A Composer Breaks Down The Music Theory Behind Kendrick Lamar’s “United In Grief”

Renell Madrano

A Composer Breaks Down The Music Theory Behind Kendrick Lamar’s “United In Grief”

Renell Madrano

So far, this column has mainly dealt with pitch-centered music, focusing on harmony and melody. With hip-hop, we generally consider pitch to be of secondary importance, with rhythmic content being primary — which is why rap music often gets short shrift when discussing music theory. This dismissive attitude towards rap music has been pervasive in academia, but the attitude is changing. Hip-hop contains vital musical constructs not commonly found in other forms of music, and these innovations represent phenomenal artistic achievements. Those of us who work in orchestral, jazz, rock, folk, etc., can gain a lot from really listening to, and engaging with, hip-hop.

Kendrick Lamar’s long-awaited new double album Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is expansive, dense, and nuanced. Upon first listen, it’s immediately clear that Kendrick’s intention here was not to release an accessible collection of digestible pop hits. After repeated listening, I’m still wrapping my head around this sprawling, messy, and brilliantly creative work. There’s so much evocative material on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers that it’s hard to know where to begin — and much of it seems to defy analysis. Let’s dive in to the album’s arresting opener, “United In Grief,” and try to figure out how it works.

Early on in “United In Grief,” Kendrick reveals he’s been “going through something” and we learn he’s speaking with a therapist. In this opening song, his lyrics introduce themes of family and generational trauma, acceptance from a damaged and scornful culture, and healing.

Like much of the music on the album, the song doesn’t immediately conform to a familiar song structure (like the verse-chorus form or the 32-bar song form). But it’s not through-composed either. We can think of the song as a suite in three parts, each of which sounds like it could form a standalone song, and each of which defies any kind of conventional labeling.

A Capella Introduction

As with all Kendrick Lamar tracks, “United In Grief” lives in its own sonic world, one made up of surprising musical shapes and textures. While most (or maybe all?) hip-hop songs are written in 4/4 common time subdivided with clear downbeats and backbeats, Kendrick has a history of breaking with convention by crafting odd rhythmic groupings, asymmetrical phrases, and other curiosities that grab the listener’s ear in unexpected and original ways. To Pimp A Butterfly’s “Alright” is one example; “United In Grief” is another. See Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Choral Opening to "United In Grief" with Shifting Meter

Listen to what happens next… it’s unexpected and theatrical.

Phrygian Dominant Meets Triplets

Apart from some oblique backwards snare-drum effects, there are no drums in the next section — not even an 808 hi-hat keeping time. But what we do get in the instrumental backing track is something far more captivating than programmed kick, snare, and hi-hat: sparse, staccato piano chords marking downbeats by alternating between a G-Major triad and an A♭-Major-♭5. This back-and-forth chord movement creates a cyclical sensation of tension and release because the notes G and B in the first chord modulate upward by a half step (or semitone), creating a kind of dissonant rub, while the D holds steady.

In the first chord, the D assumes the role of the perfect 5th — a comfortable interval relative to the root. But that same note plays an entirely different role in the second chord: that of the tritone, the most jarring interval in the 12-tone system of music. Notably, because the C in the second chord forms a Major 3rd interval relative to the A♭ root note, this results in a Lydian sound, one that conveys a sense of hope and can even sound inquisitive. (For more background on this, check out a previous article in this column on Lorde’s “Solar Power.”) The D note on top forms an inverted pedal point as the two chords bounce back and forth, creating a kind of restrained but percolating sense of excitement. (For more background on how pedal points work, check out a previous article in this column on Coldplay’s “Coloratura.”) See Figure 2 below.

Figure 2: Theatrical Piano and Triplet-Flow Section

What’s curious about the G-Major and A♭Maj♭5 chords is that they’re drawn from the 5th mode of the harmonic minor scale — what we call “Phrygian Dominant.” The scale degrees are 1, ♭2, 3, 4, 5, ♭6, ♭7, which means that in G Phrygian Dominant the notes are G, A♭, B, C, D, E♭, F. To be fair, we never actually hear the seventh scale degree in “United In Grief,” so that could also be a “natural 7,” or F#. If you play or sing this scale, you’ll hear that it possesses quite an exotic sound with a lot of melodic possibilities. See Figure 3 below.

