Deconstructing Kendrick Lamar’s ‘HUMBLE’

THE defining characteristic of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘HUMBLE’ is its conflicted feelings about success.

The verses of the song feature Kendrick rapping about all his success – “Obama just paged me”. The chorus, in contrast, features the lines ‘bitch, sit down, be humble” over and over – Kendrick telling himself not to get ahead of himself. These conflicted feelings are also present in the sounds used on the track.

Produced by Mike Will Made It, ‘HUMBLE’ is largely based around Roland TR-808 drum machine sounds and a riff being played on the bassy lower notes of a grand piano. It sounds cheap, especially when compared to the luscious full sound of Kendrick’s previous album To Pimp A Butterfly. But listen closer.

A grand piano is, of course, an icon of high culture and success – you could buy a house for the cost of a top-shelf Steinway grand piano, the kind designed to sound good when accomplished pianists play Rachmaninoff. And yet, in Mike Will Made It and Kendrick’s hands, the high-culture piano is playing a down-low repetitive riff.

Similarly, the TR-808 drum machine was essentially seen as a cheap toy when it was originally released; in its commercial lifetime in the early 1980s, music shops could barely sell them. However, once hip-hop pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa discovered its futuristic sound, its booming bass drum sounds, and its ease of use, the TR-808 more or less became the drum machine sound of hip-hop.

As a result, second-hand TR-808s in good condition go for upwards of $5000 on eBay these days. If Mike Will Made It used an actual grand piano and an actual TR-808 for his track, these were not cheap sounds.

Even Kendrick telling himself, “Bitch, sit down, be humble”, in the chorus – something that feels refreshingly simple in the context of the song – is not so simple. Sure, Kendrick’s admonishing himself here. But under the surface, those lines are a likely Biblical reference.

The King James Version translates Jeremiah 13:18 as an instruction to: “Say unto the king and to the queen, Humble yourselves, sit down: for your principalities shall come down, even the crown of your glory.” The Biblical allusion in and of itself demonstrates Kendrick’s enormous success. By telling himself to be humble, he’s effectively implying that he’s the king right now.

The Jeremiah quote speaks of his profound anxiety about how success might corrupt his soul.

It also demonstrates his unease about this status; as a rapper who has discussed his Christianity, the Jeremiah quote speaks of his profound anxiety about how success might corrupt his soul.

Additionally, these lyrics in the chorus are not given space to breathe. Here, group backing vocals bark orders underneath the lead (“hol’ up hol’ up”, ‘sit down, bitch!”). These vocals somehow sound like Kendrick hearing voices in his head; they accordingly have a chaotic quality, speaking over each other and trying to distract from his lead vocal. Kendrick’s chorus lead vocal might be simple and effective, but these backing vocals sound like the anxiety inherent in the song.

These conflicted feelings are also expressed in the chords of the song – or the lack thereof. The main musical motif is a repeated piano figure playing only three notes throughout the whole song: E, F and A. Have a look at how it sits under the lyrics with the shape of the piano’s melodic contour.

Usually, in popular music, there will be at least one instrument in the arrangement (usually a guitar, piano, synth or backing vocals) playing or singing a full chord – usually 3 notes (and sometimes more!). The middle note of a chord tells us whether it is major or minor. The difference between major and minor is sometimes expressed simply as chords that sound “happy” or chords that sound “sad”.

However, ‘HUMBLE’ only has three notes overall, so we can’t figure out whether the chords are major or minor. And since the song is so minimal, there aren’t any other elements (like a melodic vocal) to imply it either.

Instead, we have this looping, ominous repetition on the piano’s low register, and a tonal centre that feels unstable. Because of this musical uncertainty, and the use of the F (which doesn’t appear in the E major or E minor scale), this motif has an unfamiliar, modal quality that works well to support the uncertainty of the lyric.

Similar to its lack of fully-articulated chords, the song’s arrangement is fairly minimal. Kendrick’s lead vocal is the only constant throughout the entire track. In the diagram below, we can see a relatively small array of sounds (especially when compared to some of the complex arrangements on To Pimp a Butterfly). These sounds are always used in support of the lead vocal message.

The core group of sounds used throughout ‘HUMBLE’ are the 808 drum kit, the repeated piano figure, a high-pitched rising synth sound, and a bass part that functions more as a sonic texture than the more supportive, melodic role a bass part usually has in popular music. (Note: This bass part is much more prominent on the album version of ‘HUMBLE’. In the video clip on YouTube, the volume and effect of this booming bass part is significantly reduced.)

Kendrick and Mike Will Made It keep the sonics interesting with small changes to the song’s arrangement through the verses. For example, in the first verse, it repeats the piano riff four times before doubling it, making it sound twice as big (right before he raps, “Girl, I can buy yo’ ass the world with my paystub”).

After four repeats, the doubling is rested until the chorus. This adds to the song’s harmonic texture and distinguishes one part of the song from another. The ascending synth line is used similarly, with the rising, alarm-like nature of the sound adding to the restless energy of the lyric.

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“Say unto the king and to the queen, Humble yourselves, sit down: for your principalities shall come down, even the crown of your glory.” - Jeremiah 13:18

It’s fascinating too how Australia has embraced ‘HUMBLE’, elevating an African-American man to the top of the country’s most influential countdown – triple j’s Hottest 100 – for the first time in its nearly 30-year history. (Kendrick has come close before, losing out to The Rubens’ ‘Hoops’ in 2015.)

While the specific cultural references to Jeremiah 13:18 and Grey Poupon are likely lost in this context, the central message of ‘HUMBLE’ clearly has a special resonance in a country that coined the phrase “tall poppy syndrome” in the 1980s.

The “tall poppy syndrome” is the idea that Australian culture fundamentally likes to cut people down to size if they’re successful and a bit full of themselves. While the tall poppy as a metaphor for success goes back to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, concern about not wanting to be seen as a tall poppy is a cultural value important within Australian culture. And here we have Kendrick saying, “Bitch, sit down, be humble.”

The resonance is obvious – lots of Australians have ambitions and success, but they don’t want to look like they’re prideful, like the dreaded tall poppies. Which is exactly why Kendrick’s lyrics, and the way those lyrics are backed up by Kendrick’s musical choices – the sound of the grand piano and the 808, the lack of resolution in the piano notes, the voices in Kendrick’s head, and so on – all resonate.

Sit down, tall poppy, be humble.

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