One night in 1977, Ulrich Leonard Tolle, a German researcher working at the University of Cambridge, had a revelation. After years of depression, he began what he would later call a “inner transformation”, a search for happiness, for spiritual fulfillment which consists of freeing oneself from the past, relativizing its impact on our lives, and freeing oneself from anticipating the future. Twenty years later, after moving to Vancouver, he published his first book, The power of nowwhich will quickly become a bestseller, supported by celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Ben Stiller, Meg Ryan or Jim Carrey.
New age humbug for some, saving mantra for others, this book echoes today in the heart and the work of a man who has never ceased to rehash the pain of memories in music, to consider himself product of a violent environment, and to contribute, at its growing level over the years, its stone to the great edifice of black American memory. Until becoming one of its spokespersons, almost a prophet in spite of himself. That man is Kendrick Lamar.
Lost in wealth
The Californian rapper’s fifth album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, can only really be understood through the prism of the work of Eckhart Tolle, now 74 years old. The two men have also met several times in recent months. Kendrick Lamar incorporates many quotes from Tolle’s audiobooks, excerpts from their conversations, sowing the seeds of his precepts in the introduction of several songs, proclaiming his name as one proclaims that of a master thinker… even of a guru .
The rapper’s previous album was released five years ago. An eternity for this musical genre. Perhaps he needed time to digest his status, to raise his two children, to find salvation, he who has achieved extraordinary notoriety since his third album To Pimp A Butterfly released in 2015. Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is in fact the tale of a quest for meaning, linear and incredibly complex, constantly supported by Eckhart Tolle.
“Hail to the new world, boys, girls / I have some true stories to tell you”, chants Kendrick Lamar in the introduction of the title “N95”. We have been warned. This album is undoubtedly his most intimate, his most interior. It is based on a recurring theme of American rap, explained on “United In Grief”: the man who had nothing and who had everything, arrived at the top, has time to question himself. But damn it, what good is all this to him?
The new Mercedes with the black G-Wagon
“Where are you from?” It was all for the rap
I was 28, twenty million in taxes
Bought some properties just to practice
Five thousand in jewels, the chain was magic
I never wore it in public, late reaction
In view of his previous albums, we expected a Kendrick Lamar turning to God to question his materialism. It would have been too simple. But then, how to leave a better world? By releasing albums, each crazier than the next? By becoming a spokesperson? By amassing and redistributing wealth? For Kendrick, leaving a better world is above all about being a good father.
“You really need therapy”
There are many highlights on this album. One of them is without context the title “We Cry Together”. With actress Taylour Paige, and on an incredible production of The Alchemist, he launches into a violent couple’s argument extremely embodied, inspired by that which Tupac and Janet Jackson have in the film poetic justice, released in 1993. Striking piece where Kendrick Lamar does not play the beautiful role, far from it. Because one of the other great themes of Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is the relationship to masculinity, often toxic, which seems to be a drag on fulfillment. For Kendrick Lamar, it is in particular his education, that of a black American born in the Compton ghetto, which is questioned. So certainly, “We Cry Together” explains the damage of a mentality. But it is especially the title “Father Time” which leads its reflection beyond the observation of surface.
“As we grow up, we start to identify with certain things. Which means, identity means, we separate any sense of who we are from certain things. When you identify with something that you are not, it always leads to suffering and unhappiness.” This is what Eckhart Tolle explains, this is what can sum up the essence of his thinking. If one identifies with a tough man, brought up in violence and therefore violent, it seems impossible to move forward serenely. On “Father Time”, therefore, we hear a dialogue between Kendrick and his wife. She begins:
“You really need therapy.
– Real n****s don’t need therapy, why are you talking to me about that?
– You say anything, it’s stupid…
– Shit, everyone is stupid then.
– Yes, well you need to talk to someone. You should contact Eckhart.
Kendrick explores the daddy issues, the problems linked to the father, to the so-called virile upbringing, those that therapy very often reveals. He tells of a demanding parent who pushes him to surpass himself until exhaustion, and a mother who tries to reason with him. At the end of the piece, he launches: “Let’s let go of the women a little with our daddy from adults.” In short, your upbringing does not authorize you to be an asshole and a bad father.
