Kendrick Lamar's United In Grief Music Theory Explained

This column has mostly dealt with pitch-centered music, with an emphasis on harmony and melody so far. We often perceive pitch to be secondary in hip-hop, with rhythmic content taking precedence – which is why rap music is sometimes overlooked when discussing music theory.

 In academics, there has long been a contemptuous attitude toward rap music, but that is changing. Hip-hop features essential musical constructions not found in other genres, and these innovations represent tremendous artistic achievements. Those of us who work in symphonic, jazz, rock, folk, and other genres can benefit much from listening to and participating in hip-hop. 

Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, Kendrick Lamar's long-awaited new double album, is vast, rich, and subtle. It's evident from the first listen that Kendrick's goal here wasn't to deliver a collection of easily digestible pop tunes. I'm still trying to wrap my head around this sprawling, messy, and stunningly original composition after several listens. 

On Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, there's so much evocative material that it's difficult to know where to begin — and much of it appears to defy interpretation. Let's take a look at the album's captivating beginning, "United In Grief," and see how it works. 

Kendrick confesses he's been "going through something" early on in "United In Grief," and we discover he's speaking with a therapist. His lyrics address family and generational trauma, acceptance from a wounded and disdainful culture, and healing in this opening song. 

The song does not immediately conform to a familiar song structure, as does much of the music on the album (like the verse-chorus form or the 32-bar song form). But it's also not well-composed. The song can be thought of as a three-part suite, each of which sounds like it could be a stand-alone song and defies any kind of categorization. 

Introduction (A Capella) 

"United In Grief," like all Kendrick Lamar songs, exists in its own aural world, full of unexpected melodic shapes and sounds. While most (if not all?) hip-hop songs are composed in 4/4 common time with obvious downbeats and backbeats, Kendrick has a history of defying convention by creating weird rhythmic groupings, asymmetrical phrases, and other oddities that catch the listener's attention in surprising and innovative ways. "Alright" by To Pimp A Butterfly is one example; "United In Grief" is another. See Figure 1 for further information.


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