The ways in which we interface with music are constantly changing and evolving. We now have more access to music than ever before: more studio recordings, more leaked songs, and more live performances. With this, our roles as listeners drastically change, as does the meaning we gleam from the songs we’re consuming. There exist many performances and videos of “i”. However, there are two that are very notable in our understanding of this song.


“i” (Single Version)

In all previous discussions surrounding this song and lyrics, I’ve focused on the album version of the song that was released on Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly. However, the single version was released several months before the album and reveals some more important clues towards understanding the song as a composition. Before even listening, one may notice that the album covers to the two songs are different. This isn’t at all an uncommon trait between single releases and albums. The single’s cover (pictured left) features two gang members forming hearts with their hands, presumably of the Crips and the Bloods, respectively. This serves to highlight one of the biggest messages of the song (either version): the necessity of ending gang violence in Compton to help heal a Black community torn apart by factions.

The single version of the song’s performance is also very different. Where the album version’s instrumental includes a re-recording of its sample layered in with parts of the original song, the single seems to exclusively sample the Isley Brothers’ original recording until the song’s breakdown around the two-thirds mark, perhaps with some accentuated bass. This draws some more attention to Lamar’s vocals, which are much more monotonous and less passionate, coming off more as a PSA than a passionate rant the way the album version is. Now, this could be done for a few reasons. For one, it feels more as though he’s talking about this issue of gang violence and lack of self-esteem in Compton to a group of people who don’t understand or relate to the struggle. This contrasts the album version, which features a staged introduction of Kendrick performing to members of his community, with an announcer introducing that “We’re bringing up nobody, nobody / Nobody but the number one rapper in the world / He done traveled all over the world / He came back just to give you some game.” This shows us the ways in which Kendrick is playing to different audiences, tailoring his rhetoric towards more effective channels depending on who’s receiving his message.


“i” as Performed on Saturday Night Live

On November 15, 2014, Kendrick Lamar performed on an episode of Saturday Night Live with a live band, bringing the energy that’s contained in the album’s recording of “i”. One of the most notable aspects of this performance are the black contact lenses that Lamar wears. These lenses don’t just cover his iris, but rather his entire visible eye, leaving no white of the membrane visible. This gives a strange feeling to the audience. Lamar performs with an energy that he simply cannot contain that seems to manifest itself physically in his body that, along with the lenses, give the impression that he’s a vessel possessed by something greater to deliver the message of the song. The song doesn’t contain the intro that we’re used to from the album version, but rather a sort of interlude in the middle of the performance in which Lamar explicitly states, “Hey check this out this is a real Compton thing going on. You feel what I’m talking about?” He continues the song through it’s usual breakdown, but with an augmented verse that offers brand new lyrics (listed below from Genius) stating his tense relationship with God, detailing the ways in which his upbringing had him searching for good in a ravaged Compton that seemed to be abandoned by any higher power. This connects further to the aspect of the song that deals with self-empowerment. Lamar relays his own experiences coming to terms with a community without relief and the depression that he experienced as a result of it, feeling as though he wasn’t even deserving of anything more. This is a sentiment that’s implied in the original, but so much more impactful in this version of the song.

[Verse 4]
Uh, I’ve been lookin’ for you my whole life, appetite
For this feeling I can barely describe, where you reside?
In a woman, is it in money, or mankind?
Something’s got me losing my mind

Where you at? From the front to the back
I’m lookin’ for you, I react only when you react

I thought I found you back in the ghetto
When I was 17 with the .38 Special

Maybe you’re in a dollar bill, maybe you’re not real
Maybe only the wealthy get to know how you feel
Maybe I’m paranoid, ha, maybe I don’t need you anyway
Don’t lie to me, I’m suicidal any day

I could be your advocate
I could speak for you if you tell me what the matter is
I could preach for you with the mighty tongue

I’m the one, how can I, overcome
Negative energy while I give infinitely and survive?!