From its ALL CAPS title to the image of Kung Fu Kenny in cardinal gear in the instantly classic music video, ‘HUMBLE.’ was intended as a bold statement.
The song’s legacy and impact owes to a perfect storm of circumstances – the anticipation surrounding a new album, its mass appeal, the video, the way it dominated social media. All this, along with Kendrick’s typically high level of artistry and intent, combine to deliver not only the Compton artist’s most commercially successful song to date but make the Hottest song of 2017, making him the first person of colour top the triple j countdown in the process.
On his previous album To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick intellectualised over a gumbo of free jazz, spiritual funk, and political soul. But while Butterfly transformed him into a national hero and spokesperson, providing the unofficial anthem to the #BlackLivesMatter movement in ‘Alright’, he also risked alienating listeners unwilling to follow him deeper than the singles.
Recognising this, Kendrick sought a way to reconnect with a broader audience by making music that would function where the people are. “That was the whole thing – we wanted to make [DAMN.] for all arenas” the Compton MC said during a Big Boy’s Neighbourhood interview; “[In the] car, we want you to be in the club… Just vibing to it.”
Coming in the wake of the complex sounds of Butterfly (and untitled.unmastered), the back-to-basics ‘HUMBLE.’ sounds positively archaic. But that’s exactly the point. A stylistic backflip from a restlessly creative artist, announcing his comeback with a return to the bumping ferocity of good kid M.A.A.D. City without sacrificing the crucial social commentary that gave Butterfly such an impact.
Lamar admits to Rolling Stone his “initial goal was to make a hybrid of my first two commercial albums” but understood the risks of such a transition “going from [TPAB] to DAMN., that shit could have crashed and burned if it wasn’t executed right.”
So, Kendrick pulled back on the highbrow abstractions to focus on something far more direct, a track calculated to completely thump in the trunk, the clubs, the streets – and mission accomplished. It was hard to go anywhere following the single’s release without hearing it thundering out.
‘HUMBLE.’ was the song that kick-started DAMN. and ‘HUMBLE.’ started with that brutally stripped back beat.
Aside from the opening bum steer, some staticky guitar and belting chords, ‘HUMBLE.’ is built on little more than primal 808 drums and a sinister piano loop that’s as understated as it is infectious. It was the first song recorded for DAMN. and the starting point that fired Kendrick up to get his old-school on and it came courtesy of Mike WiLL Made-It.
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An Atlanta producer largely credited with bringing trap to the mainstream, Mike WiLL has been hailed “the most important producer of the past five years” for providing beats to Drake, Beyonce, Rihanna, Lil’ Wayne, and Rae Sremmurd’s #MannequinChallenge viral hit ‘Black Beatles’.
“ScHoolboy Q is the one who really hooked us up,” Mike WiLL told NPR last year, revealing ‘HUMBLE.’ was originally intended for Gucci Mane.
“I gave [Kendrick] a bunch of beats for good kid, m.A.A.d city [and] To Pimp A Butterfly, but they definitely weren’t the right vibe…. Right after Butterfly came out, we just caught a wave. And from there we just kept recording…”
Mike WiLL understood the power of his spare, staccato creation and knew that it could provide not only the perfect framework for Kendrick’s authoritative voice but also a fresh setting. And Kendrick liked what he heard.
“All I could think of was [Marley Marl’s] ‘The Symphony’, and the earliest moments of hip-hop, where it’s complex simplicity,” he told Rolling Stone of the song’s origins. “But it’s also somebody making moves. That beat feels like my generation, right now. The first thing that came to my head was, ’Be humble’.”
Kendrick’s always been a widely celebrated wordsmith but what ‘HUMBLE.’ does better than most of his catalogue is economy and impact. The beat’s brutal simplicity informed the lyric: just two savage, reference-packed verses and a bluntly mesmerising hook. The series of intensely quotable bars and boasts does so much with so little – just look at what is arguably the most impactful:
“My left stroke just went VI-RAL!”
It’s the first catchcry that sticks with you, even though it’s highly ambiguous. It could be the strokes of Kendrick’s pen, his fists, his game (as the golf allusion in the video suggests), sex. His right stroke puts “lil’ baby in a spiral” – which could mean sending his offenders into a tailspin – left punch, right punch. The ol’ one-two.
Ultimately, it kind of doesn’t matter. To reference another bona fide rap anthem – “No one knows what it means but it’s provocative… It gets the people going.” The line, and in fact the whole song’s strength lies in the fact we want to dissect each phrase for some hidden meaning; to get our Genius.com on and unearth some deeper significance or interpretation. As ‘HUMBLE.’ Itself playfully asserts: “there’s levels to it, you and I know.” We want bragging rights and at its core, that’s exactly what ‘HUMBLE.’ is about: one big humblebrag that bodies the competition.
After the intellectual Butterfly, it’s a flip from introspection to instruction, forcefully directing lesser rappers to pay their respects to the GOAT. Kendrick takes swings at their rhymes, income, and motives and finds them all inferior. Surrounded by an industry of bullshit artists, careerists, and fake personas, he commands authenticity. Kenny sees it as his duty to dismantle and disrupt the systems that uphold the phoneys of the music game by asserting his own identity. A complex notion delivered with steely DGAF attitude in a simple yet powerful message: “Sit down, be humble.”
But as much as he’s calling out the competition, Kendrick is also addressing himself with that central chorus. “Definitely. It’s the ego,” he explains to Rolling Stone. “When you look at the song titles on this album, these are all my emotions and all my self-expressions of who I am. That’s why I did a song like that, where I just don’t give a f**k, or I’m telling the listener, ‘You can’t f**k with me’. But ultimately, I’m looking in a mirror.”
