Written by Kieran Kenlock
For Kendrick Lamar fans, the wait for his fifth studio album has been excruciatingly long — one thousand, eight hundred and fifty five days to be precise. Excruciating because in the five years since DAMN — fans of different artists have been rewarded with new music to satisfy their cravings. Drake stans have alluded to him falling off, even questioning Kendrick’s place as one of the current best rappers alive. It’s been tough, but like any hopeful lover of true artistry, we knew the wait was necessary.
The world has changed dramatically in Kendrick’s five year hiatus, only now does it feel like we’re returning to some sort of normality, but to ignore the affect the time has had on everybody would be a damning oversight. In case you missed it, there was a shift in our focus from the external to the internal. For those of us that felt it, it was hard to ignore. For many, we were faced with ourselves for the first time. Feelings and emotions we once suppressed were now making their way to the forefront of our minds, and for the few who chose to acknowledge them faced the biggest test of their lives so far — facing their truth.
In a similar time period my life changed completely. I moved to Amsterdam and then back to London. Embracing a different way of living for three years gave me a new perspective on the world and the place that I was from but it didn’t come without its tension. I was constantly challenged, things that I thought were true were becoming redundant. Lessons I learned on the ends from friends and even family were being questioned, and I began to question what the truth really was. Being exposed to new cultures, experiences and people will open your mind way beyond the reaches of your imagination. But beyond anything, the experience confirmed a belief that I’ve had from an early age which was, that at our essence we’re all the same.
Up until this point, Kendrick Lamar albums have given us commentary on the world through his eyes, where he seems to exist on a number of different planes. His position as the observer to situations has introduced us to characters that have shaped his life, but his ability to reflect with such coherence has also given us a front row seat to incidents that have shaped his outlook too. Across the previous four albums, he’s granted us access to his genius and allowed us to coexist in his thoughts and theories on multiple themes; his early life and pseudo-experiences in Compton on Section.80 and Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, a poetic coming of age on To Pimp a Butterfly, and his juxtaposing struggle with wickedness and weakness on DAMN. All of these albums have served as insight to the artist that is Kendrick Lamar, and his abilities as a writer and storyteller have built up a reputation of being able to speak for people beyond himself, give voice to the voiceless and shed light on darker places of his community. But whilst these records are packed with depth and detail, Kendrick has always managed to keep his listeners at arm’s length from Kendrick Lamar the man. Mr Morale & The Big Steppers brings us closer.
In the Spotify short film A Day in Accra, Kendrick visits Ghana and reveals that this is the most present that he’s been on a project and it’s evident. Across its eighteen tracks we’re taken on a journey of self-reflection and self-discovery, where Kendrick confronts his past trauma in an attempt to lift a generational curse. The curse itself being the cycle of black families born into socio-economic struggles and the effects that these environments have on the individual, especially young Black men.
I came back to my city just over a year ago. Coming home after spending a significant time away is difficult and comes with its own trauma. Everything looks the same but now, you see things a little differently. Imagine being so close to all you’ve ever known, but the furthest you’ve ever been mentally. Having spent three years reconciling with myself from the safety of a new city and finding peace, I now found myself back in South London, confronted with my past. It’s a feeling of isolation that unless you’ve experienced it, it’s hard to understand. For months I asked myself why I felt so disconnected to what I believed to be my truth and some of my history that brought me to my present self. But that’s the thing about growth, when you’re in, it can leave you feeling alone, frustrated, scared and confused.
Like so many of us, Kendrick himself has been “going through something”. It would be easy to believe that someone who has given us political anthems such as Alright or introspection on How Much a Dollar Cost had already faced his demons. But Kendrick’s human too, not only that, he’s a Black man from Compton — a place where gang affiliation, hyper-masculinity, homophobia, misogyny and conspicuous consumption were built into the fabric of acceptance. This isn’t just within Compton, it exists in every inner-city environment where you find Black men, and that’s the trauma that Kendrick presents to us on this album.
The first listen was dense, almost jarring and I wondered if the naysayers were right — had Kendrick fallen off? I had grown so accustomed to Kendrick Lamar’s style of rap and his use of instrumentation, that when I pressed play and began to take the record in, something wasn’t sitting right. It took me a few more listens to fully understand the depth of the project, and as I started to peel back the layers, I realised just how important Mr Morale & The Big Steppers truly is. With this body of work Kendrick Lamar opens up the door for more discourse in the Black community, for the truth. But also the lies we tell ourselves and the people we love. Throughout the album Kendrick takes us on a therapeutic journey, unpacking his trauma, and with each song serving as a session in therapy, we get to see him identify, explore and acknowledge experiences in his life that have affected the relationships between his partner, his children, his parents, and close family.
It’s no secret that within Black communities we shy away from the idea of seeking professional help. The irony of this is, Black people across the world are probably in need of therapy more than anyone, especially Black men. We learn early on in life that it’s better to keep our mouths closed than to speak up about our true feelings; through the fear of not being accepted, the fear of being labelled weak or even the fear of being disloyal. We sit with our pain, and with our trauma upholding the tropes of what we think it means to be men in our communities — the pillars of strength that never waiver or show emotion. So when Kendrick say’s “Real nigga need no therapy, fuck you talking bout,” on the intro of Father Time it resonates with us on a deeper level. But at what cost?
This idea of sharing or ‘telling’ is something that sits heavy in our community and we harbour it so deeply that we ultimately do ourselves a disservice. It prevents us from truly being vulnerable and our ability to receive or give love is always attached to conditions. So often we run from love rather than embrace it, we hide from ourselves rather than confront our feelings and we prevent ourselves from loving others. It’s hard for us to accept the concept of the truth setting us free because we feel that our truth is so ugly, we’d rather not share it with anyone, and even when we feel safe we still hesitate to open up.
I learned when I was away that sharing my stories with people allowed me to heal, or at least begin the process of healing from the experiences that I had growing up, but since coming home I’ve been confronted with different versions of myself — different moments in time that have shaped and defined the belief that people have of me but most importantly the ones I hold of myself. I’ve recently been exploring my own truth and the reasons behind some of my behaviours and beliefs, whilst also trying to hold myself accountable for my actions. Tasks that I haven’t found easy especially as I’ve rarely seen it, and it’s probably why I found parts of this album not only triggering but also revealing.
Still it gave me hope. As we listen to Kendrick Lamar navigate some of his short-comings in relation to his own expectations and those of which come from the people around him, you can find solace in the fact that a lot of the time in our lives, all we’re doing is fighting ourselves and sometimes, all we have to do is allow ourselves to accept our past and forgive what has passed. So when Kendrick says “I’m sensitive, I feel everything, I feel everybody. One man standing on two words, heal everybody,” on the penultimate track ‘Mother I Sober’ we get a deeper sense of his purpose and devotion to his craft. By sharing his pain, his transgressions and his trauma to the world he gives us space to share our own and grow from them.
A lot of us weren’t taught how to emotionally navigate situations, and came up in environments where all we learned to do was survive. In some cases it’s life or death and in others it’s simply about fitting in. Some of us won’t deep the importance of Mr Morale & The Big Steppers just yet but as we transition through life and growing as men, specifically as Black men, we’ll start to understand the best cure for our afflictions is to share our feelings because the biggest strength that we’ll ever have is letting our guard down and letting love in.