HUMBLE.: Five Observations
1. HUMBLE. consists of just the following three pitches:
That's all. This is the musical DNA of the song that has catapulted Kendrick Lamar back to the forefront of American music. Given the rich, layered texture of much of KL's catalog, this succinctness is surprising. But it is precisely this brevity that makes the song so effective. Similarly to how Bach weaves elaborate compositions from 3- or 4-note contrapuntal motives, KL delivers arguments both rhetorical and musical based on the starkest of musical premises. He proves, paradoxically, that his lyrical success is both because of and in spite of the minimalist beat behind him.
2. A key element that makes the music video successful is the combination of musical simplicity and visual complexity. Director Dave Meyers bombards us with scene after scene replete with meaningful iconography. The imagery is so lit that KL et al.'s heads are literally on fire. This video is a hermeneutician's dream. But to the extent that our eyes are overwhelmed, our ears are proportionately not. The fact that we can parse the music video's sonic content without much effort means that we can spend more of our thinking energies on its visual and extramusical elements.
3. The song exhibits one of KL's signature formal constructs, which is the repetition of modular musical units. These units are all the more identifiable given their idiosyncrasies. For example:
Perhaps there are linguistic groups amongst whom the ending of sentences with the word "funk" carries a particular signification; perhaps not. In either case, a lot of people are going to start ending their sentences with "funk" now, because the words with which KL precedes them are so rhythmically memorable.
4. Towards the end of the first verse, KL asserts:
The lines invite further contemplation because we have no idea what he's talking about. What the hell are his "strokes"? The annotations on Genius.com posit that his "left stroke" refers to The Heart Part 4, the promotional single KL released last week, so that his "right stroke" indicates the new album slated for release in a couple of days. This explanation is unsubstantiated, and a bit too on-the-nose for a wordsmith as abstruse as KL.
An alternative interpretation is to assume "the strokes" symbolize the couplet itself - i.e. the "left stroke" is the first line, the "right stroke" the second. The lines are crafted for the very purpose of going "viral," and ensnaring listeners in a "spiral" of self-reference. If this theory holds true, then KL has achieved something God-like: he has accomplished a goal by virtue of proclaiming it so.
5. To whom does KL speak? Big Sean and other rappers? Us, the listeners? Himself? Likely all of these constituencies simultaneously - after all, this song is an almost-unheard-of instance in which the artist brags about how modest he is.
This narrative design, in conjunction with observations 3 and 4 above, highlights not merely KL's self-awareness (i.e. consciousness of his own motives/desires), but his self-awareness-awareness (i.e. consciousness of consciousness of his own motives/desires), his self-awarenesss-awareness-awareness, and so on ad infinitum. Like other great artists, KL embeds recursion into the structure of his art.