American rapper Kendrick Lamar, a major figure in hip-hop, has just released his fifth album, Mr Morale & The Big Steppers, after five years of absence. A very rich disc, in which the 35-year-old artist exposes himself like never before. Whether he evokes his youthful traumas, the sexual abuse suffered by his mother and the infernal reproduction of patterns from generation to generation, whether he meditates on transidentity, paternity, religion, racism or violence, whether he addresses his own doubts, flaws and infidelities, he always manages to move admirably from the intimate to the universal. With the primary objective of nurturing and advancing the debate within its community, to which this Pulitzer Prize primarily addresses its committed prose.
To better understand the scope of his words and where this album fits in his career, with which he seems to be turning a page, we spoke with Nicolas Rogès, author of Kendrick Lamar, from Compton to the White Housethe first biography (in the world) of this immense rapper.
Admission of his addiction to sex and his infidelities, revelation of the sexual abuse suffered by his mother and the change of gender of his aunt, the fact that he confesses to having had a breakdown of inspiration for two years and to having undertaken psychotherapy: Had Kendrick Lamar already gone as far in revealing his intimacy as on this new album?
Nicolas Roges : I think it’s his most personal album, which is crazy when you think that each of his albums is an exploration of his childhood and his past. I find that it is even sometimes difficult to listen to as it is immodest. In left-behind towns like Compton, these issues are never talked about and people never go to see a shrink because they’re afraid of appearing weak. It’s a very interesting aspect of the album. In any case, I think he succeeded on Mr Morale & the Big Steppers to perfect its formula. Damn and To Pimp a Butterfly are good albums but you had to take your head for hours to understand the meaning. I have the impression that this one is more direct, less encrypted. He managed to do something very intimate and very deep while being more accessible, even if his texts are as always open to hundreds of interpretations and we haven’t finished going around them.
Since his last album Damn (2017), Kendrick Lamar became a father, he won a Pulitzer Prize, he made his acting debut and he signed the acclaimed soundtrack of Black Panther. Are we dealing with the same man as five years ago?
He is no longer the same man. He became a father and it changed a lot of things in his life. He also reveals in his texts that he had a son, Enok, who can be seen on the cover. So far we knew he had a daughter but not a son. This disc is also a reflection on fatherhood. “The person I am and have been, with my traumas, will all this have an influence on my children? Am I capable of being a good father?“These are questions he didn’t ask himself in 2017. The fact that he accepted for the first time to get help by going to a shrink, as he says in the lyrics, also helps to make it a different man since he managed to talk about his traumas and to exorcise them. Insofar as he constantly reinvents himself, we suspected that he would be different as an artist, but as a man we did not know where he was at. The album is the beginning of an answer.
The crown of thorns on the cover, the celestial choirs at the beginning of the album, walking on water and levitating with arms outstretched in the clip of N95 : even if he denies being a savior, especially in song Savior, he still plays a lot with this image of the Messiah of hip-hop that many have carved out of him, right?
Yes, since 2015 with To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar plays quite a bit with that. Personally, I find this constant confrontation with religion a little painful, and yet on this album he does it much less and in a paradoxical way, as always: on the cover he wears a crown of thorns but we also see a gun protruding from his back pocket. He always equates religion and violence, love and hate. Furthermore, on aunties diaries which evokes the gender transition of his aunt and his cousin, he introduces doubt in relation to religion (“That day I chose humanity over religion“, he says in the face of the thoughts of the pastor who does not approve of the transition Editor’s note) and this is a new position for him. In his career, God has always been sanctified and this time religion is slightly questioned.
Exactly, Aunties Diaries, who talks about transidentity through the journey of one of his aunts who became a man and a cousin who became a woman, is this unheard of in rap?
It’s a theme never before addressed in rap, an environment that is sometimes a little homophobic even if things are changing. Kendrick takes the subject seriously and I think he does it intelligently. Because he doesn’t just tell the story of family members in transition, he talks about the fact that he himself initially rejected them and used the word “faggot” (pedal) about them because that’s how things were when you grew up in Compton. He brings up his own contradictions and changing position, and that brings a new dimension. in Compton for my book on Kendrick Lamar, I met a homosexual man, who incidentally did the cover of my book, and he told me that in Compton more than anywhere else, being homosexual is hell. , this Kendrick Lamar song is really strong.
What surprised you the most about this new album?
