Kendrick Lamar’s Unconstrained Next Chapter
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Showtime. A bright light illumes an ethereal white curtain, and what sounds like a chorus of angels sings: “I hope you find some peace of mind in this lifetime/I hope you find some paradise.” A troupe of black-and-white-clad dancers march in formation on a catwalk. The dancers swing their arms, clapping in time to a string-heavy prelude. Quick-fast, thousands pull out their cellphones, transforming London’s O2 Arena into a starry cosmos.
Kendrick Lamar sits at a black upright piano, remaining in shadow, till a single soft spotlight reveals him fingering chords, with a suited-and-booted ventriloquist’s-dummy version of himself he calls Lil’ Stepper — an enigmatic, mind-printing sight — seated atop the piano’s lid.
He starts rapping a verse with his back to the crowd. Then, carrying Lil’ Stepper, he saunters onto the catwalk, his Chelsea bootsteps amplified, recalling the tap dancing that runs as a motif on his recent album, “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers.” On giant screens behind him, you can see the chrome embellishments along the outseam of his pants, and one of his handles, “oklama,” emblazoned in bold white Old English letters across the back of his black vest, the yellow gradient of his sunglasses, the fulgent glint of his diamond earrings.
All to say, homie looks every bit the sublime superstar he is.
Kendrick stands stock-still at a mic stand, idles long enough to draw a chant of “ooooh, Kendrick Lamarrrr” from the expectant crowd, long enough that it seems as though he’s meditating, and then, as if someone hit a switch, he begins to spit the words of “United in Grief,” a song that catalogs the dysfunctional ways he has dealt with loss: buying mansions “for practice,” acquiring jewelry he never wore in public, having rendezvous on tour. In the third verse, he raps about his cousin Baby Keem copping four cars in four months, saying, “You know the family dynamics on repeat/The insecurities locked down on PC.” Throughout, he maintains his remarkable stillness, save his out-of-sight hands Geppetto-ing the dummy’s mouth.
What we call ventriloquism, the ancient Greeks called gastromancy, believing the ventriloquist was speaking from the gut on behalf of the dead to the living. In the Middle Ages, ventriloquism was considered witchcraft by Christians, which was punishable by death. Kendrick on the stage, still and silent with Lil’ Stepper in his arms, conjures the spiritual nature of ventriloquism and suggests how aware he is of his powers, how willing he is to speak his mind and “stand on it.”
Lamar with Lil’ Stepper during the Big Steppers Tour.Credit…Greg Noire/pgLang
At 35, Kendrick is the most important rapper of his generation, and he just might be its most elliptical too, sharing revelatory self-portraits in his work but little of himself outside it. Last year marked the 10th anniversary of “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” the album that established him as a virtuosic M.C., hailing from deep inside Compton, the fiery heart of West Coast rap.
On the major-label albums that followed, “To Pimp a Butterfly” (2015) and “DAMN.” (2017), Kendrick deepened his portrayals of Compton and his own inner life. In addition to beaucoup Grammys, he became the first artist outside jazz and classical music to win the Pulitzer Prize. “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers,” released last spring, was another leap in Kendrick’s art; it’s more personal and out-and-out emotional than anything that preceded it. “I’ve never expressed myself the way I expressed myself on this album,” Kendrick told me. “From the moment I started picking up a pen and started freestyling. This was the moment that I was trying to get to without even knowing at the time.”
On “United in Grief,” the album’s first track, he notes that it’s been 1,855 days since the release of “DAMN.” Kendrick took a hiatus after touring for that album, seldom appeared in public and, with Whitney Alford, became a father to two kids. He was “going through something,” he tells us on that song, and it’s clear that whatever interior work he endeavored is at the heart of “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers.”
The album is framed as a therapy session and covers, among other weighty subjects, Kendrick’s grappling with his id and ego, with generational traumas, with his responsibilities as a leader. Kendrick shares on “Mother I Sober” that his mother was both physically and sexually abused, and that his family once thought him abused by a cousin; reveals that he suffered from sexual addiction and hurt Alford with infidelities; tells us on “Auntie Diaries” that both an aunt and a cousin are trans — revelations more remarkable given the fraught history between rappers and the L.G.B.T.Q. community. He also risks criticism, plumbing the psychologies of abusive men and seeming to push against the idea of banishing them (Kodak Black, who was charged with rape and took a plea deal for lesser sexual-assault charges, appears four times on the album).
“Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” was Kendrick’s last album on Top Dawg Entertainment (T.D.E.), the label that discovered and nurtured his talent, that helped establish him as a global superstar. Some time before announcing his departure from T.D.E. — a move that turned fans incredulous — he shared on his website that he was starting his own company, pgLang, with his longtime collaborator, Dave Free. That news arrived via a cryptic news release and a “visual mission statement,” a surreal short film that even Dave admitted to me “had nothing to do with the company.”
Many fans are still baffled by just what this partnership means, but the show in London indicates the new direction they’re headed in, the expansiveness of what they’re exploring: It’s as much avant-garde performance art as concert. The aesthetic is minimalist. Gone, the hype man. Gone, the elevated D.J. Gone, an entourage serving as backdrop. Gone, the rapper habit of swaggering side to side, pulling people from the audience onto the stage. Kendrick spends much of the time onstage solo, nursing pauses that draw chants from the crowd, punctuating his lyrics — diddy-bopping at one point, crouching to knee-scrape level at another — with dancing and dramatic gestures. At one point, people dressed in hazmat suits pretend to give Kendrick a Covid test inside a light box.
Dave, who has been crucial to Kendrick’s visual language, including as part of the brain trust of this show, watches it alongside me from the risers. A former D.J. and in-house music producer for T.D.E., Dave has created, with his Day 1 homeboy, some of the most celebrated music videos of the last decade and earned the bona fides to prove it. But he is creating more solo-credited work of late — astute, stylish videos and ad campaigns — proving he’s a force all on his own. He shuffles around for different vantages. Moves up to the front and looks over at the soundboard, standing at the back almost alone, a fashion plate in his sky blue mohair cardigan and plum wide-legged pants. He isn’t nodding his head or pumping his fist or rapping the lyrics like no few of the V.I.P.s present; in fact he seems almost nonplused. Is he nervous? “Maybe when we’re trying something new,” he tells me over the music. “But this one is dialed in.” You can tell that he’s seeing what most of us can’t: the show from the standpoint of execution.
“Hood Beethoven — that was the initial idea,” Kendrick told me later. “Now incorporate that with dance and art, and you get this contextualized, theatrical type of performance. That’s what it built into. Then you put it all in the platform, all on the deck. It feels like a theatrical hip-hop show, and not the corny [expletive].” To Kendrick’s central concept Dave contributed the idea of using the light boxes that are an elemental part of the show, the Steadicam that follows Kendrick and broadcasts him on jumbo screens, the meta moment in the show when Kendrick turns to watch himself perform.
Kendrick, grounded in narrative, and Dave, thinking in image and tools, has been a creative partnership that reaches back decades, back when Dave was a teenager obsessed with all the new technology and Kendrick was the first person he’d met “that didn’t care about the [expletive] that all the kids cared about.”
It’s hard to overstate the shock it caused in the rap world when Kendrick announced that he was leaving T.D.E. It was like when the Jackson 5 left Motown. When Prince left Warner Bros. When Jay-Z left Def Jam. Kendrick had been signed to the label since 2007, when Dave, who was then working as a computer technician, hustled his music to the attention of the label’s founder, Anthony Tiffith, who goes by Top Dawg, during a service call. Though the label has other well-known artists like Jay Rock, ScHoolboy Q and SZA, Kendrick was the biggest. The label ruled the 2010s and presented itself as family, with Top Dawg and his co-president, Terrence Henderson, also known as Punch, serving as father figures.
Kendrick has declined to address the split, beyond a public statement that offered blessings to T.D.E. and cited a need to pursue his “life’s calling.” (Smart money says if he speaks on it beyond that, it will be in his music.) T.D.E., for its part, has been mum on details but publicly supportive. What must be figured into the calculus of the departure is that Dave left the label back in 2019, almost two years before Kendrick made his official announcement. Dave, who took Kendrick, then K.Dot, to T.D.E. in the first place, who had been part of the label for as long as Kendrick, who was Kendrick’s longtime manager, who ascended to the level of co-president in 2010. Dave, who had believed in Kendrick in word and deed since they were high schoolers with abounding talent and ambition but scant dollars.
