Being a great writer means, well, how the fuck should I know? I’m just so-so. But I THINK it means a lot of things. A lot of similar attributes are universally attached to all great writers, with one of them being vulnerability.
Entertainingly vulnerable is a chore. A writer like Kendrick Lamar has the gift of letting us, the stranger; and us, his reader, into his space while keeping our attention. After he lets us in, the relationship matures. From song to song, he guides us through the innerworkings of a person most of us will never meet. But we feel invested in.
But not everyone can do this. Most of us can’t do it. But a select few can. From writers like Baldwin, to Morrison, to Kiese, a pattern emerges. They edit. They re-write. And they re-write the re-write. But technicalities aside, they are all vulnerable. Sometimes, to fault, I’m sure. Just imagine the strains put on their loved ones when they release something with that much vulnerability.
Kendrick, to me, is of this same vein.
Maybe he’s not as gifted from a pure writing prowess to put words together in the form of a traditional novel or memoir or series of short stories, but fuck. Could he? Nah, he couldn’t. Wait, maybe he could. Could he be that talented of a writer? Yeah. Also, no. Maybe he can’t navigate the intersections of those with more scholastic training. Maybe he can’t world build with details down to how the air smelled after a Mississippi rain like Alice Walker. But why can’t he be both a descendant of Nikki Giovanni and Tupac Shakur?
Kendrick is a writer, writer.
He could write a book; a script; a series of short stories; a joke; a poem. Hell, a constitution. And we would still universally recognize his talents. And those talents have been recognized. He won a Pulitzer, remember? But winning a Pulitzer doesn’t determine how great someone is. Reading the words through the proxy of instrumental productions and rhyming sequences tells us how great of a writer Kendrick is.
And Kendrick’s newest project, “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers,” reassures us of his writing talent. A talent that could span across different mediums, like light, traveling through multiple galaxies.
FOOTNOTE: My nigga would appreciate me nestling in an astrophysics comparison, btw. “Fear, what happens on Earth stays on Earth/And I can’t take these feelings with me, so hopefully they disperse.” But he probably wouldn’t care. I’m acting like he’s gonna read this shit.
Kendrick’s vulnerability drives this album. Hell, it starts the album.
In the opening track, “United In Grief,” his preamble to not only the song, but the entire project, is stated in his opening words. “I’ve been goin’ through somethin’ / One-thousand eight-hundred and fifty-five days.” It’s been 1,855 days since Kendrick released DAMN. “I’ve been goin’ through somethin’,” is vulnerable enough, right? This kind of admission is usually followed with vulnerable words of sadness; confusion; toxicity; grief.
Welcome to the world of Kendrick.
This project is him. It’s the sadness. It’s the confusion. It’s the toxicity. It’s the grief. “I WENT AND GOT ME A THERAPIST,” he (almost triumphantly) proclaimed on the first track. Before the therapist line, his monotoned, almost robotic cadence controlled “United In Grief.” The first few bars highlighted his financial securities still not bringing him the peace we are only to assume HE assumed it would. Then the admission of seeking help steers his cadence in another direction. The production is also altered. Only slightly. But enough for us, the reader, to know this roller coaster of self-vulnerability is still in its adolescent. “Poppin’ a bottle of Claritin, whoa/ Is it my head or my arrogance? Whoa,” Kendrick asks us. Does he need to clear his head? Or his arrogance? Claritin only helps with one, he thinks.
The lyrics “United In Grief” may come across as Kendrick patting himself on the back, if you’re not careful. In fact, it’s almost the opposite. It’s rather self-degrading. He recognizes even with his career achievements; the price of fame and fortune can only carry him so far. “I bought a Rolex watch, I only wore it once, I bought infinity pools I never swimmed in/I watched Keem buy four cars in four months, You know the family dynamics on repeat.” His bank account almost obsolete when tackling self-demons as he explores “money wiping the tears away” as a corollary of his own grief. He concludes “United In Grief” with telling us, the reader, that he grieves different. While also assuring us that everybody grieves.
Even the writer.
Kendrick’s writing exposé continues with N95. I-95, going North? Nah, the COVID Mask, N95.
But he doesn’t mention COVID, nor the pandemic on this track, so a lot is left for interpretation. However, when he utters, “You’re back outside, but they still lied,” it’s a clear reference to the lockdown rules. This one-line highlights Kendrick’s intentions throughout the song. It’s a new world order. And he can’t stand it. “The world in a panic, the women is stranded, the men on a run, The prophets abandoned, the law take advantage, the market is crashin ‘, the industry wants/Niggas send btches to sleep in a box while they makin ‘a mockery followin’ us, This ain’t Monopoly, watchin ’for love, this ain’t monogamy, y’all gettin’ fucked..”
Kendrick is a multifaceted writer. With ideas. A lot of them. Obviously, with so much swimming around his cerebrum, we may not agree with every construct. I don’t know if I agree with Kendrick or not on “N95,” but he does challenge my conventional way of thinking. And I don’t mind that. How I think about the world we live in; What I think about the Pandemic; What I think about our handling of the Pandemic, all being challenged. However, there is one line he wrote in “N95” that I can’t hear/read enough, because I agree with it so much. It’s the last one. It’s how he concluded “N95” is why I hold it in such high regard.
“What the fuck is cancel culture, dawg? Say what I want about you niggaas, I’m like Oprah, dawg/I treat you crackers like I’m Jigga, watch, I own it all, Oh, you worried ’bout a critic? That ain’t protocol.”
