March 2022: Gregory Pardlo’s “Written by Himself” & Kendrick Lamar’s “i”

This month I’ll be discussing the first poem from Gregory Pardlo’s second book of poems Digest which won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize. I bought this book a few years ago and was immediately impressed with it. The first time I encountered Pardlo was at a reading he gave in the spring of 2017 at an event in Houston. It was toward the end of my last semester as a grad student and at the time his work stood out to me as being very rhythmic and musical. I would highly recommend this book for readers who are looking for poetry that challenges them to think deeper about what poems can do on an artistic and literary level. Pardlo’s poems are dense and heavy and rich with language-play, image, history, personal experience, and literary references. One of the things I admire about this book is how Pardlo is able to find a good balance between the personal and the political while also engaging with poetic tradition. To be able to do all three so masterfully in one book is a serious accomplishment.

The poem I want to discuss is called “Written by Himself” and it works brilliantly as a first poem in this collection. It is the most lyrical poem in the book; it sets up the aesthetic vibe for how the other poems will be experienced by readers. Here is the first part of the poem:

I was born in minutes in a roadside kitchen a skillet
whispering my name. I was born to rainwater and lye;
I was born across the river where I
was borrowed with clothespins, a harrow tooth,
broadsides sewn in my shoes. I returned, though
it please you, through no fault of my own,
pockets filled with coffee grounds and eggshells.

The two main elements that appear in this poem are the lyrical “I” and the images; they work together to create a distinct scene that feels historical, but also rooted in experience. This poem is full of utterly nuanced and intricate images that work as a collective: “roadside kitchen,” “skillet,” “rainwater and lye,” “river,” “clothespins,” “harrow tooth,” “broadsides,” “shoes,” “pockets,” “coffee grounds and eggshells.” Twelve different images appear in the first seven lines, but because they work as a collective, they saturate and stimulate rather than overwhelm the reader. The first lines of the poem: “I was born in minutes in a roadside kitchen a skillet / whispering my name,” also sets up the rhythm of the poem, which feels both spontaneous and consciously-wrought. Here is the next part of the poem:

I was born still and superstitious; I bore an unexpected burden.
I gave birth, I gave blessing, I gave rise to suspicion.
I was born abandoned outdoors in the heat-shaped air,
air drifting like spirits and old windows.

Here, the poem expands out a little as the “I” encompasses more than just the literal voice and perspective of the speaker. The “I” becomes a consciousness: “I was born still and superstitious; I bore an unexpected burden. / I gave birth, I gave blessing, I gave rise to suspicion.” This consciousness feels historical as the “I” represents more than the self; it represents awareness. Here is the last part of the poem minus the last two lines:

I was born a fraction and a cypher and a ledger entry;
I was an index of first lines when I was born.
I was born waist-deep stubborn in the water crying
ain’t I a woman and a brother I was born
to this hall of mirrors, this horror story I was
born with a prologue of references, pursued
by mosquitoes and thieves, I was born passing
off the problem of the twentieth century: I was born.

The poem becomes less grounded here and more abstract in terms of how the speaker classifies themselves: “a fraction and a cypher and a ledger entry,” “an index of first lines,” “I was born to this hall of mirrors,” “this horror story,” “born with a prologue of references,” “passing off the problem of the twentieth century.” These images have more to do with a feeling whereas the images at the beginning of the poem are tangible objects. This part of the poem is very much about representation and expectation: the “I” becomes a symbol for literary tradition and Black consciousness—two very heavy and intense histories. When the speaker says, “I was born waist-deep stubborn in the water crying / ain’t I a woman and a brother I was born” the line aches with tension because it contains most of the emotional energy of the poem not just in its reference to Sojourner Truth—who was an escaped slave, an abolitionist, and a first wave feminist—but also the fact that Pardlo amends her famous line: “ain’t I a woman and a brother” and includes a run-on: “ain’t I a woman and a brother I was born.” This is brilliant poetic play, but also a line that is deeply felt as it includes feminist consciousness, Black masculine solidarity, and self-affirmation. Here are the last two lines:

I read minds before I could read fishes and loaves;
I walked a piece of the way alone before I was born.