The news release described pgLang as more than a music label, but it’s without doubt part of a long tradition of Black music enterprise. The first major Black-owned record company was Black Swan Records, founded around the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance by the businessman Harry Pace to address the paucity of opportunities for Black artists to record and sell their music. Pace’s marketing tag line was the antithesis of pgLang’s cryptic news release: “The Only Records Using Exclusively Negro Voices and Musicians.”
pgLang’s forebears include Berry Gordy Jr.’s Motown hit factory; Gamble & Huff’s Philadelphia International Records, the producing team instrumental in creating the famed Philadelphia sound of the 1970s; as well as Sylvia Robinson’s Sugar Hill Records, which introduced hip-hop to the mainstream via the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” For real for real, pgLang owes debts to Master P’s No Limit Records (1990); Baby and Slim’s Cash Money Records (1991); Dre and Suge’s Death Row Records (1991); Diddy’s Bad Boy Entertainment (1993); Jay-Z, Dame and Biggs’s Roc-A-Fella Records (1996); and of course T.D.E.
But it’s also original in that none of those companies were co-founded by an artist at the pinnacle of his career, with the concomitant extraordinary expectations. In that its scope is broad from the get-go — a foundation in music, but also management (Tanna Leone, Baby Keem and Kendrick); film and TV (cinematic music videos, a forthcoming feature); advertising and brand partnerships (Converse). pgLang seems fresh in how it’s more concerned with artistic integrity than what’s commercial; fresh in its refusal to give away too much, in resisting the pressure to be prolific. In pgLang, we have the purest expression of what animates Kendrick and Dave, of what they want to do and say, of how and when to do and say it.
For instance, the video for Baby Keem’s “Family Ties,” which was directed by Dave and heralded Kendrick’s return (the track won last year’s Grammy for best rap performance). It begins with a group of Black men in black, moshing, while Keem and Kendrick, distinguished in bright orange, attempt escape. Like almost all of Kendrick and Dave’s art, there are nods to home — Keem rapping outside a barbershop, young dudes posted outside an L.A. bungalow, an artful simulated gang fight. And like all their work, it’s full of subtext: a girl named Angel twerking on Keem, who never touches her, a troupe of Black ballerinas dancing around him as he raps among white sculptures, a mother holding her Black baby with her back turned, moments that emphasize the power and beauty of Black women. “Family Ties” is more lyric than narrative, moving from image to stunning image, using overlapping frames and VFX. The religious symbolism, the imagery of home, the technical innovation — all are signature aspects of the pgLang ethos.
Or take the video for “The Heart Part 5,” the lead single off “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers.” The seeds of the video’s concept were sown a couple of years before its release, during a time when Kendrick and Dave were thinking about polarizing figures: how people behave in and out of the hot seat; whether a public figure can reveal his flaws and maintain wide acceptance; what’s far afield of the Overton window. “I look at everything as a social experiment,” explains Dave, who directed the video with Kendrick. One figure they kept returning to again and again was the actor Jussie Smollett, who was prosecuted beginning in 2019 for targeting himself in a staged hate crime.
Around the time of those discussions, Dave and Kendrick had a meeting with the creators of “South Park,” Matt Stone and Trey Parker, with whom they’re developing a live-action comedy. Stone, who, with Parker, owns a company specializing in deepfake technology, offered to show it to them. “You see Kendrick turned into Tupac, Kendrick turned into Kanye, and I think we had Eminem,” Stone told me over a Zoom call. He told Kendrick and Dave that they could be among the first to use the technology for one of their videos. On their way out, Dave and Kendrick turned to each other and exclaimed, “What if we did the Jussie Smollett!”
The video for “The Heart Part 5” begins with the epigraph “I am. All of us,” attributed to Kendrick’s handle oklama, and shows him morphing into deepfakes of O.J. Simpson, Kanye, Jussie, Will Smith, Kobe Bryant and Nipsey Hussle — Black men who exist somewhere between problematic and tragic. Over a sample of Marvin Gaye’s soulful “I Want You,” Kendrick, in a crisp white T-shirt, his hair wild against a blood red background, begins critiquing the predation, violence and materialism of “the culture,” moves on to narrating the shock of receiving the news of Nipsey’s death and ends rapping in the persona of his slain friend, precisely mimicking his gestures.
