mr. Morale & the Big Steppers Review: The Emancipation of Kendrick Lamar

“To be or not to be, that is the question” —WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

“I want you – in the right way” – MARVIN GAYE

My mother always told me when I was young that she didn’t know if I would make it, if I would have a long life. Because I was black. Because I was a man. Because I asked and talked and did too much. Because my emotions were unpredictably wild: sometimes unbelievable joy, sometimes unbearable depression, both rooted, to be blunt, in childhood trauma and generations of abuse and neglect.

Plus, my mother knew, deep in the guts of her own history, that I – we – lived in a country that didn’t seem to want us or want us properly except to entertain, except for sports, games, jokes , except our culture. Because I could really be killed, crucified, crushed by the ugly and oppressive racism of white people, and by the ugly and internalized racism of black people. Many of us feel this way, whether we say it out loud, as Kendrick Lamar has brilliantly and unabashedly done on albums like the Pulitzer Prize-winning DAMNED., or keep it mostly to ourselves for years, as Kendrick has similarly done since he was a shy and socially awkward ghetto boy, just like me. Because being black in America—especially poor urban poor Kendrick creates much of his art—is being a captive and pimped out butterfly with battered and bloodied wings as you struggle to float in a concrete box.

This is why Kendrick Lamar matters. His own mind gives a voice to what it is like to be who we are, especially the black male experience, the way fellow black male writers named Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder , August Wilson and Kanye West did it for him. But likewise, his art squeezes and pulls all people, all identities closer to you, because who hasn’t felt the relentless loneliness of simple existence that Kendrick rhymes about? Or the stomach-churning hunger for freedom that his verbal gifts evoke? Or those close cousins, mentioned above, we call joy and depression that he relentlessly digs into his art, sometimes in the same line or song?

But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that legions of black men and black boys, especially, desperately, consciously, unconsciously, are looking for something, someone who can speak for us, who isn’t afraid to be us when we’re scared at all to be ourselves. Hip-hop has been missing a dope and self-confident and self-critical superhero since, well, Kendrick’s last solo album five years ago. To cut and paste some old-fashioned sayings: hip-hop saved a nation of millions, including my life, but we must also honor the truth that hip-hop has been just as stupid and socially ignorant as reality TV and the worst aspects of social media. for, say, at least the first two decades of this century. That said, Kendrick isn’t perfect, never claimed to be, which is what makes him so refreshing, his disconnected scars are there for anyone to download: he hit like crazy in this game, a Charles Dickens- like character with a Forrest Gump luck streak and had to grow up quickly in a blinding celebrity spotlight and great expectations; Kendrick has been accused of sexism over joints like “Be Humble”; and he certainly used language that made me cringe immensely, including his overwhelming fondness for the n-word and the b-word.

But then I remember the poisonous things I’ve said, written, done when I was so much younger than today, not really considering every part of humanity either. It is my hope that as he continues to grow as both a man and an artist, also with and beyond this new album, Mr Moraal and the great steppers, is that Kendrick Lamar understands, or will do, that saving half the race (if we’re talking about the binary number), black or human, means we don’t save the entire race, black or human, and that we need a lot more than the limited thinking in the black boys’ club; we need a steady and heavy dose of the equal legacies of Zora Neale Hurston, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry, Nina Simone, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Angela Davis, Alice Walker, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, jessica Care moore, Lynn Nottage , and the mother of his two small children, Whitney Alford. Or remember, there wouldn’t be one of Kendrick’s greatest idols, Tupac Shakur, without the giant of a woman and man and thinker and doer, that was his mother, Afeni Shakur, she of the Civil Rights Movement, she of the Black Panther Party, she’s the mama in Tupac’s “Dear Mama.” Her life matters too.

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