Kendrick Lamar: Artist as Cultural Shaman

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Excerpts from the Rebel Wisdom Newsletter. Read the full version on their Substack.


Kendrick Lamar and Responsibility

What’s the responsibility of a Pulitzer Prize-winning hip-hop artist who has transcended the confines of his genre of music and been praised as the voice of a generation?

What’s the responsibility of someone who has focused so much effort on uplifting the black and broader hip hop community that his own personal life became untenable?

The album Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers (MMTBS) is Kendrick Lamar’s complex answer to these questions.

This piece is not a musical critique of Lamar’s recent work, nor a commentary on the controversial subjects it raises. Rather, it is an attempt to map the significance of his overall message in MMTBS and what it could mean for listeners who deeply value his intentions. It is also an opportunity to reflect on what we expect from our idols and whether these expectations are healthy, hypocritical, damaging or all of the above.

The Shadow

I believe using the ‘shadow’, a Nietzschean term adopted by psychiatrist Carl Jung, provides us with a helpful lens through which we can view Lamar’s thematic explorations in this album. The ‘shadow’ is used to describe the aspects of our personality that we choose to reject or repress and parts of ourselves that we think society won’t like, so we push them away from the conscious mind into the unconscious1. The reality is that all of us possess qualities that society has deemed undesirable. It is a sad paradox that becoming familiar with these darker aspects of our personalities and accepting them is probably the most effective means of preventing our ‘dark side’ from hurting others and ourselves. It is sad because as a collective we steer clear of such internal work, often from a fear of judgment and ostricisation from the people closest to us and society at large. Step in Kendrick Lamar, an artist who has received almost universal praise up until this point. His previous 4 full-length projects are widely considered classics in the hip hop canon, he is the only hip hop artist to win a Pulitzer Prize, to put it succinctly, before May 13 of this year, when he released his brand-new LP, you would be hard pressed to find a bad word spoken about the 34-year-old Compton native.

In the initial seconds of MMTBS, we hear a woman’s voice utter “Tell them, tell them the truth”. This sets the tone for the theme of truth telling for the entirety of the project. Kendrick appears more determined than ever to express thoughts, emotions and actions that he had kept hidden from the public and maybe even himself (as can happen with the aptly named ‘shadow’). This very much appears to be the case for Kendrick here. The song Die Hard perfectly summarizes this message:

my truth too complicated to hide now.

Can I open up?

Is it safe or not?

I’m afraid a little,

You relate or not?

MMTBS offers a new perspective, focused on root causes and healing over isolation and shame, compassion over judgement. It proposes a future where instead of totally ostricising people for their immoral and damaging acts, we can encourage responsibility and accountability in that person as well as a process of transformation whereby the core issues of this harmful behaviour are addressed. A future where, as a culture we can talk more openly about our shadow making it easier to accept the shadow in others. Such a genuine and honest concept can of course be exploited by bad actors not interested in healing, but I think Kendrick knows this is a collective issue and all he can do (and all we can do) is to come forward with his intention of raw honesty in hope others will resonate. In this way, we can encourage accountability and responsibility for ourselves and others.

Masculinity

In his masterpiece “Fear” from the 2017 Damn LP, Kendrick unpacks some of his biggest fears which include being judged and losing ‘it all’. This 7-minute epic is a vulnerable listing of the most troubling fear-based thoughts going through his mind. One chief reason why his latest release is such a breakthrough in my eyes resides in the obvious headway he has made concerning the fears mentioned above. Five years later, MMTBS delves into specifics about his infidelity, the fact he is in therapy, his relationship with his transgender family members, his struggle with masculinity as well as the sexual abuse and trauma that he and his family have suffered inter-generationally. He even leaves a question mark around his Covid vaccine status (imagine the voice of a generation not getting the vaccine!). To raise these topics in a hip hop album is a sure-fire way to trigger judgement and lose fans and commercial success. But as he says himself in Mr. Morale, “I’m sacrificing myself to start the healing”.

Alongside referring to his family trauma, I think this line can be understood in the wider context of hip hop – both the listeners and producers of this genre. Kendrick Lamar is using this body of work to reveal his moral transgressions and vulnerabilities, to express how hard it is to acknowledge why we do what we do and address it, as well as encouraging anyone listening to join him; “I got daddy issues, that’s on me…. let’s give the women a break, grown men with daddy issues” raps Kendrick on Father Time. I don’t need to tell anyone about the problematic relationship between hip hop and women. Women have been consistently sexualised and undermined in many of the commercially successful hip hop videos and songs from the 90’s to now. Kendrick freely admits that he has been a part of this issue – “Objectified so many bi****s, I killed their confidence”.

Hearing the most respected and popular contemporary hip hop artist addressing this topic in such a manner is inspiring. Taking responsibility is certainly not a cultural norm at the moment and it appears that Kendrick feels sense of responsibility to call out his previous indiscretions while also asking his male listeners to self-reflect too. Knowing that merely acknowledging these mistakes is not enough, in this instance he is calling on men collectively to “give the women a break”. He asks us to work internally on the root causes of our personal problems which we often take out on women (physically, verbally, emotionally, sexually). It’s not enough to just acknowledge it or apologise for poor behaviour retrospectively. We must endeavour to do the necessary self-enquiry to help women feel safer, more confident, and less objectified.

