The track “i,” was recorded over a three year long period from December 2012 to the release of Kendrick Lamar’s third studio album, To Pimp A Butterfly, on March 15, 2015. A single version of the song premiered on September 23, 2014, but the version of “i” that was put on the record was different than the single version. The song “i” was produced by Rahki, mixed by Derek Ali, and mastered by Mike Bozzi at Bernie Grundman Mastering Studios, the same mastering engineer who worked on albums by Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and other famous and influential West Coast rappers.

On his previous record, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City (2012), Kendrick Lamar detailed the story of his upbringing and how he rose out of the gang violence in the city of Compton, California by turning to music and religion. Very much a concept record, the narrative of Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City was not only inspiring and creative, but proved that Kendrick could hold his own lyrically, showing off his rapping prowess, vocabulary, and strong storytelling ability. Noticed by Dr. Dre, of N.W.A. fame, Kendrick joined the ranks of artists such as Snoop Dogg, 2Pac, Eminem, 50 Cent, and The Game, all of whom were idols of his. Having to follow up the critically acclaimed album, Good, M.A.A.D. City, Kendrick set upon a path of honoring the hip-hop legends and traditions of his culture’s past, while still maintaining a personal narrative throughout the course of the record.

 Contacting artists like George Clinton, Thundercat, Flying Lotus, Terrace Martin, Bilal, Anna Wise, Snoop Dogg, Sufjan Stevens, Pharrell Williams, Kamasi Washington, and Ronald Isley of the Isley Brothers, Kendrick looked to infuse genres of jazz, p-funk, hip-hop, and beat poetry, a blend of genres and style previously known in the late ’90’s and early 2000’s as “neo-soul.” The term of “neo soul” primarily existed in the hip-hop and R&B music of that time as a retaliation, or at the most a response, to artists like Notorious B.I.G. and his producer, Puff Daddy, who started the mindset of commercially produced rap like pop music. Such a mindset hadn’t existed in rap like it had with Motown’s hit-factory method, but without artists like Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, or James Brown, that genre might never have evolved to what we now know as hip-hop, rap and R&B. In the mid to late ’90’s, Dr. Dre created his empire on the West Coast, and Puff Daddy created his in the East. For artists who hadn’t accepted this pop-style of hip-hop that then became known as rap, there was a genre for them known as “neo soul.” In his book, Mo’ Metta Blues, Questlove, the drummer for The Roots, describes this period in music as the era when hip-hop died.

It was after the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. that the “rap age” officially started, and rap was as popular as a genre as it ever was before. “Neo soul” was not only a response to where hip-hop was heading, but also a creation of music with a deep homage and appreciation for jazz, hip-hop and R&B. Kendrick Lamar, born in 1987, experienced neo soul music when it was released during his most formative years as a late teen/budding early twenty year-old rapper. Groups such as Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, and De La Soul, were the artists heard by this generation, and those classic records still permeated through rap’s zeitgeist shelf life as well, just as the artists of Motown or the Beatles always have.

Now making music of their own, artists like the ones behind To Pimp A Butterfly have entered the next incarnation of “neo soul,” and they’re creating their response to where rap music is heading today. With a band full of live musicians: Terrace Martin and Kamasi Washington on saxophone, Kendall Lewis on drums, Robert Glasper on piano, Thudercat on bass, and Anna Wise and Bilal as background vocalists, all behind Kendrick Lamar, Kyle Anderson of Entertainment Weekly described the album as “embracing the entire history of black American music.” Highly influenced by Parliament Funkadelic, jazz, Tupac Shakur, and Nelson Mandela’s South African movements, To Pimp A Butterfly painted Kendrick Lamar as a huge supporter and voice for the Black Power Movement here in the states. Not stopping there, To Pimp A Butterfly also dealt with his fears as an artist and how he can use his celebrity for good and not be “pimped” by the industry.


Track 1. “i” – Single Version, Sep. 23, 2014
Track 2. “i” – Album Version, Mar. 15, 2015



The song “i” uses elements from “That Lady,” written and originally performed by The Isley Brothers, but the elements presented here on the song are re-recorded rather than having been directly sampled. The part of the song that they used (which is represented below in Example 1), shows the guitar riff chords of Cm7 and Fm7 that the lick goes back and forth with. There are also some elements of the guitar solo from “That Lady” placed later in the track that are looped in the chorus of “i.” Written in Cm, and in 4/4 time, “i” follows the form of Intro | A (verse) | B (chorus) | A’ (verse) | B (chorus) | A” (verse) | B (chorus) | C (bridge) | D (Outro).

