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The return of Kendrick Lamar

The return of Kendrick Lamar

After a five-year silence the Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper is back with a new album and a headline performance at Glastonbury. What’s in store?

“This is a special award because of rap music… this is the thing that got me on the stage, just got me the tour all around the world supporting my family and all that. Most importantly it showed me a true definition of what being an artist was, you know, from the jump I thought it was about the accolades and the cars and the clothes but it’s really about expressing yourself and putting that paint on the canvas for the world to evolve for the next listener and the next generation after that… hip hop has done that for me.”

Kendrick Lamar, Grammy Awards 2020

It’s been five years since Kendrick Lamar released his critically acclaimed album, DAMN.

[Clip from DNA, Kendrick Lamar]

His fourth album clinched him his second Grammy award for Best Rap Album and made him the first non-classical or jazz artist in almost 80 years to win the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Music.

“The citation for the Pulitzer Prize in music, for distinguished musical composition, by an American, that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year… awarded to DAMN by Kendrick Lamar. A virtuosic song collection – a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African American life. Congratulations Kendrick Lamar”

Pulitzer Prize awards, 2018

That Pulitzer citation is a pretty big mouthful. Vernacular authenticity… affecting vignettes… 

And some people thought the prize actually came one album too late – To Pimp a Butterfly, the one before DAMN was really the standout creation.

Kendrick Lamar was already looked up to and admired, but the Pulitzer meant something else – it was cultural recognition from beyond the world of hip-hop, that this work was really significant and shone a light on the realities of modern African American life in the way you might expect from a great novelist like Colson Whitehead or a playwright like Lorraine Hansberry.

So it’s understandable that after five years away, his latest release, Mr Morale & the Big Steppers has generated so much hype.

[Clip from UNITED IN GRIEF, Kendrick Lamar]

With an instantly recognisable flow and a lyricism that harks back to the early days of hip-hop, Kendrick Lamar has proved himself as an artist with an ability to transcend his own artform. What many would call “conscious” rap.

“I’m just proud… whenever Kendrick comes around… that we have his mind and skillset in hip-hop and the fact that he had the wherewithal to address and challenge people in an uncomfortable way.”

Rap Life Review

But how has he remained at the forefront of a genre that now moves so quickly? And what does his new album tell us about where he is and what we can expect from him in the future?

***

On the cover of his new album, Kendrick Lamar stands in an almost bare room, with patches of paint stripped off the walls. He’s cradling his two-year-old daughter. His fiancee can be seen in the background on a bed, holding their second child. 

It’s a striking image on its own, made even more symbolic by the crown of thorns on his head.

“This is not the first time Kendrick has made a reference to religious symbols. He famously recreated the last supper in his music video for his 2017 billboard number one hit Humble which was his first solo number one.”

Billboard

With almost 300,000 sales in its first week, the contents of his new record are just as resonant.

It’s clear that Kendrick Lamar has had some time to think about his status and what it means to be seen as some kind of modern prophet.

The lyrics in the album examine his own thoughts and feelings. The evolution he’s been through in the 10 plus years since his first album. 

But they’re also a conversation with his listeners.

“It’s more like… my views rather than trying to throw it up throw it on a listener and I think that’s my biggest connection with my audience and why it connects the way I do… because it’s not necessarily preachy it’s just my own ups and downs and trying to figure myself out as well as going through these times of travelling the world and my own experiences and putting them all into one.”

Kendrick Lamar, BigBoyTV

The rapper has always tried to be an open book, but Mr Morale reveals an artist willing to express awareness of his own flaws, the impact of fame, and the pressure to represent a generation.

[Clip from MOTHER I SOBER, Kendrick Lamar]

In a track titled, “Mother I Sober” he proclaims:

“I’m sensitive, I feel everything, I feel everybody.”

Kendrick Lamar, MOTHER I SOBER

The album is littered with moments like this, lyrics that seem personal, universal and ever more critical of the world around him.

“I always said this is truly a gift for me, putting these records out is a gift for me. ‘Cause I’m not only a voice for myself but I’m a voice for the people who can’t express themselves like that.”

Kendrick Lamar, MTV

***

Now Kendrick Lamar is finally preparing to headline the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury – a performance that was first announced for the 2020 festival but postponed due to Covd. 

Had that gone ahead as initially planned, his performance would have taken place amid the anger and sorrow of the Black Lives Matter protests held around the world after the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer.

[Clip of BLM protesters]

Kendrick Lamar is an artist who doesn’t shy away from political statements and with a voice that is held up as a representation of the people, it’s easy to see why his track Alright, became a BLM protest anthem.

[Clip from Alright, Kendrick Lamar]

But in 2022, race hate crime has far from gone away – as the mass murder of African Americans in a supermarket in Buffalo showed a few weeks ago.

“This was a calculated intentional execution of innocent individuals simply based on the colour of their skin.”

Kathy Hochul, Governor of New York

So Kendrick Lamar’s Glastonbury performance is still sure to be politically powerful.

But after five years of silence, the rap idol seems to want to tell us he is still just a man.

Today’s story was written by Tomini Babs and mixed by Imy Harper.