Like 90% of the Earth, I heard Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers dropped and listened to it, to quote Skip “top to bottom, front to back” as soon as possible. In short, a few tracks did not hit for me, but it is clearly the record of the year and a work of art. The tracks that did hit are some of the best written and hardest hitting tracks on pain, forgiveness and grief I have heard in the past 10 years. The Chicks’ Gaslighter is close and what the two records have in common is their raw vulnerability. I think the word ‘trauma’ is overused to the point of watering down its importance, but if you want to truly understand the impact of interpersonal trauma / intergenerational trauma on people and on communities, listen to those two records.
The standout track for me is Mother I Sober featuring Beth Gibbons from Portishead. On a side note….I would have given you any odds you wanted on Beth teaming up with Kendrick on a track in 2022. You could write a PhD on this track, which will be the song of the year…sorry Koffee…and I cannot foresee any possible universe where it will be knocked off of that pedestal. Let’s start with the arrangement and work from there. Much like other tracks on the record, Kendrick goes with an unconventional stripped back arrangement of keyboards and a very restrained baseline. I believe this is a thematic choice in how it plays into larger concepts of grief, pain, trauma and coping, which run throughout the record. He compliments the keyboard with a simple bass line that mimics a heartbeat quite well. This gives the track an intimate vibe that I really connected with. Kendrick’s musical choices gives the track added power that really pays off in its coda, which we will touch on later.
There are a few hip hop artists who excel in laying themselves bare for all to see. I am thinking of Earl Sweatshirt, 6lack, Lizzo to some extent and Black Thought. All of these artists can tackle trauma, racial violence, mental health, gender and emotional pain from a personal space with surgical precision. Mother I Sober takes this personal vulnerability to 11 with Kendrick’s willingness to explore sex addiction, intergenerational trauma, sexual violence, pain and forgiveness head on. The track is essentially about how his cousin was accused of sexually abusing him at the age of 5, even though it did not happen. This triggered his mother’s trauma due to her own history of sexual abuse and led to his cousin unjustly seen as an abuser, his mother being beaten in response to that and Kendrick taking on all the blame and responsibility for what happened. His use of a toned down vocal delivery throughout 95% of the track gives the words an added power as you feel like you are listening to a documentary and not a hip hop track.
Now we need to talk about the coda. Wow. First of all, the entire track builds to this cathartic explosion as his vocal kicks the door down. Kendrick documents his trauma and pain throughout the track and underlines its importance in his life with the refrain “you ain’t felt grief / until you felt it sober.” This is a heartbreaking and devastating line that acutely underlines his pain, but also how he has spent his life running from this pain, which put him in an emotional prison. The coda is a time where Kendrick yells at the pain, yells at the ways men use toxic masculinity to cope, yells at how black families are destroyed by trauma and yells at how this trauma is equivalent to emotional rape. He sets himself, black families and his mother free of guilt by forgiving abusers. Most importantly, he is not forgiving them for their sake, but to free him and his family of the intergenerational guilt and pain that led him to this place. A type of pain that Kendrick believes destroys families. The power of forgiveness is not what it gives the abuser, but the freedom it gives the victim / survivor.
This is an incredible track that I am not doing justice with this superficial review. Kendrick not only forces you to see him differently, but you see the world differently. The more I listen to this song the more I learn about the world and myself. Could I be this honest with myself? Could I break through decades of pain to get to forgiveness? Could I have the empathy necessary to see toxic masculinity as a coping mechanism and a call for help? I’m not sure. I don’t know. However, I do know that I never would have thought of those questions without this track. For that, I am grateful that Kendrick Lamar found the strength to record this track and release this record. It is rare that a song can touch me so deeply. I will think of this song for the rest of my life.
Listen to Mother I Sober