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I’ve had “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” on solid rotation for the last month. This isn’t a review on this album, or an attempt to debate where it stands in Kendrick Lamar’s oeuvre—there are better places to go if you’re seeking that—but I’d be remiss not to talk about how this piece of art intersects with the conversations on fatherhood we continue to have here.
Kendrick begins this album, his fifth, by telling us how for the last “1,855 days, I’ve been goin' through somethin’.” It’s been five years since “Damn” was released, and Kendrick, like many during this time, has been through it. He’s become a dad—twice— announcing the birth of his second with the cover art for this album (which you can see above.) “Damn” crowned Kendrick as the king of his industry, cementing his status as the greatest rapper in the game, and making a solid case for the greatest of all time 🐐. There was nowhere left to go: not only album of the year everywhere that mattered, but a piece of work so influential in impact and adventurous in scope that it was awarded a Pulitzer—the first given to a musician outside of the classical or jazz community.
He checked out on top. He became a father in 2019, spent time “playin' Baby Shark with my daughter,” and returned to the studio. But work wasn’t working anymore. He hit a creative dead end: “writer's block for two years, nothing moved me.” This album chronicles Kendrick’s journey to uncover the source of the problem, documenting what he found, and his attempt to do the necessary work to find and free himself. His fiancee Whitney Alford features prominently throughout, prompting him to start therapy—each track of the album an individual session, an overarching theme hidden in plain sight, as Kendrick undertakes the Jungian shadow work to let go of pains in his past that influence bad decisions in his present.
Having children has forced Kendrick to become conscious of his inherited intergenerational trauma, and how his inability to process it hurts those he loves the most. He’s reorienting himself in the world after becoming a dad. He’s reappraising his relationship with his own parents. He’s working through problems with his fiancee, seeing destructive patterns repeating from his past. He’s wrestling with the years he’s spent focused on work, work, work—taking him to the absolute top—before crashing out and being unable to pick up the pieces. He’s starting to take self-care seriously, finally working to heal, rather than pacifying the nothingness through buying more things, like the other rappers he sees “burying their pain in chains and tattoos.”
Any of this sounding familiar?
The first half of the double album focuses on Kendrick taking stock of his emotional baggage: on “Father Issues” he reflects on his childhood, growing up with the tough love of a father who “breaks my humility just for practice;” while “We Cry Together” is a painful but powerful indication of how earlier pain manifests itself as self-sabotage in his relationships. As we move into the second half of the album, which Whitney introduces as “Session 10: A Breakthrough,” we see Kendrick begin to process the pressures of his career and the trauma from his childhood, freeing himself from the negative thought processes and toxic behaviours that continue to pull him back. On songs like “Savior,” “Crown,” and “Mr. Morale” we see how he has unlocked new ways to think about his past, allowing him to move from layers of pain to a world of mental liberation.
Eckhart Tolle, self-help author and spiritual teacher, plays a recurring role in the album. He pops up throughout, recorded snippets from a meeting with Kendrick back in 2020. With the help of Tolle, and Kendrick’s work in conversational therapy, the shackles are lifted: freed from his need to please others and the saviour complex he unwittingly found through his success. He’s spent over a decade working his way to the top, until realising it has become a millstone hung around his neck, a poisoned chalice, a pursued pleasure that led to crippling pain. The parallels to Buddhism are clear, and religious subtext runs deep throughout the album: “Heavy is the head that chose to wear the crown,” he raps, his head adorned with a literal crown of thorns on the album cover. He knows he wanted it. But he’s using this newfound clarity as an opportunity to work through his struggles, and provide others with the roadmap if they want to follow. To do it, as he has done, for your family, and yourself.
To borrow an idea from Austin Kleon, this album acts as both a centripetal and centrifugal force. Kendrick has always been a master storyteller, but this time he speaks so honestly about his past that it demands every last morsel of your attention. Then it spins you into the connected world of spirituality, self-development, mindfulness and the internal search for joy. You might be spending time looking in those places already. But for those who aren’t, and are starting to ask these questions themselves, Kendrick has created a point to leap from. A subreddit filled with people newly introduced to the work of Tolle shows it happening in real-time. One doesn’t need to ignore these questions, dull the pain with drink and drugs, or feel they’re diving blindly into the unknown. People have been here before; they know the way through. The obstacle becomes the way.
Becoming a father comes with a fundamental shift in your sense of self, leaving many new dads on unsure footing. We are first defined by our role as a child in our family, and later by a search for success and meaning in our careers. When a new baby comes along we seek solid ground, with many leaning back towards their jobs for stability. I did so after my first, where I was back at work after a few weeks. But after my son was born—and I was working for myself, finding that old place not as stable as it once—I needed to look elsewhere for a new centre of gravity. I found places that challenged me—therapy, philosophy, spirituality, meditation—because they made me question some of the things I’d been ignoring, illuminating the way to solve problems at their root rather than papering over cracks.
