Updated: May 24, 2022
I remember the summer before 9th Grade, it felt like a transformative summer. We all knew life was about to change and we lived like it. My friends and I would go to Joes, the pizza shop near our suburb that we basically grew up inside, we’d get a slice for a dollar and smother it with Joe's special barbecue sauce, we’d get an Arizona then hang out at the park all day and make vines, we’d go to the movies and play basketball in our Aeropostale shirts, cargo shorts, 3D glasses and silly bandz. Life was perfect. On one of those random summer nights I was on YouTube and came across Rigamortis, a song by this artist named Kendrick Lamar. It blew my mind. This guy was rapping so well, and so fast, he would get progressively faster each verse alongside these crazy horns. The video had people playing trumpets and drums in the middle of the street. Everything about this song blew my 13 year old mind. I listened to Section 8.0 and it was amazing. It felt deep and dark but I don’t know if I really understood it, I don’t think I revisited it much either.
Fast forward to ninth grade, we were finally in High School, our faces started to change, we were getting taller, our voices were changing, the girls were different, and our world was rapidly changing. Within the first month of my ninth grade year 2 kids from my school were killed due to gun violence. Drake even mentioned it on the song No Guns Allowed with Snoop Dogg. That was also simultaneously around the same time Good Kid Maad City dropped.
As a black kid I have a completely different relationship with Kendrick Lamars music than many of his fans that frequent festivals. Kendrick Lamar was the only person accurately representing my reality. I didn't grow up in the 90s, Tupac was a myth to me, every rapper was talking about flexing or being the killer, nobody was talking about it how I saw it. I was a kid from the suburbs, but I was still a good kid in the mad city, surrounded by gang violence, drugs, and an oppressive institution, and I couldn't articulate it as profoundly until I heard that album.
Kendrick was this revolutionary conscious artist that was able to make these insane bangers with messages, and incredibly deep and cinematic concept albums that reflect himself, society and the world. He never sacrificed the music for the lyrics, everything meshed perfectly, he was breaking grounds sonically and lyrically, while also being accessible to a massive mainstream audience, which is literally insane if you just read his lyrics. Israelites who talk about Dr. Sebi don’t make it much further than your local mall, but Kendrick was able to create this incredibly accessible, yet completely out of the box production, with his masterful lyricism, storytelling, and vocal inflections. From the beginning Kendricks unique taste is what made him stand out. Dave Chappelle described Kendrick as someone with the perfect blend of influences, with jazz heavy production, the ability to create mainstream hooks while also maintaining artistic integrity, substance and conscious messaging, and just being a raw writer.
The control verse is what made Kendrick my favourite rapper. This wasn’t just a guy here to make some money, this wasn’t just a guy here to rap and get fly, or get models, he was here to change things and raise the bar, that meant lyrically, sonically, the way videos are shot, and the way that society operates. Kendricks taste continued to evolve, his music continued to get weirder and more avant garde, his taste went into visuals like the unique Black & White style in the videos for To Pimp A Butterfly or the Gordon Parks inspired music videos for Damn. The videos from TDE always looked and felt like it was an in house production. They felt like one of those ambitious art movements you learned about in your art & history classes with Jay Rock, Ab Soul, School Boy Q, Kendrick and Sza, it was this creative avengers of musical talent.
Kendrick was this commercial conscious rapper making eclectic artful music, like if Andre 3000 had ever gone solo and then morphed into a gangster rapper. Kendrick was a conscious rapper, but I don’t mean the usual conscious music we were accustomed to, this felt revolutionarily honest, it didn't take a moral high ground, Kendrick was seeking answers and making insights. He was looking at the world and seeing how it related to him. A lot of conscious hip hop is very bland and admonishes materialism and things of that nature, this was something else. Kendrick Lamar's lyrics were spiritual, relating to the human condition and it always felt like he was really looking for change, and it looked like he could create it.
