The moral mystery of Kendrick Lamar

The name Kendrick Lamar goes hand-in-hand with some of the most prominent names in hip hop: Eminem, Kanye West, Jay-Z, Tupac Shakur, Nas. But we know who most of these people are, right? Kanye West is an eclectic genius, pioneer of hip hop production, and all-round mastermind of modern music, with his fair share of controversies. Eminem has the fastest flow in the game, and is renowned for expanding hip hop into new cultural spaces that had formerly been dominated by rock music. Jay-Z fused business acumen with musical intelligence before Kanye brought in artistic integrity, while the names 2Pac and Nas hardly need an introduction in the world of hip hop.

The cover art to Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers.

But Kendrick Lamar? Compton-born, complex lyricist, intriguing commentator, and uncomfortably uncontroversial rapper hailed as the leader of ‘the culture’, a position he has now forfeited on his latest quietly rebellious record, Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers. ‘I choose me,’ Kendrick proclaims on the last song, ‘Mirror’, echoing not just Michael Jackson’s moralistic ‘Man in the Mirror’, but also the self-reflective commentary of William Shakespeare that art ‘holds a mirror up to nature’. Indeed, Kendrick Lamar has announced, and withdrawn, aspirations to surpass Michael Jackson in music as an art form, while his Pulitzer-prize lyricism has been compared with Bob Dylan, who is in turn compared with the poets and playwrights of old. Lamar is now even taught in English classes. Less ‘mystery’ than ‘mastery’.

But Kendrick’s past remains obscure. Growing up around street gangs but not definitively within them, confronting grief and despair at every turn and yet nurtured by the greatest in hip hop at an early stage, after a masterful YouTube video cover of Kanye West’s ‘Monster’, from Mr. West’s own masterpiece, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kendrick Lamar doesn’t reveal much on Mr. Morale between intriguing snippets from a strictly private showing.

The self-named ‘Ye’ wrote that record in his early 30s, a stage Kendrick is now at, and one which Dante’s protagonist reaches in his descent into the Inferno. But while Dark Fantasy documented the descent into hell, Mr. Morale sounds like Kendrick has already left. ‘I grieve different,’ Kendrick announces. Is this someone who is grieving, has grieved, will grieve, or grieved long ago, and is now reflecting on the return of what he repressed?

Dark Fantasy also followed a period of silence from Kanye West, but a silence spurned in part by his own actions, notably an embarrassing confrontation with Taylor Swift on live television. Mr. Morale, by contrast, follows a silence that Kendrick imposed on himself, as result of two-year writer’s block, manifesting in a five-year gap between 2017’s rock-influenced DAMN. (like the rock influence behind Dark Fantasy) and this year’s much-anticipated, yet strangely surprising, release.

Kendrick Lamar doesn’t go on Twitter sprees, and doesn’t voice his political opinion frequently. He doesn’t express any particularly shocking view, at least on the record. But he doesn’t really say much at all (with small exceptions, such as on a stand-out track of Mr. Morale, ‘Savior’: ‘Capitalists posin’ as compassionists be offending’ me’ – which capitalists, I wonder?). Kanye West couldn’t be more different.

Perhaps Eminem is a better comparison. Eminem expresses fury at the system in ‘White America’, while Kendrick Lamar’s ‘The Heart Part 4’, released before DAMN., declares: ‘The whole world has gone mad.’ Who knew?

Kendrick Lamar’s fury is quieter than Eminem’s. It is buried, not far below the surface, but it is there. Kanye West, meanwhile, is not so much furious as he is maddened by the state of the world, and the state of his personal life. Kendrick Lamar’s personal life seems, despite some of his songs about his troubled past, to be the stablest of all three, with a closely-guarded private life and a lasting marriage.

What Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, and Kanye West have in common is their shared inspirations: Nas, 2Pac, Jay-Z, and the classics of hip hop. On ‘F— the World’, 2Pac expresses totalising fury at the state of things, while Nas’s ‘The World Is Yours’ is a hopeful call to action (or, just hope?). Jay-Z, meanwhile, continues to criticise the system of incarceration on songs such as ‘The Ballad of O.J.’.

Kendrick Lamar is the latest upstart of the the whole crew. As a result, he faces the pressures of a newcomer, but also one who inhabits the critical atmosphere of post-2000s popular music, where all those who deviate from the status quo view risk being sidelined, like the Dixie Chicks after their criticism of the Iraq War. Hip hop has its orthodoxies too, as Kanye West realised long ago, and as Kendrick Lamar is now realising, in his Dantean moment.

Musically, Mr. Morale is no Dark Fantasy. But Kendrick Lamar has been consistent across all his recent releases. Known as the king of ‘bars’ (or lyrical flow), Lamar is catching up on West with ‘beats’ (or musical production), too. The production on Mr. Morale is almost as transcendent as last year’s chaotic Donda, although Kendrick, as the newcomer of hip hop’s reigning duo, risks being seen as a copy-cat. Combining the beauty of Kanye’s production with the brilliance of Eminem’s rapping, Kendrick strikes an uneasy, yet tantalising, balance between the extremes. It may be only a matter of time before he releases something of the calibre of Nas’s Illmatic or Kanye West’s Dark Fantasy, but whether he will be as politically overt as 2Pac’s Me Against The World or Kanye West’s Yeezus remains to be seen.

Of course, there was To Pimp A Butterfly, which rode the wave of protests against police brutality in the mid-2010s. But this case essentially rides on the song ‘Alright’, which has more in common with Nas’s ‘The World Is Yours’ than, say, Kanye West’s ‘New Slaves’, which takes a clear and definite stand against everything Kanye West in the early 2010s deemed to be slavish about modern civilisation (and there is a lot).

Kendrick Lamar is hardly imprecise in his aim, and is as particular in his political examples as he is in his narrative history of his past. Often, these narratives coincide, as in the early track ‘The Art of Peer Pressure’ from Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, where Kendrick takes aim at the system of social norms underpinning ‘bad behaviour’. On other occasions, Kendrick indulges the vices of the system, as in the brilliantly incendiary ‘Backseat Freestyle’. These songs mimic the similar dichotomy on Dark Fantasy, where Kanye is torn between the devilish ‘Monster’ and the accepting ‘Blame Game’, which itself devolves into an ego-trip towards its saddening conclusion.

The conclusion to Dark Fantasy is ‘Lost In the World’ and ‘Who Will Survive in America’, a duo of personal and political insight that is ‘at once ancient and modern,’ as Pitchfork put it in the publication’s five-star review of the album. Kendrick Lamar divides his insights across his albums, relegating political commentary to To Pimp A Butterfly, personal observations to DAMN., and complex bridging between worlds to the untitled unmastered playlist between those albums, and the current eclectic world of Mr. Morale.

‘Everyone grieves different,’ as Kendrick himself says. But Mr. Lamar certainly grieves distinctively enough to earn the title of Mr. Moral. Whether he can be Mr. Political is the real mystery. Like the philosopher who leaves the cave, Lamar may well return to the limelight again someday, if he has seen enough light to convince we cave-dwellers that it is worth taking a break from the grind, and finding peace in the mind. Maybe then, we stand a chance at changing the former in the light of the latter.

‘You can’t help the world until you help yourself,’ as Kendrick quotes the cliche. Criticising Kanye West in ‘The Heart Part 5’ music video for being ‘always on the offence’, Kendrick Lamar, ever the elusive figure, suggests there may be a better way to sieve through the sands of grief, to find the gold dust needed to at last make the world a moral plain, again. Whether he can do it is the real mystery. I’m happy to wait and see.

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