Figure 3: Phrygian Dominant is the 5th Mode of the Harmonic Minor Scale

Another name for this mode is “Mixolydian-flat-9-flat-13,” which is how it’s described in the Berklee method. In standard jazz parlance, we might call it “Dominant-flat-2-flat-6.” It’s akin to the Hijaz Maqam scale in Arabic music, the Bhairavi in Hindustani (North Indian) music, the Hanumatodi raga in Carnatic (South Indian) music, and Dastgāh-e Šur in Iranian music. And you can find it in southern Spain (the Andalusian region of the Iberian Peninsula). As the name “Phrygian” implies, its origin traces back to ancient Greece. In short, this mode is used all over the world.

But in Western pop music, Phrygian Dominant is so rare that I can think of only a handful of songs that have used it. Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” are two that immediately come to mind — although in both cases, they blend Phrygian (a minor mode) with Phrygian Dominant (the same mode but with a Major 3rd instead of a minor 3rd), resulting in an octatonic (8-note) scale called “Spanish Phrygian.” In any case, I think it was a valiant move for Kendrick to open his album with chords derived from this rarely-heard-in-Western-pop music mode.

Returning to Figure 2 above, we can observe that the sparse piano rhythm makes room for Kendrick’s vocal to follow a fast triplet pattern, not unlike his rapping in the climax of “DNA.” But here, Kendrick’s delivery begins rhythmically tight with the grid, and restrained in tone, before building in energy as the section grows in intensity with chords shifting to D♭Maj7 and C7 (implying the ♭VI and V7 chords of a new key center, F minor).

OK, What Exactly Is Flow?

Every kind of popular music possesses its own central characteristics. For example, the defining features of bebop include complex chords and improvisation. In European classical music, functional harmony and voice leading are paramount. For rock & roll, it’s blues tonality and rhythm. With hip-hop, perhaps its central characteristic is the structural role that lyrics play — and, specifically, the way rappers convert phonetics into music. This idea is encapsulated in the concept of “flow.”

Flow is a rapper’s art of delivery using rhythm and articulation. We viscerally distinguish between different rappers’ flows based on how they sound and feel — e.g., Lauryn Hill’s neosoul flow on “Doo-Wop (That Thing)” vs. Rakim’s poised delivery on “Juice (Know The Ledge)” vs. A$AP Rocky’s sparse swagger-filled flow on “D.M.B.” As hip-hop has evolved over its 50-year history, flows have gotten more varied and complex, with Kendrick Lamar possibly serving as the perfect avatar for the present-day state of this progression.

Flow covers a lot of different aspects of a rapper’s performance. In his book, Rap Music And The Poetics Of Identity, Adam Krims describes complex flows by their “multiple rhymes in the same rhyme complex, internal rhymes, offbeat rhymes, multiple syncopations, and violations of meter and metrical subdivisions of the beat.” In his paper titled “On The Metrical Techniques Of Flow In Rap Music,” Kyle Adams, Chair of the Music Theory department at Indiana University, describes flows based on articulation and meter. “Articulative techniques” refers to how the rapper vocalizes the words (legato vs. staccato, etc.), while “metrical techniques” refers to when the rapper says them (placement of rhyming or accented syllables, the number of syllables per beat, etc.). With respect to metrical technique: Derivative flow is a type of verse construction where the rapper derives the placement (in time) of their syllables from the metric subdivisions of the beat they’re rapping over. In contrast, generative flow is a type of verse construction where the rapper’s vocal rhythms don’t necessarily correlate to the underlying beat.

In practice, the derivative-generative flow dichotomy is actually a continuum, with all hip-hop artists employing some combination of the two styles (the derivative side being more common). Notably, Kendrick Lamar’s ability to flow at each of the two extremes of the continuum, and everywhere in between, is quite remarkable. The song “King Kunta” demonstrates his expertise at the derivative end of the spectrum, while “For Free,” reveals Kendrick’s mastery of generative flow. And “United In Grief”? The different parts of the song fall at various points in between the two ends.

