Warning: This interview contains explicit language, including a homophobic slur.
Kendrick Lamar has established himself as an artist of the highest degree. His work centers Black American experiences and life, presenting them in ways that are loving, sympathetic, harsh, shocking, and beautiful. His rap has been widely lauded for its perspective as well as for its musicality and spoken word artistry, and he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his 2017 album, Damn.
But his newest offering, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, has been met with mixed responses. Many listeners find it an impressive and fitting extension of his oeuvre, while others have criticized it for expressing problematic views about trans and queer individuals. Here, five scholars from a variety of disciplines examine the album through their own academic, art critical, and personal lenses.
Our contributors are:
- E. M. Hernandez, President’s Post-Doctoral Fellow, UC Irvine (they/e)
- Andrew P. Hoberek, Professor of English, University of Missouri (he/him/his)
- Tamara Levitz, Professor for Comparative Literature and Musicology and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Comparative Literature, UCLA (she/her/hers)
- Stephanie Shonekan, Professor of Ethnomusicology and Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, University of Maryland (she/her/hers)
- Nicholas Whittaker, PhD Candidate in Philosophy, CUNY Graduate Center (they/them/theirs)
E.M. Hernandez is President’s Post-Doctoral Fellow at UC Irvine (Pronouns: they/e)
“I think I’m old enough to understand now…” Kendrick Lamar raps in “Auntie Diaries,” probably the most controversial song on his new album Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers. The track follows a young “Lamar” and his relationship with his trans uncle and cousin, learning to accept them for who they are. Much of the controversy centers on how Lamar repeatedly misgenders his uncle and cousin, says ‘faggot’ multiple times, and deadnames Caitlyn Jenner. Many fans conclude that Lamar is perpetuating the same backhanded, qualified acceptance that trans people regularly receive. What is missed in this criticism is that Lamar is not committing these mistakes, he is showing them, revealing not only what’s wrong with this qualified acceptance, but also the way people must change to properly support one’s trans friends and family.
The narrative style of this record is the same as his “How Much a Dollar Cost” from To Pimp a Butterfly where Lamar recounts his interaction with a homeless man in South Africa. In both tracks, the story is conveyed in the past tense, as if Lamar recounts the event from present day. However, the narrative unfolds linearly, presenting his prior perspectives as events unfold, leading to a revelation at the end. In structuring the songs this way, Lamar emphasizes the revelation by catching us off guard. In “How Much a Dollar Cost,” we learn that the homeless man is God testing Lamar’s generosity, and in “Auntie Diaries,” we learn how Lamar shifts his perspective on trans people.
The revelation in “Auntie Diaries” is set up by Lamar showing what qualified acceptance of his trans family looks like with blatant would-be microaggressions. For example, Lamar regularly misgenders his uncle and cousin, getting slightly better, but still regularly failing in his use of pronouns. Lamar’s misgendering creates tension between his apparent acceptance and his failures to meet his family members with the bare minimum of support. It’s this tension that carries the song forward and is evidence that Lamar is not making these mistakes but showing how these mistakes are made.
While the pronoun mistakes make this tension obvious, the other mistakes illustrate the kind of outlook that leads to such mistakes. Naming a song about his trans uncle “Auntie Diaries” shows that, in his view, there is still something essential about his uncle’s gender assigned at birth. His accepting his trans uncle because he’s not gay shows how this point of view is heteronormative. Lamar raps,
My auntie became a man and I took pride in it
She wasn’t gay, she ate pussy, and that was the difference
Lamar uses ‘she’ pronouns to misgender his uncle to mark the problematically heteronormative position of what makes the “difference” for him (while simultaneously drawing out the absurdity of such a position with the semantic tension in “she wasn’t gay, she ate pussy”).
