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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

Dissecting why I love "King Kunta"

Kendrick Lamar's funky 2015 single remains a personal favorite for a slew of reasons, many of which come back to what I like in older music.


In looking through both my previous Senior Year Soundtrack entries and my list of prospective songs to cover, I noticed a dearth in hip hop and rap, and I found that kind of sad, but also understandable. Even though the genres are all around me and have a prominent place in mainstream music, I wasn't raised on hip hop, so I don't have the personal connection to it as I do to other songs and periods of music.


One thing I was raised on, though, is a healthy dose of the ages and styles that birthed hip hop: 60s and 70s soul and funk. I could go for days listening to nothing but Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, Sly & the Family Stone, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, or Parliament-Funkadelic. I love those records' bass-forward sounds, their exploration of the moods various chords give off, and above all their infectious grooves.


When I do listen to hip hop, I often think back to and listen for elements of those earlier styles, and the artists, albums, and tracks I play on repeat tend to have those elements audible. It's likely not a shock, then, that my favorite hip hop / rap album is To Pimp a Butterfly, by Kendrick Lamar. To Pimp a Butterfly certainly pushes boundaries with some of its sonic and thematic elements, but at the end of the day its production is rooted in those older sounds I love. Today I'm particularly focusing on "King Kunta," the track that back in 2015 was my gateway to falling in love with the album as a whole.

Let's run through that list I established earlier in explaining what I love about those earlier records in relation to "King Kunta":


Bass-forward sound? Check. Kendrick and producers Terrace Martin, Michael Kuhle, and Sounwave called upon one of the best bassists in the business in Thundercat, and he fills up the track's lower side with his distinctive tone — it's warm, yet lively, and it complements the bounce he gives to a straightforward line. The bass line is actually derived from a rap track from 2000, Mausberg's "Get Nekkid," featuring DJ Quik; Mausberg actually died that year before his album's release, so perhaps the line's inclusion on "King Kunta" is Kendrick et al's way of honoring him. The original line already has bounce to it, and Thundercat playing it on bass makes its delivery lighter and even more conducive to dancing.


Exploration of the moods that chords give off? I'd say check. Like a lot of funk music, "King Kunta" is based around just a couple chords, and in those chords staying steady while the sound shifts in other ways, their nuances are explored through different extensions and rhythms. There are the obvious melodies like the guitar solo at track's end, but I want to highlight the vocoded "oh-ahh-ahh-ahh" as a great example of this exploration; it's another melodic figure that intertwines with the steady quarter-note guitar while providing emphasis on some colorful notes.


The relationship between the two main chords is also at the forefront of the instrumental: "King Kunta" is largely in E minor, but the first and second verses explore F minor, just a half-step above and outside the main key. There's a tension that develops in these sections through the higher chord and the sounds built on top of it, and that tension is released when the song returns to E minor.


Infectious grooves? Check, and then some. I'm amazed at just how groovy and bouncy straight-ahead rhythms can be, but that's what happens when a track is built with a bounce to it from the ground up. On top of Thundercat's bass, I think the kick drum hitting on every beat (as well as the second upbeat) throughout most of the production gives each beat a real strength that you feel regardless of your speaker quality. A snare fills out the backbeat, and a hi-hat sampled from Curtis Mayfield's "Kung Fu" (speaking of Curtis) at the end of the four-bar loop makes the start of each new loop feel like a landing point, as does the flexitone — this cool thing — playing right on the beat.


The main beat being just so solid and straight makes all the subdivisions and syncopations feel that much more impactful. Kendrick's dynamically delivered sixteenth-note raps fill in and fill up the bars, and the backing vocals that come in from time to time accent certain subdivisions in a way that augments the groove both the instrumental and Kendrick have built up.

 

Of course, there's also much more to Kendrick's rap to his rhythmic flow, or his references to James Brown ("I can dig rappin'") and Michael Jackson ("Annie, are you okay?"). At its core, "King Kunta," like all of To Pimp a Butterfly, is about the Black experience in modern America. It's a subject set up by the song's samples and nods — including the title itself and a line in the chorus being a reference to Kunta Kinte, the protagonist of Alex Haley's novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family — but made truly impactful by Kendrick's words. "King Kunta" focuses on a more positive side of Black American life in highlighting how Kendrick and others continue to thrive despite all the institutional obstacles thrown in their way, from the racism ingrained through media to the justice system, on top of universal roadblocks like greed. Kendrick celebrates this individual and collective success by throwing it back in his rivals' and detractors' faces, something made even more powerful by his setting of the music video in his hometown of Compton. It all comes together to feel so satisfying from both a musical and a narrative perspective, even for someone on the other side of the societal conflict that grounds the track and the album.


I could keep writing about Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly, and "King Kunta" for paragraphs on end, but at this point, it'll likely take you longer to read this article than it does to listen to "King Kunta" itself. I'll end here by encouraging you to go back and listen to the track and the whole album from which it comes. I recommend multiple listens over a few days so that you can really learn to appreciate all the nuance put into the entire work.

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