Remember the days when there were categories like “high art” and “low art,” or, say, The New Yorker and the lyrics annotation website Rap Genius, and never the two did meet?
That wall arguably came tumbling down for good last month with the announcement that Sasha Frere-Jones, the veteran music journalist whose byline has graced The New Yorker for roughly the last decade, would be leaving his esteemed post to work for Genius, the aforementioned lyrics annotation website. (Previously known as Rap Genius, the site is apparently working on expanding its repertoire.)
[jump] Furthering the deterioration of the (arguably bullshit) wall between so-called “respectable” old-school music journalism and its startup counterpart, we now have news that none other than Michael Chabon, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Berkeley resident, and husband to Ayelet Waldman, is annotating Kendrick Lamar lyrics on Genius. Or does this say more about the literary merit of Kendrick Lamar than it does about the evolution of music criticism?
Regardless: Lamar released “The Blacker the Berry” on Monday; a day later, we have Chabon explaining the song's lyrics to us. Here's his interpretation of the lyric “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?/ When gang banging make me kill a ni**a blacker than me?/ Hypocrite!” :
In this final couplet, Kendrick Lamar employs a rhetorical move akin to—and in its way even more devastating than—Common’s move in the last line of “I Used to Love H.E.R.”: snapping an entire lyric into place with a surprise revelation of something hitherto left unspoken. In “H.E.R.”, Common reveals the identity of the song’s “her”—hip hop itself—forcing the listener to re-evaluate the entire meaning and intent of the song. Here, Kendrick Lamar reveals the nature of the enigmatic hypocrisy that the speaker has previously confessed to three times in the song without elaborating: that he grieved over the murder of Trayvon Martin when he himself has been responsible for the death of a young black man. Common’s “her” is not a woman but hip hop itself; Lamar’s “I” is not (or not only) Kendrick Lamar but his community as a whole. This revelation forces the listener to a deeper and broader understanding of the song’s “you”, and to consider the possibility that “hypocrisy” is, in certain situations, a much more complicated moral position than is generally allowed, and perhaps an inevitable one.
Check out all of Chabon's annotations over here.