Not every lyrical punch landed smoothly, however. Kendrick has come under fire for the “Lil’ bitch” hook, lighting up the triple j hotline with complaints. While it could be interpreted as directed at men (and a subliminal jab at Big Sean’s ad-lib) rather than women, that gender divide is less defendable when it comes to the ‘Photoshop’ line. Kendrick likely intended it as an affirmative stand with women oppressed by ridiculous body and beauty standards. But his demands for “something natural”, like an afro or ass with stretch marks, has been criticised as “false feminism” and worse, “just a different version of sexism and misogyny.”
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Kendrick’s message, along with the come-on “that pussy good, won’t you sit it on my tastebuds”, has been derided as “another example of Black men giving women directives on how to present themselves on the world based on what men find attractive.” Rather than hamper the song’s steamrolling popularity, this controversy only helped bring more attention to ‘HUMBLE.’
One thing we can probably all agree on is Kendrick’s way with words, displaying remarkable verbal wizardry as he switches up his flow several times and phrases over without losing you or wasting his momentum.
“I just love words; love how to bend ‘em, love how to break ‘em, twist em, turn ‘em, make ‘em in couplets,” he explained to Zane Lowe for a Beats 1 interview. “You can manipulate it and that shows the true craft and your sportsmanship… it’s all acrobatics, it excites me.”
Before topping the Hottest 100, ‘HUMBLE’ also earned Kendrick his first US #1 hit. But why is it a #1 song? Sure, it’s catchy as hell but he’s had arguably better hits (‘Swimming Pools’, ‘King Kunta’, ‘Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe’, ‘i’). It might not be his most critically acclaimed track but ‘HUMBLE.’ was Lamar’s most commercially successful because it landed at just the right place, right time.
‘HUMBLE.’ dropped on 30 March, a week after standalone track ‘The Heart Part 4’ had whet the public appetite for a new body of work from Lamar, especially in anticipation of his imminent Coachella performance. The song was met with next-to-zero competition, coming in the wake of Drake’s More Life and benefiting from a relatively uncrowded month for releases.
The reaction was immediate and feverish. Pitchfork took just a day to name it ‘Best New Music’; this YouTuber busted his sturdy reviewing chair to it; it became a swift streaming service staple – according to Billboard, 66% of its chart success was due to racking up 49.8 million streams online.
The song’s spread was compounded by the reveal of DAMN.’s meme-worthy album art and made contagious by cultural commentators responding, in the biggest and quickest of ways.
In July, the song’s monster crossover appeal and popularity was cemented at, of all places, Splendour In The Grass. ‘HUMBLE.’ appeared in setlists from multiple artists performing for very different audiences and got a HUGE response every time, whether it was Winston Surfshirt or ScHoolBoy Q covering it at the amphitheatre or being mixed to maximum volume into sets from RL Grime and Peking Duk. ‘HUMBLE.’ Had ballooned from being one of 2017’s biggest rap hits, into one of its biggest anythings.
As much as ‘HUMBLE.’ blew up speakers, many experienced the song for the first time through its striking music video. Directed by 11x MTV Video Award winner Dave Meyers and The Little Homies (the visual moniker for Kendrick Lamar and TDE president Dave Free), it’s an instantly iconic, cinematic accompaniment with a surfeit of Kendricks for every occasion.
Pope Kendrick. Steve Jobs cosplay Kendrick. Grey Poupon Kendrick. Last Supper Kendrick. Kendrick spitting fire while his head is blazing like a matchstick. These portrayals are mixed with iconic scenes that flesh out his lyrical jibes and ideas in ways that parody the cartoonish extremes of rap’s high life – lounging on a bed of cash, teeing off on top of a car, heading up a table of cliched rap characters.
‘HUMBLE.’ has racked up 422 million YouTube views and counting; snagged six MTV Video Music Awards, including Video of the Year, and saw Esquire breathlessly proclaim “Kendrick Lamar has revived the music video as a powerful form of social commentary.”
Kung Fu Kenny’s oral martial arts and lyrical one-upmanship on ‘HUMBLE.’ gets to the competitive heart of rap culture. Hip hop is all about the throne and it’s arguably belonged to House Kendrick for a few years now. But heavy is the head that wears the crown; as Dr. Dre advised Lamar on Butterfly opener ‘Wesley’s Theory’: “remember, anybody can get it, the hard part is keepin’ it.”
‘HUMBLE.’ is obviously Kendrick telling rappers to save their strength in trying to swipe his GOAT status. And how could anyone possibly compete with his self-made success? Forget ‘Started From The Bottom’, he’s graduated from peddling mixtapes on the violent streets of Compton to getting paged by President Obama.
However, at the same time, ‘HUMBLE.’ is an aggressive rallying cry to the rap world to up their game. Much like Lamar’s infamous ‘Control’ verse, it’s a ‘cruel to be kind’ pep talk, calling out rappers to get back to the business of honing their craft, to be their best. He’s hating the players for the love of the game.
“I love hip hop to a point I can’t even describe it,” he told Zane Lowe. “When I hear these artists say they’re the best, coming up, I said ‘I’m not doing the half-a-good song, or one good rap or hook or bridge’. I wanna keep doing it every time. Period. And to do it every time you have to challenge yourself and confirm to yourself, not anybody else, that you’re the best. Period. No-one can take that away from you… that’s my drive, my hunger I will always have. At this point right now, the years, time, effort and knowledge and history I’ve done on the culture, the game I’ve gotten from those before me and respect I have for them. I wanna hold myself high on that same pedestal, 10, 15 years from now.”