Most revealing is how he discusses the gender of his cousin, a trans woman:
They said they never seen it in him, but I seen it
The Barbie dolls played off the reflection of Venus
Again, the misgendering in the previous line emphasizes that view expressed arises out of his transphobic worldview, namely that playing with Barbies is evidence of his cousin being a woman. That trans women played with Barbies as children is a gender essentialist trope, one that validates only those trans people who knew from a young age they were trans. The dominant ideology being that there’s something essential about gender, and if a “boy” plays with Barbies, it is taken as evidence of legitimate trans identity, in effect erasing or invalidating those who are both trans and gender non-conforming or those of us who discovered our transness in adulthood. And, of course, even when a child does show “evidence” of a trans identity, they are still not to be trusted since they are children.
Like with “How Much a Dollar Cost,” the revelation comes in the last section. Here his pastor criticizes the cousin, Mary-Ann, for being trans. Lamar finally realizes the tension in worldviews, contrasting the laws of the land and of the heart, religious teaching and Mary-Ann’s sense of self, religion and humanity. Acceptance doesn’t mean changing the words he uses, but a complete shift in his perspective.
Finally, Lamar relates this shift to the shift necessary to support people of color, comparing his use of the word ‘faggot’ to his criticism of a white girl saying the n-word. Mary-Ann delivers this final lesson, telling Lamar how similar issues of gender and race are. Lamar regularly meditates on the way his embodiment of race is dictated by white perceptions of him. That racial equality will not be accomplished through using certain words, but by perceiving the underlying humanity of people of color. Here he illustrates how the harms trans people face, misgendering, deadnaming, and so on, are downstream from the actual problem: a transphobic worldview.
Too often, people are focused on what words to use instead of the underlying issue of how trans people are perceived. In light of this thought, Lamar is not failing to show proper support, he is rather diagnosing our failed attempts to support trans people properly. This is not to say, however, that the song is unproblematic. Although Lamar has a rich understanding of these issues, the song itself provides little support for that claim.
Truth be told, “Auntie Diaries” is not a trans song for trans people, it’s a trans song for cis people. While the song provides a rich analysis of the failures of trans acceptance, one may still wonder whether what trans people need is more cis people talking amongst themselves about us. We are rarely allowed to speak, instead being treated as objects to talk about. “Auntie Diaries” is just another instance of talking about instead of with trans people, centering the cis difficulties in recognizing our humanity.
We’re left with the question of what the role of art should be because that’s what this is song and album is, a piece of art, not an op-ed, journal article, or sermon. Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is a piece of art about self-growth, black masculinity, and generational trauma, simultaneously working through Lamar’s own issues while bringing these topics into the cultural consciousness. Should he have goals to bring about specific political ends? Should art be easily digestible pieces of moral knowledge? I could never hold it against a trans person who prefers not to engage with a song that makes them feel talked about instead of with, but it is unclear to me what we should expect or demand from Lamar other than honest engagement with himself and the issues at stake.
Andrew P. Hoberek
Andrew P. Hoberek is Professor of English at the University of Missouri (Pronouns: he/him/his)
“Auntie Diaries,” the 6th track on the 2nd disc of Kendrick Lamar’s new record Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, is … a complicated song. It’s about an aunt who comes to identify as a man, and a cousin who medically transitions to female. You see the problem: it’s not called “Uncle Diaries,” and in the first verse, about his uncle, he repeatedly alternates between female and male pronouns. It also repeatedly invokes the f-slur. For these and other reasons, it’s been controversial within the LGBTQ+ community.
It’s also completely representative of what Lamar is doing on Mr. Morale, what he’s been doing his whole career. The song is autobiographical, about Lamar growing and coming to terms with his past, homophobic self. As the gloss of the song on Genius suggests, the pronoun alternation is intentional: Lamar uses the wrong pronoun for his uncle when he is imagining himself as a child, or taking on the voice of a conservative preacher to whom he stands up, in the song, on behalf of his cousin Mary-Anne. As for the f-slur, Lamar introduces it with the line, “we ain’t know no better / elementary kids with no filter,” and the song ends with Mary-Anne reminding him about an incident in which he brought a white woman on stage and she sang the n-word in his own lyrics, prompting him to cut her off. “We can say [the f-slur] together” Mary-Anne tells Lamar in the song’s final lines, if it’s okay for a white woman to use the n-word.