In “Father Time,” Kendrick’s vulnerability rears its beautifully ugly head, yet again. It’s an emotional rollercoaster of mixed feelings. His feelings about how he was raised; masculinity, both the paramount and toxic kind; violence; family struggles; and progressive ideas that he hopes will become generational solutions. “Daddy issues, hid my emotions, never expressed myself/”Learn shit bout bein’ a man and disguise it as bein’ gangsta.”
He also writes about his own maturity, or lack thereof, admitting he was confused by Drake and Kanye’s reconciliation. He wrote this line, in part, to get our attention. But to also continue with the theme of “Father Time.” “Hid my emotions, never expressed myself,” is again, a shot at his own insecurities and lack of maturity.
Kendrick’s father, for the first time ever, is portrayed as a villain. Which is unusual. Kendrick’s father has either been built as a hero, at best, an antihero, at worst. For Kendrick to call out his father’s hyper masculine, regressive ways of raising our writer is an admission that maybe his father was more flawed than us, the readers, originally assumed.
“Father Time” is a writer expressing his desire to break a generational curse continued, fostered, and passed down by the writer’s father
Kendrick, the writer, navigates his vulnerability throughout this project, his journey. The writer pricked and prodded. You can tell. The writer in him was trying something new. Something more intimate for the reader. More revealing. More truthful. To a fault, at times. Sometimes, Kendrick the writer thought he had a license to use the word “fggot,” as he did in “Aunt Diaries.” This assumption of having such a license is based on this foundation of “empathy.” He thought he received this license because his overarching point was tackling homophobia and transphobia.
Writers sometimes make this mistake. Even the best of them.
In “Aunt Diaries,” he starts with, “My auntie is a man now,” catches the reader’s attention. This is intentional. And he reminds us of the theme. He repeats it. Maybe because to him, it’s surreal. Is he coming with the terms that his uncle is a trans man? I think so. We can even tell from the pronoun usage. He switches between him and her; he and she. Was this done intentionally? Or by mistake? He goes from, “I think I’m old enough to understand now/Drinking Paul Masson with her hat turned backwards,” to, “Asked my momma why my uncles don’t like him that much/And at the parties why they always wanna fight him that much.”
The same pronoun mistakes litter Kendrick’s story about his cousin, Mary-Ann, who was previously known as Demetrius. This is not an intentional dig at Mary-Ann. Again, Kendrick’s writing ability and training didn’t originate nor get molded by scholarship. But he knows better with the barrage of F-bombs. Some of the usage is for shock value. Some of the usage is for “tackling” the cancel culture he despises (which was previously mentioned in N95). Most of the usage is to tackle transphobia.
It’s not perfect. But do we want perfection? Or do we want progression? Kendrick, despite his non-perfection, displays some semblance of progression.
Kendrick takes us to the Mariana Trench with “Mother I Sober.” As the piano faintly sings, so does Kendrick’s words, with a somber note. Kendrick’s mother’s sexual abuse stands on the epicenter of the generational family trauma Kendrick has endured.
A lot of Black, generational trauma is centered around sexual abuse. The kind of abuse swept under the rug for a myriad of reasons. Kendrick’s mother’s sexual abuse is projected onto Kendrick. Even though Kendrick didn’t realize it, at the time. “Only child, me for seven years, everything for Christmas, Family ties, they accused my cousin, “Did he touch you, Kendrick?”/Never lied, but no one believed me when I said “He didn’t”, Frozen moments, still holdin’ on it, hard to trust myself”
The heavy behind “Mother I Sober” pierces our reading eyes. “It was family ties,” hints at the abuse coming from inside Kendrick’s family structure, which is where most physical and sexual abuse is birthed. He admits that he felt inadequate. As if he should’ve done more to protect the person who has done the most for him. He confronts everything. Being a child prodigy; Becoming famous; Still being flawed, despite the money and fame.
Kendrick has managed to avoid the temptations of substance abuse. He reminds us of that, only to reveal that he is more concerned with a lust addiction. This admittance is followed by our writer coming to terms of him cheating on his fiancée, Whitney Alford. This vulnerability is heavy for our writer. And it sinks him low. So low, that it allows him to compare himself to his mother’s abuser.
We’re hurting our women.
He’s hurting our women.
As the pronouncement of his mother’s physical and sexual abuse is now in our rearview, Kendrick, through his voice, but more importantly with his pen, starts to intensify his aggression and frustration. Now, there’s a switch. He’s loud. But the writing becomes positive? Right? It does. Well, if we can’t call it positive, we can at least call it “addressing.” Yeah, it’s confronting, confronting the trauma. “A conversation not being addressed in Black families/ The devastation haunting generations and humanity/ They raped our mothers, then they raped our sisters/ Then they made us watch, then made us rape each other/ Psychotic torture between our lives, we ain’t recovered.”
This loud tangent of self-discovery is what makes this album special. It’s here that a light bulb is turned on. It is here, that he realizes it’s on him to break generational traumas. It is here, that we realize it’s on us to break generational traumas. It’s here that our writer writes to us, informs us there is an opportunity to do better.
Forgive others. Forgive yourself. Do better.
Leslie McLemore writes about a lot of different shit for Black With No Chaser. He is also the Takeaway Kang, the greatest baby father to the dopest babymomma, and the father of two beautiful girls, one of which gets on every nerve he has. The other one is sweet…sometimes. So, you know, balance. Sort of.
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