The first single from Kendrick Lamar's third studio album finds him rapping about the need for self-assurance to get by in this world. While premiering the song on LA's Power 106, Lamar explained the confidence boosting anthem was inspired by what he's experienced on the streets of Compton. "It's about self love [which] comes from within," he said. "A lot of cats that go to jail, be in these homes, or in foster homes they grew up in from these hoods, they never had that love within themselves. They thinking they get it from their parents or their mothers or big homies or grandmas, but it starts with themselves and that's why we carry ourselves the way we do."
The track kicks off with a pastor preaching about Kendrick:
We got a young brother who believes in all of us
Brother Kendrick Lamar
He's not a rapper
He's a writer
He's a lover
If you read in between the lines
We'll learn to love one another
The preacher sets the tone for the religious theme of the first verse.
The funk-infused track was produced by Los Angeles musician Rahki, who previously provided the beat for the good kid, m.A.A.d city bonus track "Black Boy Fly."
Rahki's production incorporates a sample from Isley Brothers' 1973 hit "That Lady
." Lamar told Flaunt
magazine in 2013 that he hadn't been "listening to rap for the last six months. I bought the whole Isley Brothers collection."
Speaking to Zane Lowe on BBC Radio One, Lamar revealed that he turned up at Ronald Isley's house to personally ask permission to sample his song. "I actually had to go to St. Louis and get the blessings from Ronald Isley," he said. "That was a trip. We got in the studio and just vibed and talked about how things were back then and how they are now, and you can actually hear him on the record with a few ad libs that he actually did. We got it on camera and things like that, it's a beautiful thing."
The single's striking cover art shows a Crip and a Blood making "heart" signs with their hands. Speaking with Carson Daly on the Los Angeles radio station KAMP, Lamar explained the message behind the image: "Where I'm from, there's a lot of gang culture and things like that," he said, "so instead of throwing on up gang signs, which we used to, I put a Blood and I put a Crip together and we're throwing up hearts."
Lamar performed the song live for the first time when he made a surprise appearance during the We Day Toronto event at the Air Canada Centre on October 2, 2014.
This was only the fifth song with a title containing just one character to reach the Hot 100. So what were the previous four? They were:
1993 "7" by Prince and the New Power Generation
" by Omarion
" by Britney Spears
" by Chris Brown.
The jubilant video, directed by Alexandre Moors and the Little Homies, finds Lamar rapping, dancing and spreading the love through the Los Angeles streets. Look out for Ronald Isley's cameo as the rapper's driver.
The feel-good song actually came from a time when Lamar was feeling low. "The record feels great; it feels good," the rapper said during an interview with 93.7 The Beat in Houston. "But it comes from a place of depression. It comes from a place of insecurity. Not only for [other people], but for myself. It's a lot of things that I deal with personally. That you deal with, that everyone in this room deals with."
"So, it touches on so many different things, as far as equality within us as human beings, and accepting one another," K-Dot continued. "People that wanna commit suicide; people that just don't respect themselves or like the way they look, feel, talk, dress, and not accept who they are. We all put on this world to be kings, and walk in his image, and that's how it starts - that song."
Lamar rapped this song on the November 15, 2014 episode of Saturday Night Live. K Dot adopted a wild hair style during his performance with parts of his dreads combed out and he also wore some creepy black contacts, which made his eyes look dilated. This was in homage to Method Man whose Tical album was celebrating its twentieth anniversary.
Kendrick Lamar told Billboard magazine the song's "I love myself" chorus was a self-conscious effort to make himself happier. "That's a psychological trick I wanted to play on myself," he explained. "Now that I put this song in the atmosphere, what's going to happen? I have to perform it every night for the next three years when we go on tour. Every time I'm in a weird mood or something goes on at home that I can't handle, I've got to perform it anyway."
This won the 2014 Grammy Awards for Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance.
Kendrick Lamar attempts to reclaim the N-word as a source of black pride by exploring its (allegedly African) roots on the song's extended version.
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 recognise 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.
Speaking to NME in a 2015 interview, Lamar admitted that he doesn't feel ready to omit the N-word from his lyrics. "The closest I can do to stopping is putting the root word, negus, on my album," he said. "But I don't know if I'm there mentally to stop saying the N-word yet. I dunno, maybe one day. That's 27 years of reversing that word, I probably been saying that since I was one-year-old."