You can decide whether it’s important to center Lamar’s voice in this conversation. And as the activist Raquel Willis told NPR, “Auntie Diaries” doesn’t talk about “the epidemic of violence” facing trans people, the way songs like “Alright” and “Kunta Kinte” alternate between the individual and the societal in taking on questions of racism. At the same time, taken for what it is, “Auntie Diaries” is light years ahead of Dave Chappelle’s tired work on this subject—work that is in no way interested in personal growth or dialogue. You can say the same thing about the literary/artistic tradition Lamar stands adjacent to, the confessional narrative tradition of artists like Philip Roth and Robert Crumb who purport to be telling difficult truths but who don’t always rise above the merely offensive. Lamar isn’t on a par with these confessional artists; he’s better, in the way that some poets are better.
The usual disclaimer: Lamar isn’t a poet. He’s a rapper, probably the best there’s ever been. As Martin Connor noted on the website Rap Analysis back in 2015, Lamar is a remarkably technically proficient rapper, who does almost physically impossible things like fit 5 sixteenth notes into a 4/4 time signature. And in songs like “Swimming Pools,” this sonic complexity is matched by an impressive formal inventiveness—in that case complicating the standard first-person voice of rap by bringing in other voices (his drinking partners, his personified conscience) to comment on the narrator’s drinking problem. Technical genius, formal complexity: at this point there are very few viable counter-arguments to the claim that Lamar is the combined MJ and LeBron of the art form.
In Mr. Morale he uses his status to make another big, complicated record that’s designed not to generate hits but to demand being listened to as a whole, repeatedly. At least since 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar has been doing the hip-hop equivalent of experimental jazz, and it’s up to the listener to keep up.
Yet in some ways it’s hard not to feel that Lamar’s artistic evolution hit a high point with To Pimp a Butterfly, and since then has remained on a plateau—a very high plateau, but a plateau nonetheless. And this has everything to do with the lure of the autobiographical. On To Pimp a Butterfly his experimental urges led him to create something like a Gil Scott-Heron soundscape, with Black History purposely channeled through Black musical history. On DAMN and Mr. Morale, Lamar is working in another direction, one that has less to do with the Black experimental tradition of the late sixties and early seventies than with the confessional tradition of Kanye and even, God forbid, Drake. For both of those artists—Kanye after a much more hard-fought struggle—confession ultimately becomes narcissism becomes banality. If Lamar avoids that—largely, as I have suggested, through his longstanding ability to bring voices other than his own into his work—there are questions an artist still has to ask himself when he finds himself wearing, however ironically, a crown of thorns. Mr. Morale is a very inward-looking record. For all my appreciation, I found myself wanting Lamar to return to the world.
Tamara Levitz is Professor for Comparative Literature and Musicology and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Comparative Literature, UCLA (Pronouns: she/her/hers)
During the long months of pandemic lockdown and racial violence in the USA, a silence seemed to descend on the world. Artists were not playing live, cities ground to a halt, and, for an interminable moment, nobody seemed to know what to say, or if the world would continue in a way that would make it possible to say it. Music, I thought, had perhaps died. All that was left was Zoom static, the stillness of masked, lonely people walking aimlessly through empty streets, the hollow detachment of online concerts, ruthless inequality in terms of who had the privilege to stay home, and the struggle to keep one’s sanity through it all.
This spring, two artists broke the silence: Stromae with Multitude and Lamar with Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers. I am not alone in pairing them: as I write, they are number 1 and 2 on the Dussmann charts in Germany (with Stromae edging out his US competitor). I have listened to both on repeat with little other aural distraction these past months; they have helped me to make sense of music, and life, again.
Lamar’s new album stands out for the number of people who collaborated on it. Every track is a curation—a skillful, aesthetically pleasing arrangement of the best ideas produced by a range of globally active, top-name producers, musicians, friends, and colleagues, some of whom also contribute to the lyrics themselves (allegedly Lamar’s domain). It’s exhilarating to see Lamar trusting to this degree the practice of hip hop as a form of global crowdsourcing already familiar from his earlier albums. After all, collectivities are the representative form of oppositional political organization of our times. From Black Lives Matter to ruangrupa’s curation of the documenta in Kassel, they suggest multidirectional alternatives to increasingly authoritarian power.
