In 1958, psychiatrist Klaus Conrad coined the the term ‘apophenia’ — the tendency to see patterns in unrelated things. Some half a century later, in 2009, Kendrick Lamar, previously K.Dot, would release the Kendrick Lamar EP, the first under his birth name.
The point being? Let’s start by acknowledging that art criticism, is a subjective, often self-important exercise. A lick of ego suffices to indulge in flights of critical apophenia that quickly morph into reified narrative. So, let’s play that game with Kendrick Lamar. The rules are simple: stop reading when you stop agreeing, when facts become fictions and when history becomes lore.
Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers finds Kendrick at full-stretch, musically and personally.
In his transition from K.Dot to Kendrick Lamar, the Kendrick Lamar EP could be posited as the moment in which a promising rapper began claiming his identity via his artistry. As Kendrick Lamar, he set out his intention to reveal patterns – in intimately related events and untenably personal experiences. From that point on, Kendrick Lamar continued to celebrate his existence, even as he spat fire and brimstone upon the reality he lived, and lives.
The Kendrick Lamar EP is only his third official mixtape under any moniker. But listen to it, and you’ll soon find the iconic messaging, that realisation of patterns in unrelated things (not to mention an early slew of high-profile features including Jay Rock and Schoolboy Q) that defined his second album, the 2012 Good Kid M.A.A.D City, and saw him achieve superstardom.
Still here? Good, because those messages are less a breadcrumb trail than a thumbprint. Unique in form but universal in synchronicity, Lamar’s singular talent to strike to the core of his present moment while simultaneously illuminating the reality of that experience to the world at large speaks to a quality of unrivalled calibre. This is truth – in a polarised post-truth world.
When a Kendrick Lamar album drops, the world listens. Die-hard Beliebers, grizzled metal heads, and gnarled folksters alike don’t just know about it, they talk about it. In an era of next-day deliveries and binge consumption, the build up to this year’s Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers had people talking about its very release date.
Now, at last, back to the music, or, rather, the iconography. To Pimp A Butterfly didn’t reference The White House so much as demand its attention. Damn ensnared burning, bold red anger in the mires of disillusionment. Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers finds Kendrick at full-stretch, musically and personally. Chopped, uninhibited melodies screech over his trademark, high-pitched slaw. Then, there’s that first bar – “I’ve been going through something, 1855 days, I’ve been going through something, be afraid.”
From that point on, Kendrick Lamar continued to celebrate his existence, even as he spat fire and brimstone upon the reality he lived.
Studying the sleeve of Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers invites apophany even as it promises epiphany. A first glance reveals a tender stoic: his art form in chrysalis, bearing the weight of a crown of thorns, straight-necked and defiant. Then, as the needle drops, you learn: “I grieve different.”
What one feels and the connections one draws between those juxtapositions have long been the core of his musical oeuvre. We are witnesses to his standalone ability to stand tall and speak with one foot in each world, in an age of extremes that he comprehended far earlier than most.
Currently, disbelief in the lived experience of others is rife. The arcs of criticism and experience provide moments in which the orbits of apophany and epiphany are closely aligned. Fitting then, that for an artist now beyond stellar, there is no sign of an eclipse on the horizon.
Kendrick Lamar’s truths are distinct, unobscured, and crucially, visible to the naked eye. His is a raw but honest celebration of life as he lives it. Celebrations are shared, it’s what makes them real. A depiction of reality so stirring that the listener questions one’s self as much as the nature of the artist and the art itself.
- Kendrick Lamar Mercedes-Benz Arena, Oct 11, starts 20:00
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