“The Heart Part 5” received a Grammy nomination for best music video — the third such accolade for Kendrick and Dave. Still, critics of the video argued that it defended problematic figures. What did Kendrick mean when he said he was all of them? Was he advocating for understanding and forgiveness, no matter the breach? That vantage makes sense given the world that shaped him, given the place he calls home.
Genesis. Biddy Mason. The enslaved woman who slogged on foot behind her Mormon master’s caravan from Mississippi to Utah, and in 1851, from Utah to L.A. Who sheroed freedom for herself and 13 others and pioneered Black L.A. Genesis. The near 700,000 Black folk who arrived in L.A. between 1940 and 1970, who locomoted the City of Los Angeles streamliner or rode a grumbling Greyhound or braved the crucible of driving. Among them, Dave’s mother, Dee, from Chicago’s South Side in 1957, his father, Lee, from its North Side in ’68.
Genesis. Compton, dubbed Hub City for being almost the dead center of L.A., was a more than 99 percent white suburb in 1950; later the predatory real estate scheme of blockbusting and the 1965 revolt in neighboring Watts stoked white flight. Genesis. In the 1970s, deindustrialization ceased the second great exodus west, though it didn’t stop Kendrick’s parents, Ducky and Paula, from loading up their ride in ’84 and driving the 2,000-plus miles from Chicago to L.A. with all of $500 to fund a new life.
Dave Free born Nov. 13, 1986 — in Inglewood.
Kendrick Lamar born June 17, 1987 — in Compton.
L.A. Compton. Home.
Man-Man (Baby Kendrick) asleep on his cheetah pillow. Man-Man riding the shoulders of a grown man, while other grown men toss gang signs and pass a pump shotgun. Ducky and Paula’s 5-year-old boy witnessing a man get his chest blown out outside their apartment. Insouciant Man-Man chomping Now and Laters and carrying his basketball around the neighborhood. On a walk home from McNair elementary school, free-lunching Man-Man witnesses his second murder in the drive-through of Tam’s Burgers. Man-Man rolling with Ducky to the Compton Swap Meet to buy cassettes or CDs, sometimes the latest Nikes. Once glimpsing Suge Knight inside — the infamous giant.
Blessed be Mr. Inge, the seventh-grade Vanguard Learning Center teacher who introduces Kendrick to poetry.
L.A. Inglewood and Carson. Home.
Dave Boy screaming his big wheel down the giant hill on 102nd Street. Mischievous Dave Boy playing with matches and starting a fire in a neighbor’s bush. Dee and Lee’s youngest boy sleeping in their bedroom till he’s 5 or 6, then sharing a room with his big sis. Thanks be to Dave’s older brother, Dion, for encouraging his interest in D.J.ing.
Meanwhile, all around Man-Man and Dave Boy: the Pirus. The Bloods. The Crips. The Eses. O.G.s, B.G.s, the loc’d out whoever. The frequent set-tripping and boom, boom, boom of drive-bys and walk-ups; the bloody strife that turned the CPT into the “murder capital of the U.S.,” that made Dre rap “Inglewood always up to no good” on “California Love.”
Better know your boundaries, homie. Better be prepared to prove where your grandmama lives.
See home: the billboarded liquor stores and check marts; curbside effigies in the set’s colors and shoes flung over power lines; the low-lows on switches and spokes, a rag-top spinning doughnuts in a parking lot. Teenage Kendrick (K.Dot) bending corners with the homies — Alondra, Bullis, Rosecrans — in his mama’s Dodge Caravan, hootriding in a white Toyota. Kendrick foaming at the mouth the time somebody sneak-laced the weed.
Dave working weekends at his pop’s floor-cleaning business. Teenage Dave (dj-dave) spending weekends wheeling Compton with his mentor for gigs. Dave saving enough scratch to cop an Acura.
Kendrick and Dave’s high school days: shopping at Up Against the Wall because all the salesgirls are fine. Macking at the Galleria or Fox Hills Mall. Hitting Tam’s for a breakfast burrito, Ramona’s for Mexican food. Those months you couldn’t go nowhere in L.A. without hearing somebody bumping Jeezy’s first album.