Yet Lamar still “wears the crown” in this project—specifically a Tiffany & Co. commissioned piece of jewelry encrusted with 8000 diamonds that he has taken to donning as of late, and that serves as a stark reminder of hip hop’s roots in entrepreneurial capitalism rather than grassroots organizing. Although the album sounds mediated and critically distanced, Lamar’s voice itself rings true. I trust it, even though I know authentic expression is not possible in later than late capitalism, and that Lamar is often being ironic, quoting, sampling, using poetic license, or speaking through his alter ego Oklama. That his art is based on his exceptionally skilled practice of using his voice to convey authentic intention is nowhere more evident than in his live performance of “Crown” on The Big Steppers Tour: there, sitting alone at the piano playing a simple loop and looking vulnerable on the big screens, his repetition of the words “I can’t please everybody” into an overamplified microphone still managed to pierce my heart as a fundamental truth, in spite of all the pyrotechnics of what ultimately felt like a fairly generic, hyper-commercialized mega show.
Listening to the album, I find myself likewise seeking catharsis in the grain of Lamar’s very familiar voice even though this forces me to toss the collectivity that created what I am hearing to the wind, and to ignore Lamar’s specific request that I not treat him as my “savior.” My listening experience is charged with these contradictions.
Some have described the album as sprawling but I disagree. As always Lamar provides a narrative—here, one of how to speak for a consciousness unfolding in real time, capturing in its wake the fleeting, contradictory emotions and experiences of our historic moment of unending crisis. This narrative determines the style of the album, which thrives on disruption, irregular rhythms, petering out, lack of closure, and the feeling of a virtuosic collage created by the many hands on deck. These effects contrast with the historically symbolic funk, jazz, and soul that made To Pimp a Butterfly a political album, and the intimate clarity of the thick, emotionally saturated and reverberating slow beats of Damn. They are not new to Lamar but pushed to the point of no return here.
The dichotomy of essence and appearance is built into the very sonic fabric of the album’s beats and samples. Tracks repeatedly evoke the ambiance of a groovy, seductive 70s lounge—the inverse of the Black Power sounds of To Pimp a Butterfly. This hip party is constantly crashed, however, by various blunt sonic objects, including stark, unresolving chords on acoustic piano, synthetic strings, and the unexpected sound of the extraordinary duo Freddie and Teddie tapdancing. The latter motive recurs in several songs, tying in with the theme of world steppers (in the multiple senses of that term), and offering a compelling point of epistemic contrast to the wide range of other Black rhythms on the album. Placed strategically at times when Lamar struggles to find words, the sound of tapdancing on wood draws us back to the materiality of lived Black experience, and suggests the possibility of speaking the raw truth even within a musical world mired in social media illusions, censorious criticism, and cancel culture. Such paths to truth telling are obstructed repeatedly on the album, however, by the return of the collective’s seductive pastiche.
This is a brand new form of Black musical politics. By evoking yet not settling into multiple grooves, flows, and themes, Lamar upends a range of traditional forms of Black representation, calling Black identity politics in hip hop into question. Truth cannot be articulated in fixed identities, he seems to tell us, but rather only through an endless, persistently disrupted search for self. By sporadically expressing flashes of bliss, he gives glimpses of the truth of his found self, letting us know it has survived the hype, expectations on Black people, trauma, generational curses, and the ravages of voracious capitalism.
