The whole world, even outside of music, is talking about Kendrick Lamar. The critically acclaimed and award-winning rapper released a new album after five years, Sir. Moral & The Big Stepperswhich garnered five-star reviews as well as criticism.
Kendrick Lamar was already the most studied rapper in the world, even in his ‘quiet’ period. His previous award-winning album Damn from 2017 also gave rise to a lengthy inspection: The rapper’s music and lyrics are simply layered and complex, and sometimes open to many interpretations.
Now, after the release of finally a sequel to Damn, Lamar is under the microscope again and closer than ever. It’s almost an hour and a half Sir. Morality and the great steppers received one five-star review after another in the last few days. On social media, the lyrics are sifted through and fans search for meaning.
The emergence of ‘the new Lamar’ is a musical experience, quite apart from the question of whether it really is a new masterpiece. Such a valuation also seems almost trivial when pasted on a record that seems to want to break through clichés, quick opinions and assumptions.
Kendrick Lamar was born in 1987 in Compton, a poor and gang-ridden suburb of Los Angeles, but also sacred ground for American hip-hop, where influential rappers like Eazy-E and Dr. Dre developed their art. Lamar realizes as a child that he will be faced with difficult choices, and the moral dilemmas of black youth growing up in a neighborhood like Compton will later reappear in his music. ‘I’m just a good kid trying to keep it positive’, he raps in the song ‘Compton State of Mind’, from the beginning of his career. Also on his first major album, Good child, MAAD City from 2012, Lamar writes about the downward spiral of life in Compton and the catastrophic effect of violence on the lives of children, young people and families.
His lyrics are confrontational and literary, even on the albums To pimp a butterfly (2015) and Damn (2017), with which Lamar immortalizes himself outside the hip-hop world. In reviews of his work, he is placed next to the great singer-songwriters of music history, as he connects universal themes to small personal lives and everyday observations.
In 2018, there will be an ultimate award for his work: Lamar wins the prestigious Pulitzer Prize, an award for excellent literature, journalism or music. He is the first rapper to receive the honor, after previous musical winners, primarily from jazz and classical music.
The award is a milestone for hip hop and a recognition of the art that has battled prejudice and misunderstanding for fifty years. on his album Damn According to the Pulitzer jury, Lamar provides ‘a virtuoso and moving look at the complexities of modern African-American life’.
Lamar does the same on his new album, which goes a step further in its ambitions than its predecessors and meanwhile does not make it easy for the listener. Recognizable choruses and ‘hooks’ that Damn, for example, was still loaded with, are sparse. Lamar leaves his music, just like on To pimp a butterfly, steps far beyond the hip-hop coast and puts his rappers across the rich American music tradition, from soul to classical and jazz. Lamar demands attention with unruly pieces that sometimes look like a radio game. The song ‘We Cry Together’, for example, is a quarrel between a man and a woman that runs out of control: Homophobia derails in a relaxed jazz piano and is hard to hear untouched.
Lamar lets the world problems pass, but prefers to take his music into the living room. He raps about his place in hip hop and art, about the judgmental judgments that always lurk in the online age. And in ‘Aunt Diaries’ he tells lovingly about his aunt, who has changed gender. ‘My aunt is a man now. I think I’m old enough to understand now. ‘
In ‘Silent Hill’, he compares his son and daughter’s peaceful, prosperous life to his own, less prosperous childhood. “Every Sunday, Son’s Day, teach my boy to be a man.” The song, no matter how heartfelt it is, has received a lot of criticism on Twitter in recent days. For in the song, Lamar Kodak lets Black perform as a vocal guest: a rapper who has been repeatedly convicted and charged with aggravated sexual violence. According to critics, this choice places Lamar’s text on a male upbringing in a strange light. So the last word on this has not yet been said.
Kendrick Lamar wears a crown of thorns on the cover of his latest album. But in fact, he indicates for an entire record that he does not care about the canonization that fell to him after his previous album and the Pulitzer.
On the self-critical Sir. Moral & The Big Steppers he shows awareness of his weakest and ugliest side. The temptations of success did not help him: there were affairs, even a sex addiction. And then there was the fight with close acquaintances, who turned out to be transgender. ‘Celebrity does not mean integrity, you fool’, he points to his mirror image with a mixture of self-hatred and self-mockery. It seems a bit like he is asking his very young offspring for forgiveness in most songs.
Still, it works just as well as if he’s teasing you with a carrot. Because no one does mystery like Kendrick Lamar. Do you really get to know him through these testimonies and public confessions? The smokescreens he has held up since his first successes are still legendary. It was no coincidence that our very first conversation with him – and also the very last, for then he allowed almost no interviews worldwide – was in a darkened tour bus where we had to stumble to his bunk of feel. Some heroes deliberately choose the shadow.
The higher the flight he took, the more he began to wrap himself in mystery. As he now proclaims on ‘Purple Hearts’: All life has been social distance. Social distancing as a lifestyle, even before-lockdown. Cleverly devised, because in this way, this strange hermit is not only considered a rapper, but he has grown into a symbol worldwide. A bit like Batman, actually.
Or even better, as the mythical hero Black America needed and needs.
Kendrick Lamar arrives at Sportpaleis in Antwerp on 28/10.
Sir. Moral & The Big Steppers has performed at Universal.