In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: some great songs with prominent literary references.
Kendrick Lamar is known for his dense lyrics, which can be interpreted in a number of ways. That has perhaps never been more obvious than with “King Kunta,” off of Lamar’s latest album To Pimp A Butterfly, and its repeated references to “yams.” Lamar provides a surface explanation for the metaphor when he says, “the yam is the power that be,” adding, “you can smell it when I’m walking down the street.”
That led a Chicago English teacher to conclude that “the yams” is a reference to a passage in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, where the protagonist “relishes a rare moment of defiant authenticity” when he purchases a baked yam from a New York City street vendor. In savoring the taste of the yam, he experiences a moment of communion with his Southern roots. So the yams would represent authenticity, a virtue frequently espoused by rappers—including Lamar, who says later in the verse, “And if I gotta brown nose for some gold / Then I’d rather be a bum than a motherfuckin’ baller.”
But how could authenticity have “manipulated Bill Clinton with desires?” For answers to that question, we turn to a less highbrow source: Urban Dictionary. That site lists a number of alternate, street-level definitions for “yams,” including the hips and thighs of a voluptuous woman (Clinton does have a well-documented weakness for those) and the orange-colored balloons wrapped around small amounts of cocaine and heroin, a common use of the term in hip-hop. (In Young Jeezy’s “And Then What,” he says: “Close shop then I do my count / Hide the rest of the yams at my auntie’s house,” a clear drug reference.) That second definition would explain another line in the song, where Lamar says, “The yam brought it out of Richard Pryor,” who publicly struggled with cocaine abuse throughout much of his life.
So the yams are authenticity, sex, and drugs, access to which are all desirable. And with desire comes power, leading to what is perhaps the root (no pun intended) meaning for “the yams”: In Chinua Achebe’s post-colonial classic Things Fall Apart, yams are the main dietary staple of the Igbo people, and a man’s worth is measured in his ability to produce said foodstuff. So the yam represents wealth and status, affirming Lamar’s confident assertion of himself as “King Kunta”—itself a reference to Kunta Kinte, the main character in Alex Haley’s Roots—the slave become king.