The bonus track on the album and first released, “The Heart Part 5,” exemplifies this approach. It starts with a sample of a smooth groove from Marvin Gaye’s “I want you” over which Lamar offers a rhythmic counterpart of classic, brilliant flow, building up to a chorus at 1:20 in a way that invites me to dance and to think of absolutely nothing except the sheer pleasure of it all. Strings, piano, guitar, and bass congeal on this old sample, suggesting that the struggles of Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers may be resolved in funky desire after all. My enthusiasm is soon dampened, however by Lamar’s increasingly bleak bars. Why is he selling us the hood in the chorus like a used car salesman? At the latest when he reflects that “in a land where hurt people hurt more people, fuck calling it culture,” the disillusionment outweighs the affirmation, and I stop dancing. Is Lamar saying he doesn’t believe in the culture of hip hop anymore? When he asks to “take the drums off” at 3:19 and breaths deep to Matt Schaeffer’s wrenching, partially articulated bass line over which a bongo and guitar successively enter with fugue-like precision, my heart sticks in my throat. The guitar lick that arrives at 4:31 brings bittersweet memories of the way things I as a listener would want them to be, still reminiscing about Marvin Gaye. When the strings arrive at 5:08 I feel like crying, realizing the dream of resolution is impossible, cut off a mere 20 seconds later by Lamar’s unnegotiable “I want you.” Whether Lamar is simply naming the sample he just used or letting us know he can no longer express desire through music as Gaye once did, the result is heartbreaking. Music as we once knew it is over, only capitalist desire remains. In the video to the song, Lamar morphs into Nipsey Hussle at this moment of unattainable resolution. In the throes of his unfathomable grief, he finds a flash second of peace in assimilating Nipsey’s memory into his bones as a way of returning to self. That fugitive moment of finding home pierces through the commodified texture of the music and sustains me in a world hurling towards destruction.
I’m a sucker for a good love song or a ballad. Whenever an album drops, I sift through the tracks to find the more tender, vulnerable songs – the tracks that capture Black romance. These gems contrast sharply with the bops or club bangers that precede the release of the album as singles that drop months before. When the album finally arrives, I always dig into it to find the moments when the artist pauses, pulls back from the relentless thumping dance music, to reveal that part of Black life that only Black music can depict – Black love. Songs like “Let’s Wait a While” on Janet Jackson’s Control (1988), “Burn” on Usher’s Confessions (2004), or “Sandcastles” on Beyoncé’s Lemonade (2016) remind us that Black folks, while dealing with everything else, have also brought their full selves to romantic, sexy love.
This is the essence of R&B albums, but hip-hop artists do not always leave space for this, with a few exceptions such as LL Cool J’s “I Need Love,” which appeared on his Bigger and Deffer (1987).
So imagine my delight when I discovered a fresh, brave approach to a love song on Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers. In many ways, the entire album is a love project to his community, to different members of a family whom he references throughout – children, grandmother, mother, father, aunts and uncles, and an uncle who used to be an aunty. He discusses therapy, yearnings for redemption and forgiveness, coming to terms with difficult family complexities around identity, sexuality, homophobia, and grappling with the past and the present (with references to Putin, COVID masks). But most importantly, there is a deep focus on romantic love, particularly on one track, “We Cry Together.”
At first listen, “We Cry Together” is a harsh, violently abusive interlude. The morning the album dropped, I played it quietly in my office as I was sorting through my email. When this track came on, I was shocked, quickly turning the volume down and retrieving my headphones, then clicked backwards to start again. What Lamar has done on this track is remarkable. He presents an argument as it evolves between a man and a woman. As a listener, I’m uncomfortable because it is such a vulnerable track, even more tender than a typical ballad. But the other reason for my discomfort is that many people outside the African American community may not understand how to process this song. But then, as Lamar asks of outsiders on the “Mr Morale” track: “What you know about Black trauma?”
In “We Cry Together,” actress/dancer Taylour Paige brilliantly plays the part of the woman in a relationship with Lamar’s character. Before they get into it, the track starts with a haunting chord, and then a choir harmonizes on the phrase “Hold on to each other.” A piano key gets stuck for a second, repeating a note to signal an interruption to the soothing sound of the choir. All this happens within the first thirty seconds of the track, so there is not much time to breathe before a narrator remarks, “This what the world sounds like.”
Against a calm repetitive pattern on keyboard, Paige and Lamar begin to trade insults, their voices barking and breaking at each other, each phrase spat out with the intent of hurting the other. If there is a chorus, it is the part where the woman shouts, “FUCK YOU N—-!” And Lamar responds, “FUCK YOU B—-!’” They go back and forth, like two pros volleying the disses with the intensity of a ball on a tennis court, each trying to see how they can twist the serve and send forth a spin the opponent would be unable to return. But there is no relief. The woman insults her partner in ways that seem intended to emasculate. She points to his sexual ineptitude and suggests his infidelity.