The section described in Figure 2 above shows Kendrick placing vocal rests on downbeats, and forming precise eighth-note triplet rhythms within the voids left by the piano chords. In effect, his flow generates a crystalline structure of subdivisions where none exists in the backing (piano) track. In contrast, the next section demonstrates Kendrick reinforcing an existing rhythmic structure, but while emphasizing and de-emphasizing subdivisions in surprising and virtuosic ways. See Figure 4 below.

Figure 4: Example of Syncopated 16th-note Flow in "United In Grief"

This frenetic section, characterized by a dizzying, heavily compressed breakbeat loop and poignant chord changes, has Kendrick reinforcing the 16th-note groove with his rapid flow. The drum loop doesn’t feature traditional snare backbeats; instead, the snare plays only ghost notes, along with the hi-hat pattern, to form the samba-like subdivisions in between accented kicks. Because we can hear strong downbeats with the kick, we never need to struggle to find the “1.” The relentless 16th-note groove could feel oppressive — even claustrophobic — except that Kendrick deftly stresses “weak” beats with strong syllables, and ties over or rests on strong ones.

He enters the verse (shown in Figure 4) on the “e” of beat 2 — i.e., the second 16th note of the second beat, which prevents the groove from feeling square and predictable, and the vocal phrasing crosses over the bar line into the next measure with a tied note (on the word “Chicago”) — a poetry device called enjambment. Sometimes he does emphasize downbeats (e.g., the lines “Fee-fi-fo-fum” and “Eyes like green”), but he nimbly breaks up the rigid rhythmic patterns with upbeat accents and with odd syllabic groupings starting a 16th note before the bar line (“Dedicated to the songs I wrote”). Whenever this syllabic syncopation starts to override our sense of meter, it seems Kendrick pulls us back from the brink of disorientation by reinforcing downbeats again. It’s a brilliant case study in how a rap flow can adhere to the grid while imparting a fluid, legato feel — one that is fresh and engaging.

Curious Harmony

Underpinning this section is an unusual, non-diatonic chord progression (i.e., one where the chords don’t all live together in the same key center). As shown in Figure 4, we have D♭Maj7 to Cmin7 to FMaj7(sus2) (or C/F). See Figure 5, below. These chord changes create a calming effect — a peculiar juxtaposition to the feverish pace in the rhythm. The D♭Maj7 and Cmin7 chords could be the IV and iii chords in the key of A♭, with the FMaj7(sus2) serving as a kind of “borrowed” chord from a different key—likely, C Major. And when we return back to the D♭Maj7 chord, we experience the sensation of hearing a Neapolitan chord modulation in the key of C. When the “I grieve different” choruses (interludes?) land, these chords create an emotional lift — one that feels comforting and hopeful, but also tinged with melancholy. It’s a curious combination.

Figure 5: Non-diatonic Harmony in "United In Grief"

In Summary

The “United In Grief” track, and the entire Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers collection more broadly, represents a kind of sonic alchemy — blurring, transforming, and combining unusual harmonic modes, clever chord progressions, modal interchange, and innovative rap flows into a new, enthralling kind of amalgam. If you haven’t yet heard the album, take some time and give it a good listen, front to back. It’s not easy music to digest, as it is complex and jarring. But it is beautiful.

“The thing that frightened people about hip-hop was that they heard people enjoying rhythm — rhythm for rhythm’s sake. Hip-hop lives in the world of sound — not the world of music — and that’s why it’s so revolutionary.” -Max Roach

A Brief Note Concerning My Music Notation

In his paper “Representing African Music,” CUNY professor Kofi Agawu cautions that Western notation cannot adequately represent African or Afrodiasporic music. For now, it’s the best tool I have, so I’ve decided to use it here while recognizing its limitations. When notating Kendrick’s rap vocals, I used the concept of “pitch zones,” which approximate where I hear his voice, so you should not assume these are exact notes. In other words, consider it a general representation of Kendrick’s performance, not precise documentation of it.

NOTE: An earlier version of this article referred to “melodic minor” where it should have said “harmonic minor.”

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