After the instant classic Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and his game-changing verse on “Control,” Kendrick Lamar’s new single could hardly have been more hyped, so it’s not surprising that on his return he’s heralded almost like a prophet: “He’s not a rapper, he’s a writer,” the opening of “i” proclaims. “And if you read between the lines, we’ll learn how to love one another.”
The big surprise is what follows, as Lamar seems to turns his sights from his onetime competitors—the infamous list of rappers he came after on “Control”—to pop radio. Over a sample of the Isley Brothers’ 1973 classic “That Lady” (courtesy of “Black Boy Fly” producer Rahki), Lamar delivers a sunny inspirational anthem, the most upbeat of his career, and a sort of rap game “Happy.” Even his rapping is not what you expect, with Lamar rising up into a high register, but Lamar seems unconcerned with looking tough in the eyes of his fellow MCs: “Peace to fashion police, I wear my heart/ On my sleeve, let the runway start,” he raps on the first verse.
Though it’s a new sound from Lamar, there’s a long tradition of this kind of inspirational, love-yourself anthem in hip-hop. Kanye West’s whole career has been centered around the power of self-love, and “i” has an even closer analogue in Nas’ 2003 be-what-you-wanna-be single “I Can.” And musically, the guitar-heavy production resembles hits from Outkast. (Lamar has listed André 3000 among his heroes.) As for Pharrell, he has been one of the first to approve, calling the song “Brilliance.”