Kendrick Lamar always gives us something different, and with it comes an honesty that we are supposed to find in hip hop music. Hip hop music was born in the late 1970s to give voice to the voiceless and be brutally honest about the failure of the state and society.
Hip hop not only gives hope, but it also gives the remedy. It gives you the “how to get out”, and if a hip hop artist delivers it as perfectly as Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five did with their smash hit “The Message”, you reach the audience that needs to hear it.
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is Lamar’s fifth studio album, and it departs in many ways from his previous albums. His first album, Section 80, had a critical look at the neighbourhood he grew up in. He highlights the issues that youth were continually facing. The last track on the album, “Hiiipower,” became the anthem of a generation that yearned to leave the confined borders of the ghetto.
His second album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, addresses gang violence and the pressure of joining a gang. The album takes you through a day in the life of Compton youth. The story follows Kendrick as a teenager navigating the street of Compton that are marked by Bloods and Crips – Red and Blue. An irony that does not escape him. The album deals with drug and alcohol abuse. It climaxes with the death of his friend, and this marks the turning point in Kendrick’s life. He decides to pursue hip hop full-time and to use hip hop music to change the neighbourhood and city he lives in.
His next album, To Pimp A Butterfly, deals with the larger national politics of being black in the world. As he started travelling the world, he recognised that the fate of black people everywhere was similar. His journey takes him to the cell of Mandela in South Africa, and when he returns to Compton, he realises that he is institutionalised like a prisoner. He realises that he cannot help him from running back to his neighbourhood like the prisoner. The danger of returning to the neighbourhood is death. A death will either be at the hands of gangsters or the police. He founds comfort in a posthumous conversation with the rapper 2pac Shakur who encourages him not to give up.
His next album, DAMN, deals with his state of mind after attaining worldwide fame. Since he was catapulted into worldwide fame after the release of To Pimp A Butterfly, it affected him on a psychological and emotional level. Suddenly, like 2Pac Shakur, he features in the news and is heavily criticised by Fox News for his remarks on police brutality in the USA. He also feels like he is taken for granted by the music industry, and with this album, he reminds the world of his true roots. He is willing to fight back and not keep quiet. Listening to this album, you can feel he is boxed in by fame and the responsibility of being a worldwide public figure.
This brings me to his latest album – a masterpiece in the making. This album introduces the patrimonial side of Kendrick. Kendrick, now married and a father of two young offspring, realises that he has to break a generational curse. If not, his offspring will fall into the same trap as he did. You get a sense that his reality of being a father gave him a different responsibility. He reflects on his father and his mistakes as a spouse. He wants to be a better father, and he wants to break the generational curse, and he can only do that if he comes clean to the world about his shortcomings. Lay it all bare for the world to see, and tell people he is only human. He cannot be the saviour fans expect him to be. Tell them the truth.
The album covers various topics, including cancel culture, homophobia and violence against women and children. For example, on the track “Saviour”, he addresses the selectiveness of the collective unconsciousness (a reference to Carl Jung). On this track, he explained to those calling him out during the Black Lives Matter protests that for them, it is one protest a year, but for him, it is 365 protests a year. He also warns fans that he is not the saviour they make him to be. On the track “Aunty Diaries”, he shares how his aunty and cousin were abused for being queer in society. He recognises that he, too, contributed to their pain. For that, he is calling out his hypocrisy – opening it for the world to see.
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is truly a hip hop album. It fuses different styles into a coherent and well-balanced album. It has a strong message, and it uses various hip hop sounds to emotionally connect you with Lamar’s journey of newfound responsibilities – the insecurities that come with being a spouse, a father and a leader. The album is divided into two parts. The first part is for radio, and the second is for true hip hop fans who were into his earlier mixtapes.
Overall, the album leaves us with something to think about: Would you look in the mirror and tell yourself “, I choose you.” Would you choose you with all your shortcomings? Are you willing to let go of the past to break a generational curse, or would you keep running back for a visit? Are you still institutionalised?