“If you look around the Movement for Black Lives, you see that most of these folk that are leading are girls and women, and they’re sex workers … or transgender folk, gender-nonconforming folk. What extent, if any, did that shape not just Kendrick Lamar’s lyricism, his artistry, but his music? I’m not certain I’ve seen that reflected.” —Darnell L. Moore (author, activist), 2019
Last fall, I released Promise That You Will Sing About Me: The Power and Poetry of Kendrick Lamar, a biography of the brilliant 34-year-old Pulitzer-winning rapper from Compton, California. Before COVID-19, I taught my one and only college course at New York University: Kendrick Lamar and 21st Century Hip-Hop in Cultural Context. As a writer, I’d broken bread with a multitude of MCs over the decades—Rakim, Black Thought, Big Daddy Kane, Yasiin Bey, KRS-One, André 3000, as well as Kendrick (a few of whom reside in many a rap lover’s Top Five)—but it was Kendrick who moved me enough to devote years of energy into a book and a university course, for the same reasons he’s been canonized in American culture at large: his pen, and what he says with it.
On his albums Section.80, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, To Pimp a Butterfly, and Damn, Kendrick speaks out on inner-city PTSD, survivor’s guilt, Black resilience, pan-Africanism, religion, and more. Raised in this culture as an urban eyewitness, a hyper-talented mouthpiece, for how white supremacy affects young Black Americans, Kendrick shares plenty in common with Nina Simone, James Baldwin, Marvin Gaye, Tupac Shakur, and other artistic icons. My biography of his life celebrates all of this, even as it critiques where he falls short of the glory—specifically, his silence on LGBTQ issues. Days ago, Kendrick dropped his long-awaited new album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers: his double-album meditation on Black generational trauma, new spirituality, psychotherapy, and, on “Auntie Diaries,” transphobia.
Time, then, to reevaluate.
According to Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers (which contains as much to mull over as a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay or a Toni Morrison novel), in the past five years since Damn, he’s dealt with a two-year spasm of writer’s block, wrestled with a messiah complex, discovered the Oprah-endorsed spiritual guru Eckhart Tolle, and entered into therapy. He’s been fasting, digital detoxing, and enjoying fatherhood. The long-standing love of his life, Whitney Alford, takes on almost a narrator’s presence on Mr. Morale. Kendrick mentions their son Enoch twice, and their daughter closes the emotional standout of the album, “Mother I Sober.” The couple celebrated the release of the album not only far from home but far from the United States, in Accra, Ghana.
In the margins of each chapter of my book, a “Kendrick Chorus” chimes in with side commentary: Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, the late cultural critic Greg Tate, memoirist-activist Darnell L. Moore, and 11 others. In a chapter exploring Kendrick’s politics, including Black Lives Matter’s adoption of his Grammy-winning “Alright” single as an anthem, Moore says, “I was listening for how the works that have been done for the Movement for Black Lives impacted him: the various messages about a type of expansive blackness that also includes safety for girls and women, and understanding that trans and queer folk are also pivotal to the movement.” Prior to Mr. Morale’s “Auntie Diaries,” these views were a glaring omission in Kendrick’s work.
While many rappers have spoken out against homophobia in interviews, only Jay-Z’s “Smile”—a song from his emotionally brave 2017 album 4:44 on which he discusses his mother’s coming out as a lesbian—comes to mind when thinking about hip-hop’s elder statesmen speaking out about these kinds of issues on record. (Meanwhile, the past few years have seen a number of the genre’s younger stars, from Lil Nas X to Cardi B to Doja Cat, come out as gay or bisexual.) “Auntie Diaries” starts with a quote from Eckhart Tolle (“This is how we conceptualize human beings”), before Kendrick jumps in with “My auntie is a man now / I think I’m old enough to understand now.” The verse continues from the perspective of Kendrick as a second grader, defending his uncle in elementary school. “The first person I seen write a rap / That’s when my life changed,” he says, crediting their relationship with setting him on his life’s path. “My auntie was a man now, we cool with it.”
The third verse details the gender transition of his cousin Mary-Ann. That narrative culminates at an Easter Sunday service, where Kendrick challenges a preacher who condemns the LGBTQ+ lifestyle as an abomination. “I chose humanity over religion,” says Kendrick. Let the church say amen.
When it comes to Kendrick Lamar, his good intentions often end up mired in problematic elements. His label, Top Dawg Entertainment (Mr. Morale marks his last album for it), once threatened to pull Kendrick’s music from Spotify if the streaming service blacklisted the abusers R. Kelly and XXXTentacion. Kendrick once received flak for discouraging the voting process. On “Auntie Diaries,” he raps, “I said them F-bombs, I ain’t know any better,” but by way of making his point, he spews that same homophobic slur 10 times. While describing his youthful confusion about his relatives’ identities, he also repeatedly uses their names from before their transitions, and especially in the early verses, he struggles to use their preferred pronouns.
On the morning of the album’s release, transgender rights activist Raquel Willis tweeted, “If you think deadnaming, misgendering, and wielding slurs is the pinnacle of LGBTQ+ allyship, you’ve got a lot of work to do, boo … Why must [cishet men] always push a boundary with us and expect us to be grateful?” Kendrick ends the song harking back to a moment at the 2018 Hangout Music Festival, when a white woman he invited onstage to rap along with “M.A.A.D City” felt free enough to utter the N-word in front of thousands of fans in Alabama. His point being: His past use of gay slurs was equally heinous and now, presumably, behind him. As Mary-Ann tells him, “To truly understand love, switch position.”
The song’s conceit is in keeping with one of Kendrick’s long-standing strategies. Rather than preaching down to the listener from on high, he has a tendency to instead hold himself up as an example of what not to do. Perhaps the most extreme example comes on To Pimp a Butterfly’s “The Blacker the Berry,” in which he promises that, by the end of the song, the listener will understand why he’s “the biggest hypocrite of 2015,” then proceeds to rap about anti-Black racism, before finally concluding, “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? When gangbanging make me kill a n—a blacker than me? / Hypocrite!” In other words, even when he wanted to release a song decrying violence against Black people, he did so while indicting himself as part of the problem. On “Auntie Diaries,” he uses this same tactic, but this time it’s to take on homophobia and transphobia. Rather than presenting himself as more enlightened than the listener, he embodies his own imperfect journey from youthful ignorance (complete with re-creating his use of the wrong language in the first several verses) to acceptance (in the final verse, at least, he uses the pronouns his cousin prefers). The catch, as Willis and others have pointed out, is that in this context, reprising this kind of language—even to make a point—repeats the harm. The intentions may be good, but when it comes to the impact, it’s complicated.
In typical Kendrick fashion, “Auntie Diaries” is courageous, naïve, groundbreaking, and polarizing. “I can’t please everybody,” he intones over and over on “Crown.” Call him, per usual, prophetic.