For his part, Lamar’s character reminds the woman what he has done for her, suggesting she is ungrateful and throws back that she must be on her period. He says she is “power trippin” and accuses her, too, of being unfaithful.
As the track progresses, we hear the woman’s voice break. We hear the tears in her voice, coming to the edge before she collects herself and continues to return his insults. We hear her articulation punctuated by hand clapping to emphasize her points. She brings up his mama, and he pushes back; she calls out sexism and misogyny, and compares his egotistical and narcissistic persona to Trump, Harvey Weinstein, and R. Kelly. He responds by throwing back the hypocrisy that she still listens to Kelly’s music, an irony that dislodges her integrity.
When they are both exhausted, the argument takes a sudden turn as they seem to collapse on each other, and the exchange turns romantic and sexual. We exhale at this moment in the track, relieved that they made it through the storm and found their way back to shore.
The narrator returns at the end of the track: “Stop tap dancing around the conversation,” and we hear the staccato sound of tap dancing before it cuts to a tense, passionate silence.
This track is clever, vulnerable, and poetic. It is so raw and startling – and so familiar. Black couples have to cope with the swirling of the world while trying to hold on to their precious relationships, a magic phenomenon actively and violently endangered by the Founding Fathers. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson describes Black folks as sub-human, incapable of poetry or romantic love. Plantation owners sold and resold their enslaved property, breaking up couples and families. Lamar gives us this context in songs like “Mother I Sober,” where he explains the historical roots of this trauma.
“We Cry Together” has pain sown throughout the track, and, if we listen to the entire album, we know this is part of a fuller story. This is a concept album, each track building up to and back from “We Cry Together.” Sonically, we can find the thread if we listen carefully. For instance, the tap-dancing that ends the track returns at the end of “Count me Out.” In “Crown,” Lamar says: “Go out the way to say you made the compromise/that’s what I call love.” In “Purple Hearts” which follows “We Cry Together,” there is a line that serves as good advice to the couple: “Shut the fuck up when you hear love talking.”
“We Cry Together” is the heartbeat of this album. And, given his other work, we can guess that Lamar intended this album for Black people. I am always curious about the impact of albums on my own Black children. I asked my 21-year-old son what he thought of the album. He loves it, citing three songs in particular: “Die Hard,” “Savior,” and “We Cry Together.” He said, “This is a very aggressive song which tells the story of a relationship. This gives insight into how no relationship is perfect. At the very end, when they say to stop tap-dancing around the conversation, I think it means that you need to have these kinds of conversations if you want to grow with your partner.” Although I cringe at the aggression in the song, I appreciate that my son draws a deeper meaning about love and relationships from this song and from the album.
The cover art for Mr. Morale signals it as an intimate project on love. His back to the camera and his face in profile, Lamar holds his daughter, while in the background his partner Whitney Alford, who is mentioned throughout the album, sits on a bed breastfeeding a baby. She is leaning against a brown wall with patches of paint stripped away. This is a cover that is different from the community shot on To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) or the solo shot of Lamar on DAMN. (2017). And this is a different album. As its centerpiece, “We Cry Together” may not be a traditional love song, but it is a labor of love for Black couples, Black families, and the Black community.
Nicholas Whittaker is a PhD Candidate at CUNY Graduate Center (Pronouns: they/them/theirs)
In writing about Kendrick Lamar’s newest masterpiece, I find myself in the bizarre position of having to say an obvious truism: Lamar is an artist, which means that he creates things. This statement will garner unanimous agreement. Nonetheless, we then go on to listen to and talk about, praise and condemn, Lamar as though he is not and does not.