The HiiiPower video is the perfect example of the type of artist Kendrick Lamar was, and who he became to a generation of people. The song talks about Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, the state of Black America, society, wars in the world, the video incorporates clips from Osama Bin Laden and various Al Jazeera news clips. Kendricks Section 8.0 album was about a leader coming to the understanding that something was very wrong in a burning world, and that he does not have the answers, but if the entire generation continues to question, and rallies around some ideas and values, we could teach each other and find some solutions. Kendrick dropped 3 classics after that album, each one more sonically daring that the last, and each one seeming more prophetic and profound than the last. No two albums sound like each other, each one is uniquely deep, their is barely any overlap in content or production. There are repeating themes musically like Kendrick has been influenced by Jazz from the beginning, but he makes it his own and uses the improvisation and creativity of jazz to create these new sonic landscapes where he lays his lyrics.
With each project Kendrick got more spiritual, as his wealth & fame grew, he saw how deep the problems he was trying to solve were. He got fame and wealth but still had friends dying in the hood, he was going through all the temptations that came with his new found plateau and role in society, he was trying to balance his new life with his faith, integrity and values.
His career had gone to another level, his words resonated to the point that they were used during revolutions, people placed their hopes, dreams and aspirations on this man to be a savior, not just of hip hop, not just of music, not just of Compton, and not just of black people. Kendrick went on to win multiple grammys and a pulitzer prize, it was clear that his fame had reached a critical mass and other people were watching, and then he disappeared for 5 years.
Kendrick came back with The Heart Part 5, a song that I could write multiple books about. To call it a song is diminishing what it was. The song featured this incredible Marvin Gaye sample chopped up to create this mesmerizing backing vocal for what seemed like a psychic session. Kendrick discusses this toxic culture and how it feeds each other into this never ending well of toxicity, where even if a leader rises up with solutions, they are killed because that's the culture. Kendrick called himself a spirit medium multiple times on his album, and in this particular video he channels the spirit of his friend Nipsey Hussle for a farewell verse to his fans & family, but he also talks about himself as "all of us." His face morphs from Kanye to OJ Simpson to talk about how the conditions of America, and even more specifically how the conditions of Black fame in America leads people in a certain direction, like how the Kardashians are antagonizing Kanye to turn him into OJ Simpson, or Chris Rock and Will Smith. The line "Hurt people hurt more people" is the thesis of the album that followed.
On May 13, 2022 Kendrick Lamar dropped his album Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers. It’s been 3 days, I’ve listened to the album more than 10 times, I’ve read the lyrics with the music and without the music.
Firstly, I think this album is amazing. I think the music is beautiful, It’s catchy but all of these songs are incredibly profound, Kendrick continues to take incredible risks. Recruiting production help from some of the most legendary names in hip hop like Pharrell Williams and The Alchemist, Kendrick came with yet another obvious instant classic. From the vulnerability in the lyrics, to the production choices, down to the feature choices, everything about this felt like he was trying to elevate his sound. You can see how elements of each project have come into this masterpiece, you can see the Jazz influence in the technical process, yet the sound had this incredible classical aura. Songs like Savior Interlude & Rich interlude that had Kodak Black & Baby Keem spitting like their lives depended on it over string quartets, pianos & backup vocals. Some songs in here have some of the best writing in human history, I can imagine Crown being played in the 16th century or the 50th century and it would still resonate, because the lyrics were so true, and that’s kind of the spirit of the entire album. Other songs like Rich Spirit featured more trendy production styles and even they were covered with this spacy ambience and subtle drums, the beat sounds otherworldly, like the end of a thunderstorm. Crown has this eerie feel, it's Kendrick singing in his signature multi voice style over this haunting instrumental, Kendrick talks about the reality and expectations of his position as the number one rapper, as the head of his company, and just as the man responsible for his house & family, it's one of the best songs I've heard in years. He had moments like Purple Heart where he put Summer Walker and Ghostface Killah on the same track which was a pairing I didn't know I needed till I heard it. The music was daring with infinite replay value.