Example 1. “i” guitar riff from “That Lady” by The Isley Brothers:


The song begins with the sounds of a crowd, many voices all talking and mumbling things over top of one another, what’s being said mainly unintelligible. Another voice, more clear and heard signals the sound crew to setup the microphone and then introduces Kendrick Lamar to the stage. The Isley Brother’s guitar riff from “That Lady” starts to fade in around 0:19. At 0:26, Kendrick Lamar begins his first verse, still with the chatter of the crowd and the announcer underneath. The background dialogue fades out at the entrance at the guitar solo lick at 0:34 and the background singers accompanying Kendrick Lamar.

The bass guitar and drums fill in the rest of the sonic space at 0:42, and the sound is very unpolished and location wise, seeming very far away, as if one was actually watching the performance live from the crowd. At 1:08 Kendrick actually drops out of the chorus while his background singers continue as he says “come to the front!”, re-enforcing the concept of a live performance. The same happens during the second chorus at the 1:30 mark. When he goes into the verses, like at 1:38 around the third verse, the guitar solo lick is dropped and just the riff is played while the drummer keeps time on a cowbell. It gives the song a “low point,” dynamically, that they can return to while still providing room to ramp back up to the chorus each new time they go from verse to chorus or vice-versa.

The crowd begins to fade back in around 2:17, and is really noticeable during the bridge of the song at 2:34. Here the song breaks from its usual ABA’B format for a groove that is mainly all rhythm section (drums and bass guitar), dropping out the Isley Brother’s re-recorded contributions of “That Lady.”Kendrick raps while the background singers accompany his words with an upward leading harmony as the crowd gets too loud around them at 2:55, to which Kendrick stops his performance and then stops the band at 3:04.

There is a skit here now in which the crowd argues while Kendrick tries to calm them down and speaks to the crowd, reminiscent of the break in the latter half of “Livin’ for the City” by Stevie Wonder, when he’s arrested upon coming to the city, and then returns to the song. At 4:19 the crowd begins to settle down as Kendrick returns to the microphone ready to re-start the performance. Unable to restart the song that they had been interrupted by, he begins rapping a cappella in a style of beat poetry in order to draw attention from the crowd and inspire upon them his words of hope and Black Power. The song ends abruptly at 5:36 after Kendrick’s last vocal phrase.


Example 2. Kendrick Lamar – “i” lyrics  (as presented from

[Hype Man]
Is this mic on? (Hey, move this way, this way)
Hey, Hey! Hey! Turn the mic up, c’mon, c’mon
Is the mic on or not? I want the mic
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
All of the little boys and girls, come up here
(One two, one two, what’s happening, fool?)
Come right here, this is for you, come on up
Kendrick Lamar, make some noise, brother

I done been through a whole lot
Trial, tribulation, but I know God
The Devil wanna put me in a bow tie
Pray that the holy water don’t go dry
As I look around me
So many motherfuckers wanna down me
But an enemigo never drown me
In front of a dirty double-mirror they found me

And (I love myself)
When you lookin’ at me, tell me what do you see?
(I love myself)
Ahh, I put a bullet in the back of the back of the head of the police
(I love myself)
Illuminated by the hand of God, boy don’t seem shy
(I love myself)
One day at a time, uhh

[Verse 1]
They wanna say it’s a war outside, bomb in the street
Gun in the hood, mob of police
Rock on the corner with a line for the fiend
And a bottle full of lean and a model on the scheme uh
These days of frustration keep y’all on tuck and rotation (Come to the front)
I duck these cold faces, post up fi-fie-fo-fum basis
Dreams of reality’s peace
Blow steam in the face of the beast
Sky could fall down, wind could cry now
Look at me motherfucker I smile

And (I love myself)
When you lookin’ at me, tell me what do you see?
(I love myself)
Ahh, I put a bullet in the back of the back of the head of the police
(I love myself)
Illuminated by the hand of God, boy don’t seem shy
(I love myself)
One day at a time, uhh

