created not by systemic racism, but rather from outside sources that are uncontrollable–like addiction, gun violence, and lack of policing. He addresses this directly in the second verse of “i”.

“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”

His reference to a “rock on the corner” alludes to the War on Drugs and the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 80s. This crackdown on drug use across the US started during the Nixon administration and mostly affected Black inner-city residents. As scrutiny and harsher prosecution came to Compton for Black drug offenders where white offenders got off Scott-free, tensions rose between local police and the Black community following years of police brutality. Lamar isn’t the first rapper to take on these topics, and his activism calls back to the Compton-raised rap group NWA, one of the most influential rap groups to exist.



Compton has always been a theme in Kendrick’s work. Particularly, on “i” he begins to focus more on gang violence and the ways in which its destroyed his community. There are two versions of “i” that exist: the single release and the album release. The single release alludes to this. Its album cover includes two people dressed in all red and all blue outfits representing the bloods and the crips, respectively, forming a heart with their hands. These two gangs are notorious in the Compton area, and especially in the hip-hop community. He includes a passage of the song that resembles a description of gang violence and creates a scene in which he’s caught in the middle of an altercation, having to bob and weave from bullets and run into a building for shelter.

I went to war last night
With an automatic weapon, don’t nobody call a medic
I’ma do it ’til I get it right (Oh no)
I went to war last night (Night, night, night, night)
I’ve been dealing with depression ever since an adolescent
Duckin’ every other blessin’, I can never see the message
I could never take the lead, I could never bob and weave
From a negative and letting them annihilate me
And it’s evident I’m moving at a meteor speed
Finna run into a building, lay my body—

About at this moment as Kendrick describes running into a building to lay his body, the song is disrupted. It transitions to a spoken section in which he’s directly addressing the community he begins his song speaking to. We can infer this is his hometown, or something similar, because of the way the song starts, mentioning “coming all the way back” to Compton. In talking to the disgruntled crowd that seems to be agitated as a response to everything going on, he protests the violence and the pain and suffering with relentless optimism and reminds them to stand up for themselves.

(Offstage Argument)
Not on my, not while I’m up here
Not on my time, kill the music, not on my time
We could save that shit for the streets
We could save that shit, this for the kids, bro
2015, niggas tired of playin’ victim, dog
Niggas ain’t trying to play vic— TuTu, how many niggas we done lost?
How many— Yan-Yan, how many we done lost?
No for real, answer the que—, how many niggas we done lost bro?
This—, this year alone
Exactly, so we— we ain’t got time to waste time, my nigga
Niggas gotta make time, bro
The judge make time, you know that, the judge make time, right?
The judge make time so it ain’t shit
It shouldn’t be shit for us to come out here and appreciate the little bit of life we got left, dog

His instruction to stop playing the victim ties back into his goal of empowering the community. Speaking of community, there’s a strong presence in this song, with all of the background voices and the live sound that Kendrick creates. But even more so, the fractured audience is a reflection of the exhaustion, anger, and frustration dividing the Black community today as a result of systemic discrimination. With this live audience included in the song, it harkens back to the spiritual music developed in African heritage and continued throughout the Civil Rights Movement.


These songs have been sung millions of times by millions of people, and all feature a similar chorus that chants a simple line or phrase together with everyone in attendance. We heard this repetition in “i” of the line “I love myself.” This functions the same way an affirmation does, and having people sing along that they love themselves can have a really powerful effect. This is what makes this song so personal, despite its universal appeal. Its title is a person pronoun, inviting the listener to take part in the song in some capacity. In doing this, it highlights the power that personal pronouns can have. In a world where the entire Black community is often lumped together, Kendrick is suggesting they reclaim their individuality as people, and ditch “we” in favor of “i.”

In continuing with this theme of personal struggle and identity, Kendrick also uses the song to protest against the mental health stigmas that have prevented so many people from taking care of themselves mentally. These lines are slightly more clear in the single version of the song than the album version. He sings “I’ve been dealing with depression ever since an adolescent” and reminds that life is more than suicide, that you have to take it one day at a time, despite all the evil in the world.

Kendrick Lamar is acutely aware of all of the darkness and negativity that exists in the world. And while it’s easy to feel helpless and want to give up on trying to make a change, Kendrick believes that if you can learn to love yourself first, you can learn to love the world around you a little bit more to keep creating positive change, and “i” is a personalized invitation to do so.