This ending couplet evokes spirituality in really interesting ways because it causes the poem itself to transcend. The poem started with very earthy, grounded images, and it ends in the higher realm of God consciousness, but it also makes it clear that the speaker was already an ascended being before coming to earth: “I walked a piece of the way alone before I was born.” This is what I love so much about this poem: Pardlo threads so many different elements together—poetic, literary, political, historical, racial, and spiritual. The title itself: “Written by Himself” is important because it emphasizes empowerment through writing, through literacy. The speaker may have started as an ascended being, but the earth plane is where they make themselves real through the written word.

The song I want to talk about is Kendrick Lamar’s “i” which won two Grammy Awards in 2015: Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song. There are two versions of the song: the single version and the version that appears on his third album To Pimp a Butterfly. Both songs are drastically different; here, I will be discussing the single version. The first song that caught my attention by Lamar was “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”—which came out as a single just before I started grad school in 2013. I listened to the song and watched the music video quite a bit. “i” came out before his third album and I found myself listening to it repeatedly, really liking the lyrical and rhythmic qualities of the song. It features a sample of “That Lady” by The Isley Brothers, but the musical elements were re-recorded, helping to modernize the melody of the song in interesting ways. On a musical level, what makes “i” compelling is the fact that a 1970s love song was repurposed into a hip hop song about self-love. This provides the backdrop for the lyrical content, which is highly complex and intricate.

The song structure itself is massive, containing an intro, a chorus, three verses, a bridge, a hook, and an outro. Because so much is happening lyrically, I want to focus just on the intro and the three verses. Here is the intro:

I done been through a whole lot
Trial, tribulation, but I know God
Satan wanna put me in a bow tie
Pray that the holy water don’t go dry (yeah, yeah)
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

In this intro, spirituality is introduced as a major component that threads throughout the song in various ways. The song itself is sung very rhythmically; Lamar’s smooth, innocent-sounding voice gives off a tone of warmth and cleverness that make the lyrics more complex. In this verse, the first three lines set up the fourth line: “Pray that the holy water don’t go dry (yeah, yeah), as he shifts into a different tone: lower, and more suggestive, but the lyrical content of the verse also shifts: “So many motherfuckers wanna down me.” The lyrics move from the spiritual realm to the earth realm, and the sweetness of Lamar’s voice plays against harsh reality—he feels unsafe in either realm. Here is the first verse:

Everybody looking at you crazy (crazy)
What you gonna do? (what you gonna do?)
Lift up your head and keep moving (keep moving)
Or let the paranoia haunt you? (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

Here, the verse allows the song to become more expansive as the lyricist addresses the listener directly: “What you gonna do? / Lift up your head and keep moving / Or let the paranoia haunt you?” It suggests that the listener, like the lyricist, also feels unsafe, but ultimately has a choice in how they respond to fear. Midway through the verse, it shifts: “Peace to fashion police, I wear my heart / On my sleeve” which explicitly explains how the lyricist deals with environmental threats: he chooses to be openly loving. Then, he asks two questions: “How many times my potential was anonymous? / How many times the city making me promises?” which helps to set up the lyrical content of the second verse, which is more political in nature. Here is the second verse:

They wanna say it’s a war outside and a bomb in the street
And a gun in the hood and a mob of police
And a rock on the corner and a line for the fiend
And a bottle full of lean and a model on the scene, yup
These days of frustration keep y’all on tuck and rotation
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
The sky could fall down, the wind could cry now
The strong in me, I still smile