The mental health of black Americans
Everything is connected in this album. All. Social elevation, education, the environment… All of this is not experienced in the same way whether one is a well-to-do white or a black from the hood. This is why Kendrick Lamar invites rapper Kodak Black on several titles. Because this one has pans. Because he filmed and put on the networks the images of a woman performing oral sex on him and his friends. Because he said of a woman refusing the boxes of sexuality, Keke Palmer, that she was heterosexual, thinking she was funny. Because he more or less offered the widow of rapper Nipsey Hussle to console her sexually right after the murder of her husband. “Celebrity does not mean integrity, fool”proclaims Kendrick on “Rich”.
It is easy to judge the blacks who left the ghetto by entertainment, to ask them all to immediately conform to the bourgeois rules in force. But you have to take the paths into account. When rapper DaBaby made openly homophobic remarks during a concert in 2021 and many observers, fans, media or festivals began to boycott him, another rapper, Styles P., explained: “If you want cancel culture, you also have to be interested in mental health. […] Nobody taught him, and now you want to cancel him? When you say or do something borderline in front of the whole world, it looks like a mental problem. I’m not saying he did the right thing, but you can’t cancel someone and then say you care about mental health issues.” Kendrick is positioned in the same way vis-à-vis Kodak Black. He castigates those who appear as “pro-Black”, who put black squares on Instagram, but who are unable to understand the past, the weight of the environment.
This is also the subject of the title “The Heart Part. 5″, which is not on the album, but which was released a week before Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers. In the clip, we see Kendrick Lamar transform, thanks to the deepface technique, into several contemporary black celebrities. There are models in every way like the late Kobe Bryant. But also the slapper Will Smith, the gangsta Nipsey Hussle, the murderer OJ Simpson, the polemicist Kanye West or the actor-liar Jussie Smolett. “I am all of us”, chants Kendrick. Because he does not judge them through the prism of a dominant culture, but of what they are entirely. This does not mean that he defends them, but that he knows only too well what can lead to such acts. Thus, on “Savior”, he castigates rappers who bow to political correctness by forgetting this essential component:
They bite their tongues in the lyrics of their songs
Few got to be crucified for one thing, they won’t admit it
Political correctness is the way to maintain an opinion
The n****s are not very talkative, who dares to be different?
Break the curse
This is the immense strength of this album. Little by little, over the titles, we understand where Kendrick Lamar is coming from. In his quest to become a good father, a better man, he explores the lives of others, the shackles of our contemporary societies, but also his most intimate past. If his previous album, DAMN. seemed to be the most introspective of his discography, he only scratched the surface of the therapeutic process initiated here. Lamar sees himself performing again in Alabama in 2018, inviting a young white woman onstage to rap with him, and bringing her down after she says the “n****s” included in the track. This controversy made him reflect, he who inherited, in his education, a prism of homophobic thought. When he speaks, perhaps a little awkwardly, of the trans people who have been part of his life on “Auntie Diaries”, he concludes by saying:
I was taught that words are nothing but sounds
If they are spoken without any intention
The second you confronted me with what I was rapping
It reminded me of a show I put on in town
That time I got a woman on stage to rap
But frowned on the words she couldn’t say
You told me, Kendrick there is no room for contradiction
To really understand love, switch positions
Queer, queer, queer, we can say it together
But only if you let a white woman say “n***a”
On the title “Mr. Morale”, the scholarly production of which is provided by Pharrell Williams, Kendrick goes even further. As in “We Cry Together”, on which he reproached his fictitious companion for listening to R. Kelly’s music even after learning that he had raped several women, including minors, he addresses the issue of this black singer- American once a huge RnB star, now fallen. “I think of Robert Kelly / If he hadn’t been molested, I wonder if life would have let him down.” R. Kelly was raped as a child, as was OJ Simpson, by the way. Rape culture is passed down through families like curses.
Moreover, on the following title, “Mother I Sober”, of a crazy power, the rapper confides that his mother, his cousin and his wife Whitney Alford have also been victims. Then he will stop the curse. He will be a good father, will manage, by following the precepts of Eckhart Tolle, to detach himself from his environment and his family past, to embrace The power of now.
On the last title, it repeats in a loop “I choose me, I’m sorry / I choose me, I’m sorry”. Kendrick Lamar will no longer sacrifice his sanity or family balance for his audience, for America, or for so-called prophethood. He can’t save the world, but he can save himself. And his. Maybe that’s what being a good man is.