I think about Kendrick Lamar, like, a lot.
You have to understand; the man does not make regular albums. Instead, he crafts conceptual masterpieces that layer audio and lyrical imagery touching upon subjects ranging from overcoming poverty to black empowerment, spirituality, and more. If you could compress a movie, a novel, and a play down into a 16 track album – you would have something close to a Kendrick Lamar album. His background and ability to bring various scenarios to life had me often relating certain moments of my life to my favorite parts of his music. Joy, Sorrow, Defiance – there was a song to match every emotion a young man might feel. His music was a regular and cherished part of my early adulthood.
So when I sat at the bar one evening across from a good friend and she asked me, “When you speak to yourself – do you phrases starting with ‘you’ or ‘I’?” I couldn’t help but think of two of Kendrick Lamar’s songs titled by the same very names: “u” and “i.”
Before I go into the songs, you have to understand the question first. And to understand the question; you have to understand who is asking the question, right?
My friend was someone I had just recently started hanging out with but had always admired from afar. Funny, charismatic, bright, and beautiful smile, too – I could go on, but I am sure you get the picture. But she explained to me, despite all of this, often there would be times where she was unkind to herself, and when doing so, often referred to herself from a second-person perspective (i.e., “you did this” or “you did that”). She wondered if I had ever struggled with the same habit.
Initially, I was surprised to hear that someone like her could suffer like that. But when I thought about it, all I could feel was empathy. Who among us is not familiar with suffering in silence? And in this insufferable silence, you have no allies and only adversarial voices constantly running through your mind reminding you of all your flaws and shortcomings?
I could relate.
When you feel unworthy, you pursue perfection to prove your worth, and in this pursuit of perfection, you can become ultra-critical and your own worst enemy. As a result, every fault and error turns from a mole-hill into a mountain, and the chorus of voices in your mind is constantly there to remind you: “You are not worthy, never will be despite all you do, and it’s all your fault.”
Loving yourself is complicated. Kendrick says as much in the chorus of his song titled “u” of the album “To Pimp a Butterfly.” The scene opens with Kendrick drunken and alone staring into the mirror of a motel room. He screams and slurs his way through the processing and acceptance of emotional trauma that has haunted him throughout his rise to stardom: Those left behind to struggle while Kendrick pursues his dreams, all the unkept promises, the desire to save everyone. Yet, despite all his success and accolades, Lamar feels utterly alone, and the only voices he can hear are the ones reminding him that he is “irresponsible, selfish, in denial,” and push him to the brink of self-destruction.
But loving yourself, despite it all, is possible. The album “To Pimp a Butterfly” on a bigger scale is about how African-Americans have had to overcome generations of systemic taught self-hatred and learn to embrace and love themselves as they are. On a smaller scale, it’s a story about the journey of learning to accept and love yourself as you are, regardless of what you may have done or what may have been done to you. It’s easier said than done and Kendrick, much like my friend and myself, struggled with the task of self-love as well. However, by the end of the album, on the song “i,” Kendrick is able to accept himself and proudly state, “I LOVE MYSELF.”
Words matter. The way we speak to ourselves matters. It’s called the second-person perspective for a reason. Imagine a second person who followed you around every moment of every day, making hostile and accusatory statements like “you did this” or “you did that.” It sounds awful, right?
When you speak to yourself like this, you learn to build up this false image of who we are as people, this abstract, ethereal version of “you,” and you blame on all your shortcomings, mistakes, or problems on this idea that this “is just who you are.” As a result, you rob yourself of all self-agency and accountability. Just because that’s who you are today doesn’t mean that it has to be who you are tomorrow.
See, that’s why the Journey from You to I is so important when it comes to self-love. Because you can’t love yourself until you accept yourself, and the truth is? Loving yourself is complicated but taking accountability for yourself is even more challenging. We all do good; we all do evil. We all have our demons and wish we could do better. Sometimes things happen to us, and we have no explanation. Sometimes we do something to others, and we have no excuse, and that’s okay. You’re still precious, valuable, and worthy of love. What matters is what we do going forward.
At least that’s what I learned from my own life experiences and a couple of rap songs, and I tried to explain that to her, minus all the Kendrick Lamar references. I hope I did a good job. The truth is, I’ve been thinking about that moment, that conversation, and that question a lot lately. I think about all those out there suffering in silence, just like us. So for those of you out there, I’d like to remind you of something someone very wise taught me:
“Do you know who you speak to the most every day?”
So, be nice!”