As Hip Hop moved away from what some call “The Sampledelic Age”, when producers like The Bomb Squad, Prince Paul, Marley Marl and Dr. Dre would layer songs with a drumbeat from here, bass from there, guitar and keyboard hooks from this record, vocals from that record, songs from the legendary group The Isley Brothers began to yield some of the biggest results for beat samples and song remakes. This includes records such as “Today Was A Good day” by Ice Cube, “Big Poppa” by The Notorious B.I.G, “Crossroads” by Bone Thugs N Harmony, and “At Your Best You Are Love” by Aaliyah. The past 15 years in Hip Hop have seen a moving away from samples, as well as a moving away from soul, funk, and traditional forms of Black Music. Something else the music and culture has lacked is artists to pick up the crown worn in the past, the crown of encouragement, motivation and cultural value through music. With today’s weekend funk feature, “i”, Kendrick Lamar accomplished both the reinvigoration of a classic funk/soul sound through hip hop, as well as delivering the type of universal message music the people need.
“i”, produced by L.A producer Rahki and featuring Butcher Brown guitarist Keith Askey, dispenses with samples all together to recreate The Isley’s classic, “That Lady.” Interpolations, or re created cover versions, were a staple of early hip hop, providing the basis for early classics such as “Rappers Delight” and “Beat Bop.” Lamar made the wise creative choice to interpolate rather than sample “That Lady.” The music to the Isley’s classic song sounds reinvigorated as a result, and Rahki uses skillful hip hop oriented production techniques to highlight basslines, guitar parts, and percussion, revealing the intricacy of the original composition as well as the recording musicians performances.
The song begins with the classic “That Lady” intro, a guitar strumming groove over three straight eight note kick drums that sound like heartbeats. Lamar begins in a very heartfelt matter, “I done been through a whole lot/trial, tribulation, but I know God.” As Lamar goes through his verse, rapped in his trademark technique of alternating vocal tones, Askey fires up the lead guitar, exactly as Ernie Isley did. The verse is timed so that as soon as Lamar ends his verse, the hook begins, which also brings in the classic busy funk/calypso bass line, eighth note rock/funk drumming, and classic overdriven lead guitar. It’s to great musical effect that the super powerful chorus “I love myself” is tied to the explosive rhythm arrangement of “That Lady.” Lamar and Rahki solve the challenge of fitting rap lyrics into a busy funk arrangement, setting Kendrick’s raps over a relatively subdued section of the music and the inspirational chorus over Askey’s interpretation of Isley’s soaring guitar. In particular I like the musical section arranged for the last verse, with the bass improvising a busy sixteenth note line, and a drum machine being utilized with sharp horn stabs. The song flows out with busy military style drumming and a fine sixteenth note oriented bass guitar solo.
The throne of relevancy in black music has sat vacant for a very long time. The throne once sat artists such as Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, The O’Jays, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, Earth, Wind & Fire, and P-Funk. Not to mention hip hop entities such as Public Enemy, BDP, Nas, Tupac, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Lauryn Hill. The throne and crown that goes with it of an artist making music that is both funky and musically appealing, while also relevant in its spirituality, humanism, and value for human living. Kendrick acknowledges those links by including funk icons George Clinton and Ron Isley in the video for “I”, as well as asking Isley’s permission in person to use the song before he recorded it. Nelson George wrote once that Hip Hop starts with the word “I”, positioning Hip Hop music as a Muhammed Ali influenced exercise in black self esteem, pride and redemption. Even when the message isn’t there, Hip Hop always has that value by nature. Kendrick Lamar writes his “i” in lower case letters, just as bell hooks writes her name, to emphasize the individual’s connection to other individuals. And that self love should translate into love for ones neighbors, community, nation and world. He goes back to the rousing spirit, Afro-Latin dance funk of “That Lady” because in the black community that ’70s funk, long before there was a thing such as crack cocaine, represents hope, optimism, peace, love, and having fun, as James Brown and Afrika Baambaata put it. Looking at YouTube comments, some youngsters didn’t get it, mainly because they’ve been raised on a steady diet of Playstation music. But there were many things I didn’t get when I was younger either. In the end, I still vote for “i” as the new Millennium Hip Hop version of “The Greatest Love of All”, “Wake Up Everybody” and “Ain’t No Stoppin Us Now.” The new link in a long chain of hope, resilience, and freedom. All Hail King Kendrick!