One of the most profound lines in Father Time and the entire record is:

I got daddy issues, that’s on me

Lookin’ for a ‘love you’

Rarely emphasising for my relief

For a hip hop artist, in fact, for any man to admit that as a child and adolescent they desperately wanted and needed to hear ‘I love you’ from their father is huge. In my opinion, it has the potential to be a massive step forward in promoting a healthy masculinity. Kendrick is reflecting and realising the impact that his relationship with his father had on his development and his subsequent viewing and treatment of women. I’m certain there’s a large percentage of fans that can deeply relate to this; with many of our wayward actions being a response to, or in search of the felt love we didn’t receive growing up. I am confident that this song alone can spur countless men to pick beneath the surface of their difficulties with intimacy, love and masculinity. Many men in my life have rarely or never heard those three special words from their father and it is only a natural response to subsequently seek that love and validation elsewhere. It can be argued that that a lot of what is considered to be ‘toxic masculinity’ has its beginnings here. Only with awareness can we initiate this heavy, yet incredibly fruitful analysis. However, a large percentage of men are seldom, if ever, exposed to such a framing, which is why MMTBS can be so impactful. Kendrick Lamar is revealing a perspective on masculinity that many of his listeners would not have heard otherwise, or at least not taken seriously. Kendrick is using his stature and reach to promote a fresh take on what masculinity can be for his fans.

Saviorisation meets Individuation

In several moments throughout MMTBS, we feel Kendrick’s struggle to maintain the act of being who he had thought he had to be. This is perhaps most heavily expressed in Crown where he repeats “heavy is the head that chose to wear the crown”. The wording of this is crucial as he adds the element of choice to the famous Shakespeare line. Kendrick is taking some responsibility. He openly acknowledges his own role in the ‘saviourisation’ of his music and image. He reflects on how he saw the media and fans place him on a particular pedestal and how he consciously consented to it. Looking back, he accepts that his ego quite liked being treated as the chosen one, which could be strongly connected to his father issues mentioned above and his ensuing quest for external validation and love.

The song ‘Saviour’ feels like an itch that needed to be scratched for years as he very bluntly states:

The cat is out of the bag, I am not your saviour

I find it just as difficult to love thy neighbour

Like any of us, he has difficulties loving himself and those around him and he makes it clear on this track specifically that he needs the support and compassion that anybody needs to keep their head above water. Kendrick is hammering down the point throughout this song that he can’t be the one to always help us. Extracting from this, he goes to discuss the fact that nobody can save us. This message is further unpacked in the album closer Mirror, where he states, “Faith in one man is a ship sinking”. Here, we have an emphatic reaffirmation of the thematic thrust of this album which is that we all have an element of agency in our healing. And this healing is multidimensional, first requiring a sense of safety, and requiring us to acknowledge and express vulnerabilities, to take responsibility for our past actions, and to exercise agency in what can be done in the present and future. These ingredients provide robust architecture for our ship to flourish. Each aspect is interconnected and thus needs consistent attendance. The more we outsource this process to an idol of ours, or a man in the sky, the more we increase the likelihood of our own ship sinking. In trying to save others, Kendrick nearly sank his own ship and foresees the future sinking that might happen for his adoring fans if they continue to place too much weight on his actions and words in their own development. Being an idol created an increasing distance between Kendrick and his truth. With this album, he sets the intention to become closer to himself, committing to attending to and maintaining the architecture of his own ship -becoming who he is rather than who he feels he must be. This is neatly tied to Jung’s concept of individuation, which can be described as a journey “to express and experience the Self in ways which are often prohibited by the compromises made in the service of social acceptance.”1 This switch reflects a belief that the only way Kendrick can save his own world is to let go of the idea of saving other’s. This is wonderfully articulated in the closing bridge:

I realised true love is not saving face

But unconditional, when will you let me go?

Sorry I didn’t save the world my friend,

I was too busy tryin’ to build mine again

I am aware that one can also interpret these lines as justifying his shying away from the responsibility that his level of popularity can entail. I find myself asking; “Can anyone hold that responsibility and expectation?” And if so, is it authentic? Is it healthy?

From listening to MMTBS, one cannot deny the connection between Kendrick’s mental health and the pressures of stardom, the conditional love that public figures often receive in our culture. A feeling that we will support you, as long as you fulfil certain criteria. Kendrick evidently couldn’t keep this up, he tried to save face, and the world, and experienced the personal and public impossibility of this objective. He now relinquished this challenge in favour of saving himself, healing himself and his family. I know I’ve struggled with external expectations and have, at times lost sight of the most important things in my life amid this struggle.

Being True to Oneself

I hear in this collection of songs a deep realisation within Kendrick that the greatest consolation one can take from their life is that they were themselves, truly. All the women, money, fame did nothing to soothe the inner turmoil Kendrick felt inside and he has taken the brave decision to address his inner turmoil, and to risk his public image. I think this is a beautiful sentiment that we could emulate. Regardless of the external result, we can take solace in the fact that we have been honest, with ourselves and our loved ones. It seems that over the years Kendrick Lamar has been meditating on his responsibility to truly express himself in his music and what relationship this has to his responsibility as the “most popular and influential artist in modern music”, in the words of fellow superstar, Lorde. At what point does Kendrick’s obligation to inspire the world impede on his duty to himself and his family?

This album is an unadulterated admission of fallibility, which many fans might find hard to digest. Kendrick could well be using this piece of work to demonstrate his responsibility to testing his audience in ways they haven’t been tested before. Do we want Kendrick to heal, which might mean unleashing his shadow and our collective shadow through his music or do we want him to guide us, reinforce our own opinion on the cultural moment? Can he do both simultaneously? I would argue that he cannot. I would argue at a certain point, our need to be ourselves and our need to serve the collective, collide. MMTBS may well be Kendrick Lamar’s collision. There is a famous quote from Marianne Williamson in which she says:

And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

In an interesting flip, as Kendrick sheds light on his darkness, he gives us permission to do the same. We owe it to ourselves.


Listen to Kendrick Lamar's Mr. Morales & The Big Steppers

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