[Verse 2]
(What you gon’ do?)
Lift up your head and keep moving, (Keep moving) turn the mic up
(Haunt you)
Peace to fashion police, I wear my heart
On my sleeve, let the runway start
You know the miserable do love company
What do you want from me and my scars?
Everybody lack confidence, everybody lack confidence
How many times my potential was anonymous?
How many times the city making me promises?
So I promise this, nigga

And (I love myself)
When you lookin’ at me, tell me what do you see?
(I love myself)
Ahh, I put a bullet in the back of the back of the head of the police
(I love myself)
Illuminated by the hand of God, boy don’t seem shy
(I love myself)
One day at a time, uhh

Huh (Walk my bare feet) huh (Walk my bare feet)
Huh (Down, down valley deep) huh (Down, down valley deep)
(I love myself) huh (Fi-fie-fo-fum) huh (fi-fie-fo-fum)
(I love myself) huh (My heart undone) one, two, three

And (I love myself)
When you lookin’ at me, tell me what do you see?
(I love myself)
Ahh, I put a bullet in the back of the back of the head of the police
(I love myself)
Illuminated by the hand of God, boy don’t seem shy
(I love myself)
One day at a time, uhh

[Verse 3]
I went to war last night
With an automatic weapon, don’t nobody call a medic
I’mma do it till I get it right
I went to war last night (Night, night, night, night, night)
I’ve been dealing with depression ever since an adolescent
Duckin’ every other blessin’, I can never see the message
I could never take the lead, I could never bob and weave
From a negative and letting them annihilate me
And it’s evident I’m moving at a meteor speed
Finna run into a building, lay my body…

[Spoken Interlude]
(Offstage Argument)
Not on my time, Not while I’m up here
Not on my time, kill the music
Not on my time
We could save that shit for the streets
We could save that shit, this for the kids bro
2015, niggas tired of playin’ victim dog
Niggas ain’t trying to play vic— TuTu, how many niggas we done lost?
Yan-Yan, how many we done lost?
No for real, answer the question, how many niggas we done lost bro?
This, this year alone
Exactly. So we ain’t got time to waste time my nigga
Niggas gotta make time bro
The judge make time, you know that, the judge make time right?
The judge make time so it ain’t shit
It shouldn’t be shit for us to come out here and appreciate the little bit of life we got left, dawg
On the dead homies. Charlie P, you know that bro
You know that
It’s mando. Right, it’s mando
And I say this because I love you niggas man
I love all my niggas bro
Exac- enough said, enough said
We gon’ get back to the show and move on, because that shit petty my nigga
Mic check, mic check, mic check, mic check, mic check
We gon’ do some acapella shit before we get back to-
All my niggas listen
Listen to this:

[Acapella Verse]
I promised Dave I’d never use the phrase “fuck nigga”
He said, “Think about what you saying: ‘Fuck niggas’
No better than Samuel on Django
No better than a white man with slave boats”
Sound like I needed some soul searching
My Pops gave me some game in real person
Retraced my steps on what they never taught me
Did my homework fast before government caught me
So I’ma dedicate this one verse to Oprah
On how the infamous, sensitive N-word control us
So many artists gave her an explanation to hold us
Well, this is my explanation straight from Ethiopia
N-E-G-U-S definition: royalty; King royalty – wait listen
N-E-G-U-S description: Black emperor, King, ruler, now let me finish
The history books overlook the word and hide it
America tried to make it to a house divided
The homies don’t recognize we been using it wrong
So I’ma break it down and put my game in a song
N-E-G-U-S, say it with me
Or say no more. Black stars can come and get me
Take it from Oprah Winfrey, tell her she right on time
Kendrick Lamar, by far, realest Negus alive


Describing his upbringing, Kendrick turns to a lot of religious dialogue and themes, which he uses to further bring his message to those at home, that there’s hope. He also emphasizes the point of “what’s love got to do with it if you don’t love yourself,” a quote from his song “Real” from 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. As much as the album centers around the idea of the Black Power Movement, the record also function on a multi-faceted level, with “i” being about Kendrick dealing with who he wants to be as an artist and how he can use his celebrity to have the voice to inspire others.