As long as I write here, I’ll continue to bang this drum: becoming a parent is the most significant opportunity for personal growth life will provide. Raising a child is an experience unlike any other—and this album is a stunning case study on how it inspired one man to change how he fundamentally perceives the world, and finally come to terms with shadows he’s spent a lifetime avoiding. Portishead’s Beth Gibbons makes a welcome appearance in the album's penultimate track, her haunting voice resting alongside Kendrick’s vulnerable disclosures. The track closes with Kendrick’s fiancee and children thanking him for his work to “break a generational curse.” I cried the first time I heard it. And have done so a few times since.
The power of great media comes from its ability to open windows to new worlds, filled with fresh fields of knowledge and opportunities for discovery and growth. Last year a podcast introduced me to a book that changed the way I saw the world, and the innate power of the hyperlink was always the promise and potential of what lay on the other side of that blue text. This album will similarly provide an on-ramp for dads finding themselves asking questions similar to Kendrick: What does it mean to be a father today? And how can we raise children protected from any trauma we experienced? If, as Shakespeare believed, the role of art is to hold a mirror up to human nature, and allow us to see ourselves in its depth, breadth and glory, this album raises one proudly in the direction of any dad struggling to make sense of it all.
This is Kendrick’s “back from paternity leave” album. Listen, and you might see yourself in its reflection.
3 things to read this week
“Growing Up Fast On Planet Earth” by Cory Doctorow in Fatherly. Kim Stanley Robinson, author of one of my favourite books in years “The Ministry for the Future,” talks to author and activist Cory Doctorow about fatherhood, the joys of gardening, and helping our kids feel more connected to nature. “We have a lot of problems with kids who are poorly suited to sitting in chairs for the bulk of every day. It’s basically crowd control. It’s day care. It’s preparing you for life at a desk.”
“The Lunch Notes Edition” by Ryan McManus in Why is this Interesting? A tight and touching feel-good tale from a dad on the joys of leaving little notes in his son’s lunchbox. This put a massive smile on my face this week.
“No Grandchild? Six Years After Son’s Wedding, These Parents Are Suing” by Sameer Yasir and Mike Ives in The New York Times. Young children make grandparents happy (mostly.) But what happens when a couple decides not to have children? Well, after six years spent waiting for a grandchild, these parents decided they’d be seeking $650,000 in damages from their son if he didn’t provide one in the next 12 months. “The court filing accuses their son and his wife, who live in the southern city of Hyderabad, of neglecting their ‘duty to give the pleasure of having either a grandson or a granddaughter.’”
A little something for Father’s Day
This Sunday is Father’s Day—at least in most of the countries where this newsletter is read—so I wanted to put a little something together to mark the occasion. I’m in the process of printing some enamel pin badges for The New Fatherhood, using this gorgeous logo variant from the folks at Selman Design.
I’ve spent a while finding a supplier who places sustainability and ethical sourcing as a critical part of their process while still delivering a high-end product. And I’m going to pair these badges up with some stickers from previous Tony Johnson illustrations, and send the whole thing out for those who sign up for an annual subscription. For those of you who have been subscribers for a while, I’ll get your details in a few weeks when I’m ready to send them out.
And to sweeten the deal, I’m also coupling it with 10% off. Treat yo self this Father’s Day.
Hey! Listen to this!
If you’re not entirely Kendrick’d out, check out DissectPodcast’s First Impressions, where Cole sits down with cultural commentators to talk through the themes present throughout the album: religion, spirituality, fatherhood, mindfulness and more. Also worth your time is The New York Times Popcast, bringing together three leading music writers to talk about “Kendrick’s Anxiety Era.” I know I’ll be listening to this album for a long time.
How did you like this week’s issue? Your feedback helps me make this great.
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Did you notice there wasn’t a newsletter last week? I spend about a day and a half putting this together. Last week it wasn’t enough, and I didn’t want to clog up your inbox with something that wasn’t up to scratch. I hope this was worth the wait. Since we last spoke, my wife and I went to Primavera Sound (without kids!) and finally saw Tyler, the Creator who was phenomenal. And I could’ve easily written a thousand words this week about Idles instead: “I am my father’s son. His shadow weighs a tonne.” Goosebumps.
I post some of these links a few days earlier on Twitter, and I almost certainly don’t post to Instagram as much as I should. Send me links, comments, questions, and feedback. Or just reply to this email.
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Thanks for the nudge to get this record spinning. Already resonating.