I was surprised and even shocked by the presence on the album of rapper Kodak Black, who was found guilty of raping a young woman, and whom Donald Trump pardoned in January 2021. Kodak Black, who has immense success in the United States, has very questionable positions. What I don’t understand is that Kendrick Lamar, in his music video The Heart Part 5 released as a prelude to the album, (in which he transformed into several famous African-Americans via morphing Editor’s note), paid tribute in particular to rapper Nipsey Hussle, assassinated in 2020, who was a big influence for many rappers. However, Kodak Black had disrespected Nipsey Hussle a week after his death by declaring that if his companion was available he was too. So that Kendrick invites him on his album and gives him an important place, it’s very surprising. It is almost the red thread of this album which is a reflection on “how our past traumas guide our future actions“. Kodak Black says it in the album: “I went through horrible things, I was very poor, I had nothing to eat, I had to deal with it etc.” Kendrick tells us, basically, “all of his past experiences made him who he is today and led to his mistakes. Who are we to judge anyone?. But why does he give the floor to Kodak Black rather than to the victims? He could have just mentioned it, as he does for R Kelly of whom he says “if he hadn’t been abused as a child, would he be where he is today?“His presence raises questions and I can’t wait for Kendrick to speak about it.
We talk very little about music when we approach a new Kendrick Lamar album, because we rush on the lyrics first. However, there are things to say…
It’s an album made of ruptures, with a lot of rhythm changes, and more vocals. If we notice the presence of producers Pharrell Williams and The Alchemist, he still works with the same team of producers since his debut, Sounwave and Dj Dahi, who have managed to reinvent themselves and adapt to his speech. Mr Morale & the Big Steppers is interesting in terms of sounds but there is no obvious huge single like Humble Where DNA. And I find that good, even if it could be reproached to him. Because he actually doesn’t care, he’s not in a fight with anyone but himself, I think he’s not interested in hits at all. He’s a multi-millionaire, he doesn’t need the money, and he’s more interested in art. It’s a very personal album, not at all calibrated for today’s music consumption, which works a lot by playlists. I think he wanted to make the album that made him feel good above all else. It is as if he had said to himself:Ok I made a concept album like in the 90s with Good kid MAAD City, I made a jazz album because I love jazz with To Pimp a Butterfly, I made my blockbuster with Damn and now I do exactly what I want.” In this case a fake double album (a real one is more like 25 tracks and not 18) split in two to show two facets. The last theory speaks moreover of two parts which mirror each other, the first track of Mr. Morale corresponding to the first track of The Big Steppers etc
On the last track of the album, Mirror, it seems to be clearly turning the page. He repeats there in a loop “I choose Me, I’m Sorry” (I choose myself, I’m sorry). And his last words are: “Sorry I didn’t save the world, I was too busy building mine(Sorry I didn’t save the world, I was too busy building my own). Could this album be his last?
In any case, it’s a closing album, because it’s his last album on the TDE (Top Dawg Entertainment) label that saw him born, he’s turning a page. I also perceived this last sentence as the sign that it would be his last album. But it may also be an acknowledgment of failure: “I failed artistically to save the world but on the other hand I succeeded in my therapy and now I choose my family“. I think he’s going to withdraw from music more and more because at 35 he may have said all he has to say. That’s probably the end of Kendrick Lamar as we know him. We know that he wants to go more and more towards the cinema. He is currently shooting a documentary in Ghana and he has signed a contract with the creators of South Park to create series.
Will his future go through PgLang, the mysterious agency he set up with his collaborator Dave Free in 2020?
No one knows exactly what PgLang is. Let’s say it’s a creative hub with which they set no limits. This can be the production of clips, the setting up of advertisements, the shooting of films or series, styling or even the management and production of artists. For the moment, we have especially seen the development of his protege, the young rapper Baby Keem to whom he gives a lot of visibility on this album – we even see him in the music video N95 (in a black and white scene where he relies on Kendrick Editor’s note). Baby Keem’s album released last year did very well, it even won a Grammy (for best rap performance, editor’s note). Kendrick also highlights fellow PgLang protege Tanna Leone on the album, and he plans to take them on tour with him. So he is also preparing the sequel and will influence their artistic direction.
A way to play the same role that TDE and Dr Dre played for him?
Exactly, I can see him pulling the strings behind the scenes and letting the youngsters shine.
Kendrick Lamar will be in concert at Paris AccorArena on October 21, 2022
We wish to say thanks to the author of this short article for this incredible material
“Kendrick Lamar’s new album may be his last”: interview with Nicolas Rogès, biographer of the American rapper