This is the most complex verse of the song because it plays with a lot of lyrical and rhythmic elements. Lyrically, it becomes more complex because the lyricist sets up political tension as he begins “They wanna say”—which implies that those in power manipulate the narrative to perpetuate violence and fear rather than solidarity and love. The following lines are poetic and rhythmic, but also employ image: “a war outside,” “a bomb in the street,” “a gun in the hood,” “a mob of police,” “a rock on the corner,” “a line for the fiend,” “a bottle full of lean,” “a model on the scene.” The images pop out as Lamar sings them rhythmically; the images do well to describe the ghetto as a construct that is maintained through power dynamics. The next few lines are sung differently, as more of a run-on: “These-days-of-frustration-keep-y’all-on-tuck-and-rotation / I-duck-these-cold-faces-post-up-fi-fi-fo-fum-basis” which adds musical complexity to the song. Again, the verse shifts back to the lyricist who imagines a different reality than the constructed one and the verse ends on a high note: “The strong in me, I still smile.”

The tempo of the song slows down as Lamar sings the third verse:

I went to war last night
With an automatic weapon, don’t nobody call a medic
I’ma do it ‘til I get it right
I went to war last 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 in the street
Keep my money in the ceiling, let my mama know I’m free
Give my story to the children and a lesson they can read
And the glory to the feeling of the holy unseen
Seen enough, make a motherfucker scream, “I love myself”

This verse feels like a poem in the way that the lyricist navigates personal struggle through the lyrical “I”. When the poetic nature of the lyrics are combined with Lamar’s vocal rhythms, the song breaks loose here in really poignant ways. He sings “I went to war last night” in a regular rhythmic tone, but the rest of the lines are sung as a run-on. As he sings this way, his voice intensifies. Here, emotional release is expressed as the lyricist aches to get his feelings off of his chest and the final verse is punctuated by three strong words: “I love myself.” This is what makes this song so utterly powerful; it is a hip hop song about self-love sung by a rapper who is tender, emotional, and passionate. The chorus is even more powerful as it weaves through the verses:

I love myself
(The world is a ghetto with big guns and picket signs)
I love myself
(But it can do what it want whenever it want, I don’t mind)
I love myself
(He said I gotta get up, life is more than suicide)
I love my…self
(One day at a time, sun gonna shine)

The chorus reinforces the messages of each of the verses, which feel like mini poems within the song: self-love is the most important aspect of survival. However, by emphasizing love, Lamar isn’t diminishing oppression; he very much engages with the idea of self-destruction in relation to political violence, but in the end, he recognizes oppression as a result of a constructed reality. The only way to transcend that reality is to honor and cherish the self, which is true liberation. The song ends in a mellow tone with a bouncing bass melody and car horns, which works really well with the lyrical sentiment that privileges love over violence. Music and sound are intertwined with self-empowerment because they root the listener in the present moment, in the world as it is—a place where love can still flourish.

Gregory Pardlo and Kendrick Lamar have a lot in common in terms of poetics. In the poem and the song, the lyrical “I” takes center stage and is played with in compelling ways. Pardlo’s “I” feels more distanced from the chaos of the world whereas Lamar’s “i”—which is lowercased—is immersed in the more tragic and darker elements of the Black masculine experience. And yet, both the poet and the rapper uplift the “I” through poetic expression and their engagement with spirituality. Additionally, “Written by Himself” and “i” utilize saturation as a way to convey the heaviness of what it means to be Black and to contend with tradition, history, and oppression in ways that can’t be contained in a neat form. Both the poet and the rapper play with their respective mediums in ways that are unexpected, but are also utterly natural. Pardlo brings in image and rhythm as a way to break open poetic structure just as his lyrical “I” skillfully pushes against poetic tradition. Lamar uses the lyrical “i” to push against well-established hip hop narratives through his desire to practice self-love as a tool for liberation; his raps are immensely intricate and poetic, but still maintain an edgy quality. As powerful as both voices are, neither the poet nor the rapper dominate the music of their mediums with their voices. They each let rhythm guide their words naturally. What makes Pardlo and Lamar wonderful is the fact that they are challenging, enlightening, expressive, but also utterly human and relatable as artists. They are humble and transcendent.

March 7, 2022