When asked about the song’s inception, Kendrick explained that “i” was about “not knowing who I am.” “I went through a whole album and a whole set in my life not knowing who I am,” he continues, ” or thinking I know it all, thinking I have so much love for my city… But deep inside I didn’t know who I was. I was just caught in the same cycle that everybody else was following and everybody else was in. So how can I really have love for my partner next to me if I don’t know who I am? How can I have love for my city if I don’t know who I am?”

For Kendrick Lamar, the Black Power Movement and the ideas behind To Pimp A Butterfly aren’t about retaliation or starting a riot and getting all frustrated and upset like the crowd does on the outro to “i,” but that the movement and his ideas revolve around loving yourself first. How can I love anything if I don’t love myself first? Kendrick just wants us to look around and reckon with what’s happening on an introspective and inter-personal level.

He comments on the ignorance and racism in America but not from a place of rage. The music provides the fast tempo sense of urgency and energy, which is accompanied by Kendrick’s fast lyricism and upward inflections, but the words themselves don’t have a tempo, especially when he slows down in the outro so that everyone in the crowd can hear him. “When you look at me, what do you see?” he asks. Do you just see me as another black man from Compton, or do you see me for who am I as an individual and what I believe in?

Kendrick doesn’t want to just inspire hope by saying everything’s going to be alright, but he understands the human condition enough to be wary of riots and violence as well. He believes in the Black Power and Black Lives Matter Movement, but more on the Martin Luther King Jr. side of the issue than the Malcolm X. Love yourself before you love your fellow man.

At a talk with rapper Killer Mike, of Run the Jewels, at New York University, Killer Mike explains that every time he goes on television to talk about the Black Lives Matter Movement, whether it be on The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Real Talk with Bill Maher, Rachel Maddow, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, etc., his main topic is always that of going out every time and meeting someone new and learning from them. “Make friends with someone who doesn’t look like you,” he told us. Remove all hate and prejudice from you and learn from everyone around you.


The inclusion of an Isley Brother’s sample re-recorded and the live band presence harks back to the sound and idea of the musical neo-soul movement. Furthermore, the riot then hushed by Kendrick’s speech hints at the idea that the movement was mainly musical back in the late ’90’s and early 2000’s, as a response to where rap was heading, and while Kendrick deals with these points as well throughout the album, in this track in particular, it seems that Kendrick more emphasizes the point that the movement didn’t extend out socio-culturally and politically as much as it needs to now.

By using this genre and way of making music, it further adds to the point Kendrick is trying to drive home, and to the crowd, represented in the song. He’s saying, remember the ’60’s and ’70’s when we fought for our rights and against prejudice? There’s still remnants of that time that exist in people today and the fight is not over. We have to get together again and love each other, because the hate and prejudice is still here and we need to eradicate it. “How do we do that?” the crowd asks, as if they are us, the audience or general public, personified in the song. Love yourself and love one another, he responds. Love your history and who you are; learn from it, and learn from everyone around you.


As described in Chapter three of the book, The Beatles and McLuhan: Understanding the Electric Age by Dr. Thomas MacFarlane, entitled “Mapping Acoustical Space,” a process of descriptive phenomenology starting with the Sound-In-Time theory is employed to analyze multi-track recordings of the Beatles’ work and the multi-track recoding medium itself. When the song “All You Need Is Love” and its performance on live television, involving over-dubs to a previously recorded backing track, is discussed and analyzed in chapter five: “Mystery Tours in the Global Village,” it is discovered that the live performance enhanced “simultaneity.” The fact that one could record a backing track and play over it, even though past and present events (here, then, and now), were all happening at the same time, “the distinction between linear time and Euclidean space are dissolved into an eternal now moment.”

The first half of this phenomenological section was outlined in Part III: The Sound-In-Time, to give musical and spatial context to the song before diving into textural and onto-historical analysis. All of this however, functions as pillars holding up the recording of the song, and what the song’s textural and musical message add to the space the recording places it in. Recorded to sound like a live performance, the album version of “i” sounds quite different than its clean and polished single version released half a year earlier. The idea behind the change was to  make the scene of the track’s narrative appear to be as if Kendrick was performing his single live at this point in the record. “i” comes onto the album at the time in the record’s narrative where Kendrick has returned home to use his celebrity for good and educate/inspire people from where he was from towards change and a better life than one of gang-on-gang violence, like in the city of Compton, CA.

 kendrick-lamar-iMuch like the analysis of “All You Need Is Love” from The Beatles and McLuhan, the illusion of what’s happening in the scene as we listen (the performance), versus what was is actually happening in the recording, is the highlight of the track. While the Beatles used a television performance to show their innovative recording methods and enhance “simultaneity,” Kendrick takes it one step further, by using recording methods and sonic space to successfully stage an entire live performance. The “crowd” interrupting a performance of his song “i,” followed by a speech to said “crowd” never actually happened.