It was written — the day Dave travels to Centennial High to meet Kendrick, who’s got a burgeoning buzz as a rapper. Kendrick wowing Dave with the line, “I ship keys across the seas like a grand piano” while rapping in Dave’s makeshift garage studio. Kendrick and Dave recording at the Hyde Park apartment of Dave’s older brother, Dion. Dave the hype man and Dion the manager/D.J. for the earliest Kendrick shows. Like the one at the super hood comedy club. Like the one staged behind a tattoo parlor.
Legend — the day Dave introduces Kendrick to Top Dawg, and he passes Top’s test of an interminable freestyle. Thereafter, Kendrick and Dave spend untold hours in Top’s home studio — christened the House of Pain — in Carson. Kendrick writing and rapping and Dave producing as part of Digi+Phonics.
Kendrick and Dave steeped in the experience of home, but also daring to transcend it, which is no small feat in a place that often works as gravity — tugging, tugging — a truth that has made them essential to each other.
“It’s nature versus nurture,” Kendrick explains. “I was nurtured in an environment where there’s, like, a lot of gang mentality. That certain language, certain lingo. How we walk. How we talk. All the little nuances and in-speaks that I have in Compton. I have that. That’s not going nowhere. That’s why I can go into any environment, any type of street environment, and be able to still connect even at this high of a level, as the son that never leaves. That’s nurture.”
He pauses a moment.
“But the nature of me is pure. … And therefore, I lean too much to the nurture of it, I won’t be able to be as expansive as I want to be. A lot of these artists, they want to be expansive, but they so tied into what they homeboys will think about them or their belief system.” He continues: “I know, because I was once there, but I got out of that mentality as a teenager, my teenage years. These cats still be 30, 40 years old and still trying to hold up a certain image.
“And not to say it’s bad,” he goes on. “Everybody got their own journey. I was just fortunate enough to have a group of guys around me that gave me that courage to feed myself with the arts, whether it was the street cats in my neighborhood, whether it was Dave who pushed me to be an artist, whether it was Top from the projects, the Nickerson Gardens. I always was allowed to be myself.”
Kendrick and Dave share a watershed for them, one that happened back when they were in their mid-20s, when just about all they knew was home.
They drove over to their boy Fredo’s house to edit the video for “HiiiPower,” a song off “Section.80,” their official first album on T.D.E. Fredo shot the video and was supposed to edit it, but they had to commandeer the duties. “We were telling them this needs to be this, and they didn’t want to hear us,” Dave says. “They’re like, ‘No, this is how it needs to be done.’ So it was just me and Kendrick in there being like, ‘No we’re going to do it like this.’” Once their boys got burned out, Dave asked them to teach him how to edit. Two hours, five, 10. He and Kendrick kept going because it was their job to make sure it was perfect, because they couldn’t put their livelihoods in someone else’s hands.
Kendrick jumps back into the story. “To see somebody that much devoted to artists’ crafts, where he’s willing to sit with them and edit the video himself, it lets me know what type of not only businessman, but what type of friendship and what type of dedication he has for something he believes in. It was my song. Not his song. I go on tour and perform that song and make millions of dollars. So, for him to be willing to sit there and do that, day in day out, that let me know. OK, this is a person you want to be around. He got the best interest to really thug it out with you without even thinking about a check at that point. We just thinking about being creative and the best, and from that day forward, everything flipped.”
Under dark dusk and through the rainy streets that bespeak the Old Smoke’s subpar drainage system, we ride to the Saatchi Gallery. The director leads us to the second floor, where there’s a photo exhibit curated by the art critic Antwaun Sargent titled “The New Black Vanguard.” The exhibit is extraordinary, photograph after remarkable photograph, all of them of Black subjects, against walls painted in striking palettes: pale yellow, royal blue, fuchsia, tan.
Dave, who’s fly in a Prada nylon jacket, indigo cargo pants and radiant yellow sweater, spends the most time analyzing a Kwabena Sekyi Appiah-nti portrait of a young woman posed in front of a painted truck. He calls Kendrick over to see it. “Look at the background,” he says, excited, and he points out the rich rust tones saturating the image, how the model is looking back at us. Dave making me think of something Charles Simic wrote, “The attentive eye makes the world mysterious.” It’s moving to see him and Kendrick in this space, curious, impressed, choosing and citing references. Yeah, Kendrick’s the GOAT and Dave’s an accomplished artist in his own right, but they are also Black men about the same age as my youngest brothers. Not soon after we met, Kendrick asked me what it was like growing up in Portland, Ore., and I joked that whatever was happening in L.A. happened 20 minutes later in my hometown. Which was also to say that in fundamental ways, we come from the same world. And yet, here we are across the pond, admiring art created by and featuring Black people. Look at us, dear Langston, living beyond the dream deferred.