Kendricks storytelling abilities continue to grow, his lyricism is sharper than ever, but this album didn't focus on witty punchlines and metaphors as much as it focused on vulnerability.
Its crazy how catchy the music is because this album depicts extremely personal things he's going through. Kendrick was trying to find universal human truths by being introspective and looking within himself. I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to say I already get everything in the album after the third day, it took him 5 years to make, but this is my interpretation so far.
Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers is deeply about Kendrick Lamar, more than any album he has ever put out before. This album is Kendrick turning his storytelling and lyricism towards himself, & his view of himself. It’s an album about change, growth, pain, grief and self reflection. Kendrick went from the good kid in the maad city from section 8 looking for answers and glory, to the expectations of this modern day prophet and king, and heavy is the head that wears the crown. There was a global pandemic and wars in the street, & people really began asking where Kendrick was. Kendrick is like Bob Marley in that people really rally around this man, this album is detailing what comes with that pressure and that reality. Kendrick details his personal issues with his wife, infidelity & sex addiction, how that was fueled by his success & simultaneous grief about people close to him dying, how that led to his materialism, and how those issues represent themselves in all of society and the collective unconscious as seen in the fight story told in songs like We Cry Together.
Kendrick goes to therapy and finds that at the root of every single issue in the world is the individual, the child, the human, the man and the woman, and the dynamics we have in ourselves and our lives that display themselves in the collective consciousness, which leads to World Wars with people like Putin, these things are happening because that's how we all think. He talks about himself, Oprah, his mother, R Kelly and how it all stems from the same thing. Kendrick believes human beings are united in grief, masking our pain in various ways, popping the pain away, sliding the pain away, and he believes going to therapy was his first step towards healing. This album is structured like a therapy session.
We’re all the big steppers because we’re all killers, the food we sell, everything we do for money or in general that harms people or the planet, from fast food to how we objectify each other, how we literally kill each other, burglars, priests, everyone. We’re also all the big steppers because we tap dance around the fundamental issues and cancel each other instead of having the difficult conversations. Kendrick is the big stepper because he's tap dancing around the core of his issues for a lot of the first half of the album & using humour & ego as a coping mechanism. Mr. Morale is the hopes, dreams and aspirations that we put on other people like Kendrick to be our savior, instead of looking in the mirror and finding that within ourselves, like Kendrick did on this album, by going within, dissecting the plot of his own life & seeing how his everyday problems and social issues directly relate. How his mother was touched, how her pain affected him, his cousins and his family, how it made him a sex addict, and how that pain represents itself in the black community, in how rappers have historically rapped about women and the general misoginy in hip hop, the materialism in hip hop, how that represents itself in society and how that’s why we’re killing each other, to prove our masculinity for our egos. How it leads to homophobia & transphobia because men are insecure about their own masculinity. How men literally go to war because of it. The daddy issues that lead to the competitive spirit, the inability to express, the inability to connect, the gang wars in the street, people like Harvey Weinstein and R Kelly. It all comes from this sick and twisted reality that was conjured about by a cultural history riddled with sick and twisted realities, and it all lies in our egos.
Mr. Morale is Kendricks aspirations towards evolution or a higher form, which is why he's healing himself, so Mr. Morale would be the god-like existence he aspires humanity to achieve by looking within and breaking generational curses. Mr. Morale could also be the expectations people place on people like Kendrick to be more than men & to be prophets, instead of people looking at themselves in the mirror.
This album is extremely vulnerable, extremely personal, extremely open. Kendrick is evolving like a jazz artist, this sounds like the rap version of Alice Coltranes Reflections on Creation & space, if you listen to her interviews around that time, it's not far off from what this man's talking about. The album starts with Kendrick saying he’s going through something, and that’s an understatement. Kendrick is going through changes, he’s been on Dr. Sebi diets, he's been praying to flowers and trees, he's been questioning religion since his favourite cousin changed genders and he has proclaimed that he is choosing humanity over religion, he's been thinking about what fucking white bitches really means, he's been personally evolving, he’s been going to therapy and he’s been healing, he almost lost his wife of many years due to infidelity, he had 2 kids, we haven't gotten music because he's been busy with a whole life and he's putting it all back into the music.