“i” isn’t a recording of that live performance; it’s a fictional event, created in a recording studio. Instead of just writing a song in which he lyrically says the message he wishes to get across, the recording of “i” places us in the audience of this performance, as audience members, and forces to become as annoyed as he is when the crowd grows louder and drowns out his performance, which we, as the audience, were listening to. The song obsolesces the “here, then and now” by placing us, the listener, in two different places at the same time; one, wherever we are listening to the album, and two, in the audience during his performance of the song.

Like someone turning off the television while you in the midst of watching something, or closing a book you had been reading before you could finish, Kendrick Lamar forces you to hear what he has to say about the Black Power Movement and learning to “love one’s self and everyone around you” by fully demanding and controlling your attention when the performance stops.


This eclectic analysis of “i” by Kendrick Lamar looked to dig into the meaning of the lyrics and musical style represented by the song and the scene in which the recording and production place the song’s setting. Looking at the history of the “neo soul” movement and the course of rap music since the late ’90’s and early 2000’s, this study focused on what the artist, Kendrick Lamar, was trying to get across lyrically and thematically, and where those ideas resonated from.

As the analysis moves from history and background to the song itself, one gains the knowledge of what the record was working towards musically before digging into the actual lyrics of the piece, in an attempt to get the message of the record across before honing in on the specifics with textural representation. As much as the lyrical content drives home the message of the track, so does the feel and urgency of the composition, as well as the Isley Brother’s sample and the scene involving the crowd, which is delved into using the ideas of Husserl and a mosaic Sound-In-Time phenomenological approach.

Thus, the greatest strength of the paper was looking at how that specific scene in the album version of “i,” where the crowd interrupts a live performance, can live in symbioses with the lyrical material by metaphorically representing the message Kendrick is driving home in his lyrics, providing us with an environment in which the song can live beyond simply stating his message through music.

Notes, Works Cited, and Source Material:

  1. Anderson, Kyle, “‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ by Kendrick Lamar: EW review”. Entertainment Weekly. New York, NY, March 26. Retrieved May 2, 2016.
  2. Broazay. “A Recap of Killer Mike’s NYU Lecture.” Pigeons & Planes. Complex Media, 24 Mar. 2015. Web. 03 May 2016.
  3. Jeffries, David. “Kendrick Lamar – “To Pimp A Butterfly”” Allmusic. All Media Network, LLC, 16 Mar. 2015. Web. 03 May 2016.
  4. Lamar, Kendrick. “i.” 2015. To Pimp A Butterfly. Kendrick Duckworth, Martin Isley, O’Kelly Isley, Ronald Isley, Rudolph Isley, Ernie Isley, Chris Jasper, and Columbus Smith. Perf. Kendrick Lamar. Samp. “This Lady,’ original produced and performed by The Isley Brothers. Rec. Dec. 2012-Mar. 16, 2015. Prod. by Rahki, T.D.E. & Aftermath Records, a division of Interscope. 2014-2015. MP3.
  5. Lamar, Kendrick. “Kendrick Lamar – i.” Genius. Genius Media Group, n.d. Web. 03 May 2016.
  6. Mac Farlane, Thomas. The Beatles’ Abbey Road Medley: Extended Forms in Popular Music. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 2008. Web. 03 May 2016.
  7. MacFarlane, Thomas. The Beatles and McLuhan: Understanding the Electric Age. Lanham, Md.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 2013. Print.
  8. Rosenberg, Josh. “Terrace Martin – “Velvet Portraits” | Roseandblog Album Review.” Roseandblog. 21 Apr. 2016. Web.
  9. Thompson, Ahmir “Questlove”, and Ben Greenman. Mo’ Metta Blues: The World According to Questlove. New York: Grand Central, 2013. Print.