Later, we sit at a corner table in the dim dining room of Novikov, an Asian and Italian restaurant. The restaurant is packed and at a decibel level that requires us to lean in. This close, I notice Kendrick’s eyes. How they seem to be both present and distant; both focused on the moment at hand and processing it. Ain’t none of this eyes-are-windows-into-the-soul business with Kendrick. In fact, they might be paragons of the opposite: eyes wide open with revelations few to nil. They strike me as a kind of shield, as well as a way to foster the mystique that keeps people wanting more of him than he will ever share.
Dave takes off his black baseball cap — it’s printed with the name Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonym of Bitcoin’s founder, in white lettering — and sits in a seat. In pictures, Dave can appear unemotive, but in person he’s kind, full of youthful exuberance. He pushes up the sleeves of his yellow knit sweater and grabs his chopsticks. He orders the same wine as I do because he’s never tried it. We end up chatting about egos, a convo Dave kicks off by admitting that he’s “ego challenged,” that when he and Kendrick broke through, he struggled with humility.
Kendrick, for his part, is intent on controlling his ego. You can see it in ways subtle and explicit. Subtle in how he didn’t assert himself as the only or even the most important voice in a pgLang meeting I attended. Subtle in how he prepares for his shows in hours of silence. Oh so obvious in this line from “Count Me Out”: “Some put it on the devil when they fall short/I put it on my ego, lord of all lords.” Explicit in the very fact that the cover of this magazine includes Dave.
And of course, his wrestling with his ego is evident in his music. Tamping one’s ego is antithetical to the ethos of rap, a genre steeped in competition from the get-go and one in which rappers far and wide proclaim themselves the richest or freshest, the most unfeeling or toughest or most dangerous, in which even poot-butt neophytes proclaim themselves the indisputable king, a culture in which compassion is damn near an Achilles’ heel.
Kendrick hasn’t been immune from filtering his music through a hype machine. He is, after all, a West Coast rapper, one negotiating the legacy — think N.W.A., Dre, Cube. Think Pac and Snoop. Think the Game — of rappers who at their apotheosis seemed not at all concerned about humility. It’s no wonder his ego asserts itself in his earlier work. Maybe none more memorable than on his verse for Big Sean’s “Control”: “I got love for you all but I’m trying to murder you —” here he used a racial epithet.
But he has also made himself vulnerable, by spending more time than any rapper I can think of assuming personas. “Section.80,” his first album on Top Dawg, revolves around the lives of women named Tammy and Keisha, and includes the standout “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain),” about the tragic death of a sex worker. Kendrick’s canon in persona includes “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” from “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” and “Institutionalized,” from “To Pimp a Butterfly,” in which he embodies disaffected dudes in the hood.
Maybe the furthest that he has gone is “The Heart Part 5,” in which he raps as Nipsey addressing his own killer: “And to the killer that sped up my demise/I forgive you, just know your soul’s in question/I seen the pain in your pupil when that trigger had squeezed.” The first time I heard Kendrick rap about forgiving the man who killed his friend, I was gobsmacked. But on subsequent listens, I understood. How could he not empathize when he lived years among men like the one who killed his boy, when he has dedicated so much of himself to detailing the bleak circumstances that forged those men, when that divining has demanded empathy, even for those who have wronged him, even for those marked all but irredeemable by the rest of us?
Kendrick’s interest in accounting for his own strengths and limitations seems very much genuine. “My social media, most of the time, is completely off,” he says. “Because I know, like … I can easily smell my own [expletive]. I know. … Like, I’m not one of those dudes that be like, Oh, yeah, I know how good I am, but I also know the reason why I’m so good is because God’s blessed me with the talent to execute on the talent, and the moment that you start getting lost in your ego, that’s when you start going down.”
Believe you me, no one succeeds in that project alone; Kendrick has needed people in his life, people he respects, who’ll tell him the truth, the sober truths, the hard ones. At or near the top of that list is Dave. “What I know for sure is we have this unconditional love to allow each other to grow,” Kendrick says. “I always allowed him to have his room to grow, and he always allowed me to have room to grow in mine.”