Take Mr. Morale’s most controversial track, “Auntie Diaries.” I won’t take too strong a stance on the song’s gender politics (for what it’s worth, I find them to be airtight). The song details Lamar’s relationship with his trans family members: an uncle (the titular “aunt”) and a cousin. Many have accused the track of being transphobic. NPR, for example, writes that “[Lamar] also mixes up his relatives’ pronouns, and he “deadnames” them — using names that they no longer use.” Note the use of “mixes up,” implying a lack of intentionality, a purposelessness or confusion. Likewise, Vox calls the song “clumsy” and “careless,” noting its “consistent misgendering” as evidence.
I want to highlight a glaring hole in virtually all of the litigations of the song that I’ve seen. Its misgendering spirals out of two repeated refrains: “My auntie is a man now” and “Demetrius is Mary-Ann now.” Are these paradoxical statements mere “mix-ups”? Are they more sinister dogwhistles? Either way, they aren’t Lamar’s. This is revealed, for the attentive, in the song’s climax, as Lamar raps:
“Remember church, Easter Sunday?
I sat in the pew, you had stronger faith
More spiritual when these dudes were living life straight
Which I found ironic ’cause the pastor didn’t see him the same
He said my cousin was going through some things
He promised the world we living in was an act on abomination
And Demetrius was to blame
I knew you was conflicted by the feelings of preacherman
Wondering if God still call you a decent man
Still you found the courage to be subservient just to anoint
Until he singled you out to prove his point, saying
‘Demetrius is Mary-Ann now
Church, his auntie is a man now,’ it hurt”
This moment is one of the most thrilling narrative twists of Lamar’s career. The repeated refrain that opens the song is revealed as a direct quotation of the pastor. These are not Lamar’s words at all, but foreshadowing allusions of the transphobic ideologies of a man of power whom Lamar directly confronts.
My point is not to lionize Lamar for this confrontation, nor to pretend that this fact puts to bed all challenges of the song. My point is this. Every commentator on the track has felt comfortable attributing authorship of the song’s misgendering refrain to Lamar, as revealing sentiments or tics or harmful beliefs he himself possesses. Of course, this is not completely accidental. The conceit of “Auntie Diaries” is precisely aimed at cultivating this confusion; Lamar’s narrative voice is possessed by these words, as though they emerge from that authorial position, before revealing their “true” origin. We could discuss why Lamar does this. But first we would have to acknowledge that that’s what’s going on. We would have to acknowledge that Lamar is an artist, and he creates things, and that means that his art–that “Auntie Diaries”–is not a simple, transparent window into what Lamar truly thinks. Rather, it is an intentional creation, in which Lamar acts and speaks for reasons beyond mere expression of his unmediated thoughts. It is a work of art(ifice).
But the discourse around “Auntie Diaries,” and Mr. Morale in general, has wholly refused to take Lamar seriously as an artist in this sense. (Another example: “N95,” an obviously parodic send-up of Desiigner-esque mid-2010’s braggadocio rap and COVID conspiracy theorists, is seen as an unfiltered display of Lamar’s braggadocio and conspiratorial paranoia.)
Is this just a quirk of our appreciation of Lamar? Not at all. I’ve argued elsewhere that black artists are typically assumed to be incapable of or uninterested in doing creative work. As I put it: “Reduced to naïve parrots mimicking what they/we see and hear, black artists are imagined to lack imagination, while black artworks become interesting only inasmuch as they teach us about the realities of “black life” (whatever the hell that could be).” In other words, we take black art at face value, because we seem instinctively primed to think of black artists as only capable of such face value work. After all, think about the overemphasis on rap’s “confessional” nature, its ability to offer a “window” into “the ghetto”. Lamar, like black artists in general, is taken without question to be a kind of journalist, reporting on his inner life without any space for creative manipulation.
It’s frustrating to see Lamar subjected to this dehumanization. So much of the beauty of Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers lies in its cleverness. The album is a laboratory, within which Lamar constructs and deconstructs rap, both in its form and its content. But to see that, we would have to grant Lamar the power of creativity, that fundamental element of art. We would have to give him a little more trust, and treat him with a little more care. Lamar spends this entire album desperately trying to communicate the way we refuse to see the human capacity for thought and reflection of black folks, particularly black men, and the ways in which they/we need trust and care. The irony would be laughable, were its consequences not so terrifying.