The narrative of the project seems to be that Kendrick has been taking ownership of his work, starting his new company PGLang, building it up with his partner Dave Free & Cousin Baby Keem, he’s going through various lawsuits, and in that move, he is seeing his cousin go through a lot of the same things he went through. Being successful, having friends and loved ones die while you are succeeding, going to court proceedings, the envy that comes with success, the feds watching you, everything that comes with the crown, and this is Kendricks meditations, he was breaking down the root of the dangers of the world by breaking down the root of himself and breaking generational curses. He's realizing he can't hide behind his money, the world reminds him there's a danger even though he's made it out of the maad city. He also has Kodak Black narrating a lot of the album, because Kodak represents that same spirit. Coming from these environments, making it out, only for the environment to still haunt you. Kodak was just in the federal penitentiary and was pardoned by President Trump. Kodak & Kendrick are both wrapped up in this world of social influence, political influence, underworld influence, the American perception of a rapper, the expectation of a rapper, blackness in America, classism, being wealthy around poor people, the expectations of a spiritual leader, and the reality of being an actual leader, because like it or not, their voices are influential, impactful and valuable, they are both multimillion dollar conglomerates.
Kendrick urges everyone to look in the mirror, he tells them that placing your hopes on one man is a sinking ship and he would rather fall short of your graces than lose himself and the ones he loves in the fame, wealth and expectations of the rap life.
A lot of the lyrics are surreal. Since creating PgLang Kendrick Lamar has taken a surrealist approach to his work as seen with the PGLang promotional material from a few months ago that directly relates to this album. The video starts with Baby Keem staring into the sun, questioning why we weren’t allowed to stare into this ball of energy, kind of like Solluminati, and then the video takes a complete turn into this eye that’s driving a bike, some eggs, and some insane shit. Baby Keems character can be seen as Kendrick on this album, because he’s been spending time in nature and coming to revelations, the same way Keem was staring at the sun and told Yara Shahidi he had learned many things. Ultimately Yara learns to be in the present moment, and she learns the Power of Now, the name of the book by Eckhart Tolle, the therapist who narrates the entire album. Keem tells Yara to turn off her phone, the same way Kendrick has had his phone off for months, and as Yara shuts down the screen the time is 11:11, a synchronicity, something philosopher Carl Jung talks about. The video has various eyes running on the street, eggs breaking, baby keem and Kendrick taking the train, Kendrick saying this world full of ego let me cash out, then Baby Keem rapping boisterously about being King of rap. Then Kendrick is in a therapy session and a voice that I now recognize as Eckhart Tolle says “When you identify with something you are not, it always leads to suffering and unhappiness.” The video ends with Kendrick meditating on top of a street light and Jorja Smith asking if he has any thoughts at all. Kendrick has been meditating and going to therapy and he believes ego is causing all of the problems in his personal life, and ultimately in the world.
Surrealism is a cultural movement that developed in Europe in the aftermath of World War I in which artists depicted unnerving, illogical scenes and developed techniques to allow the unconscious mind to express itself. Surrealists like Dali were reading Freud, Jung and various philosophers to try & understand the unconscious, and it seems like Kendrick is dealing with the same concept of the collective unconscious but through the lens of Eckhart who acts as a therapist throughout the album.
The N95 Video came out and it's already trippy. The video has Kendrick with long hair doing various Jesus things like walking on water, but juxtaposed against his reality, which is still the theme of the album. The bible and the gun theme from section 8.0 continues.
This album is amazing. I’m going to listen to it some more. Kendrick Lamar is one of the most exciting artists alive and I'm grateful to be alive at the same time as this man. I hope there’s more visuals from Kendrick and Dave Free. This shit hard.
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