Article Lead Image

Michael Chabon whitesplains Kendrick Lamar’s new single in record time

The celebrated novelist and Pulitzer Prize winner took it upon himself to translate Kendrick Lamar for a (lame) audience.


Miles Klee


Posted on Feb 10, 2015   Updated on May 29, 2021, 2:02 pm CDT

After Google laid the smackdown on Rap Genius for an SEO scam and a cofounder was canned for using the site to praise the manifesto of UCSB shooter Elliot Rodger, you’d forgive me for assuming that it no longer existed.  

Alas, Rap Genius—now just “Genius”—is still around, and among its active users is celebrated novelist Michael Chabon, who somehow thought he was the best person to annotate the bracing, addictive new single from rapper Kendrick Lamar

“The Blacker the Berry” is, as you might guess, a track that rolls like an armored tank across the minefield of American race relations. And true to one of Lamar’s repeated lyrics here (“Once I finish this, witnesses will convey just what I mean”), it was mere hours before a Pulitzer Prize-winning white guy decided to play interpreter.

Before we ruin the mood with Chabon’s whitesplaining, take a moment to enjoy the music:

(Sorry, this embed was not found.)

Writing in response to Lamar’s final lines— “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? / When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me? / Hypocrite!”—the author of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and Telegraph Avenue writes:

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.

Do you think there was ever a time when songs just meant themselves, and didn’t require freshman-comp exegesis from an establishment literary persona? Hard to imagine.

Photo by Jason Wesley Upton/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Share this article
*First Published: Feb 10, 2015, 2:06 pm CST