A Black boy shuffles over to the window that looks onto the kitchen. He digs his hands in his pockets and toggles between craning to watch the chefs and stealing glances at Kendrick. We spent a while talking about that boy, wondering if he was another one of us, planning the seeming impossible.
Night 2, I watch the show from a second-row seat and notice — as happens with all extraordinary art — details I didn’t catch the previous night from the crowded risers. The sweat sheening Kendrick’s forehead minutes into the show. The red block of recording time on the galaxy of cellphone screens. Which songs turn the mosh pit ecstatic to the nth: “Money Trees,” “Family Ties,” “Alright,” “HUMBLE.” The intensity of fuchsia coloring the mini ’fros of the male dancers for “Swimming Pools.” How long the “ooooh” is in the crowd’s chant of “ooooh, Kendrick Lamarrrr,” during Kendrick’s extended silent stillness.
On Night 2, I consider the religious symbolism of his being lowered into the ground and resurrecting, that the square of light above his head could be a higher realm, his conscience even, that he spends half his performance of “Father Time”— a song about the influence of fathers in general and Kendrick’s father, Ducky, in specific — in chiaroscuro.
In that song, one of my favorites on the album, Kendrick raps, “Daddy issues, hid my emotions, never expressed myself/Men should never show feelings, being sensitive never helped,” which strikes me now as the antithesis of the project he took up in “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers.”
The very next line he raps of his father: “His momma died, I asked him why he goin’ back to work so soon?/His first reply was, ‘Son, that’s life, the bills got no silver spoon.’”
The first time I heard the lines, they reminded me of the one and only time I saw my father weep: The occasion was his father’s death, and he did his mourning in the dark on the living-room couch. The lines returned profound to me on Nov. 6, 2022, for no sooner than I landed in London and climbed in a car to meet Kendrick and Dave, I received a call from my sister who keened that my father — Wesley Frank Johnson Sr. — had died unexpectedly, gravely while I was in flight. I wept with my face in my hands and wondered if I should turn right around and board a flight back home.
Why didn’t I?
Because I was loath to disappoint the people who were counting on me. Because U-turning would have made me feel like a failure, and I never know which failure will wreck me. Because no matter what distance I travel from childhood, I still feel one foot in the poorhouse. Because my now-deceased father and others instilled in me the lessons to which Kendrick had testified: about the necessity of impenetrable toughness, about keeping all my emotions to myself, about weeping only in private. Because despite the resources I’ve invested to resist my own nurturing, I’m still liable to see weakness as anathema, to mistake aspects of humanness for the qualities of being a punk.
Because the complicated truth is, for years my father (a good, good man) and I had a fraught relationship, and I wasn’t prepared to face its aftermath.
But as well up ahead was the work. And in the world I must believe in, the work is a measure of hope.
So I wiped my eyes and hopped out the car, and by the time I reached Kendrick and Dave and the pgLang crew huddled around a huge conference table in the Soho House, I wore as much of a mask as I could over my fresh woe.
“Pulitzer Kenny!” I greeted him. “Pleasure to meet you, bro.”
We shook hands, both of us minding the firm-grip rule he speaks of in “Rich Spirit.”
The meeting happened the day before I heard the voice of angels and witnessed the show’s celestial backdrop. Before Kendrick sauntered on the catwalk with Lil’ Stepper in tow. Before he rapped the prophetic penultimate line of his opening song, what reached me the night of Nov. 7, 2022, as the truest words I’d ever heard — “Everybody grieves different.”
Stylists: George Krakowiak, Jedi Mabana and Karizza Sanchez. Barber: Mark Maciver. Hair: Khristien Ray. Makeup: Mata Mariélle. Manicurist: Lauren Michelle Pires.
Mitchell S. Jackson is the winner of a 2021 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing and the 2021 National Magazine Award for feature writing. He is the author of the memoir “Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family” and the novel “The Residue Years.” He is the John O. Whiteman Dean’s Distinguished Professor in the English department of Arizona State University. Rafael Pavarotti is a photographer from Brazil, currently based in London. He attributes the use of a vibrant color palette in his photographs to the everyday sights of his upbringing in the Amazon rainforest.