The most special artists are those that transcend their very medium of art. They push their craft into all sorts of brilliant, novel, shocking directions: think Michelangelo, Beethoven, Picasso, Bobby Fischer, John Lennon, Marina Abramović, Brian Eno, Jonny Greenwood, Banksy, Kanye West, or Lionel Messi. And you kind of have to sit back—you can’t rush them—and just applaud when we’re talking about someone like Kendrick Lamar: the rap GOAT. Sure, music is subjective—but this one is no contest. Kendrick’s incomparable five-album run from Section.80 (2011) to good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012) to To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) to Untitled Unmastered (2016) to Damn (2017) sealed his fate, with GKMC and TPAB culminating as two of the best albums ever made. So, as you can tell, I am a huge fan. I have been for 11 years. Still, I’m not afraid to criticize Kendrick, and I didn’t love his new LP: Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers (2022). I can see why it’s a cult favorite for certain groups, like those who dig more theatrical LPs like To Pimp A Butterfly, though. Regardless, the album does have a few absolute gems—most strikingly “Mother I Sober.”
My first thoughts upon hearing “Mother I Sober” were as follows: “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” (AKA what I consider the greatest rap song of all time): Kendrick’s lyrically and poetically flawless 12-minute track that covers a kaleidoscope of meticulous & concerning issues surrounding his upraising in a broken, marginalized, gang-ridden, 1980s neighborhood of Compton, California). Kendrick has always been like a sponge—someone soaking in everything around him, digesting literally all that is going on, trying to figure out what lessons to parse in this brave new world—and what these two songs share is Kendrick’s masterful deployment of this type of sponge approach (as opposed to the many other types of songs with which he lines his dynamic tracklists). It’s not a song to enjoy in a prototypical setting; it’s not just something that’s easy to listen to (although Kendrick is excellent at doing that when he wants to)—it’s actually difficult to hear (both because of the heavy content and also the fact that it is structurally quite anti-establishment—and the living legend does not demand attention. Rather, he just delivers lyrical wizardry of the absolute highest kind, imploring each of us to consider what he’s really talking about. And trust me: it’s worthy.
“I suffer a lotSing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst (Part 1 – Verse 3)
And every day that glass mirror gets tougher to watch
I tie my stomach in knots
And I’m not sure why I’m infatuated with death
My imagination is surely an aggravation of threats
That can come about, ’cause the tongue is mighty powerful
And I can name a list of your favorites that will probably vouch
Maybe ’cause I’m a dreamer and sleep is the cousin of death
Really stuck in the schema of wondering when I’m going to rest
And you’re right, your brother was a brother to me
And your sister’s situation was the one that pulled me
In a direction to speak on something
That’s realer than the TV screen
By any means, wasn’t trying to offend or come between
Her personal life, I was like “It needed to be told”
Cursing the life of twenty generations after her soul
Exactly what would happen if I ain’t continue rapping
Or steady being distracted by money, drugs, and 4-5’s
I count lives, all on these songs
Look at the weak and cry, pray one day you’ll be strong
Fighting for your rights, even when you’re wrong
And hope that at least one of you sing about me when I’m gone
Am I worth it? Did I put enough work in?”
The penultimate track on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, Kendrick’s fifth full-length studio album, “Mother I Sober” consists of seven minutes of personal, meditative reflection on the trauma in Kendrick’s past. Across three verses, each separated by the chorus, the song may seem structurally ordinary—but it isn’t, particularly for a so-called “rap” artist. The track begins with a piano tune, heavy bass, background vocals, and a gradual introduction of orchestral strings—with a clear emphasis on the vocals, delivered by Kendrick in a soft-spoken form. It almost feels like he’s whispering, and the sheering intimacy is indubitable. So, Kendrick unpacks the rippling effects of family trauma from his Compton upraising (a motif throughout the legendary artist’s discography), combined with the unique trauma he’s dealt with as an international star, the added scrutiny around his life every single time he steps outside of his home, and the personal trauma of assuming the societal role he occupies: a role in which Kendrick serves as a leader, social commentator, role model, activist, and musical revolutionary.
Kendrick speaks of his sensitivity—the way he feels everyone around him, the pains they deal with, and Kendrick’s musings over if and how he can help—as the weight of the world overburdens him. He speaks in vignette form as he discusses everything from witnessing his father abuse his mother when he was five years old to the death threats he has encountered in recent times due to misconstrued media narratives about his lyrics (particularly in the era of To Pimp a Butterfly, an album that cautiously and painfully oversaw the culmination of the BLM movement). He speaks of his Christian faith—and not only in the way he usually does but also by including his periods of doubt and anger with his relationship to Christianity. He also speaks of using music, money, and alcohol to distract himself from his pains, a theme explored in prior songs like “Swimming Pools.” But even then, verse 1 can’t prepare you for the crescendos in verses 2 and 3.
“All those women gave me superpowers, what I thought I lacked“Mother I Sober” (Snippet of Verse 3)
I pray our children don’t inherit me and feelings I attract
A conversation not being addressed in Black families
The devastation, haunting generations and humanity
They raped our mothers, then they raped our sisters
Then they made us watch, then made us rape each other
Psychotic torture between our lives we ain’t recovered
Still living as victims in the public eyes who pledge allegiance
Every other brother has been compromised
I know the secrets, every other rapper sexually abused
I see them daily burying their pain in chains and tattoos.”
While the piano tune remains the same throughout the song, engendering a rhythmic sense of peace despite the troubles Kendrick has dealt with throughout his life, the strings slowly pick up throughout the rest of the song (while the background vocals also intensify), and a greater sense of urgency is quite lucid—as Kendrick’s narration about his own personal experiences is tied into that of other people who grew up in situations like his own. Kendrick speaks boldly and vigorously about sexual assault, abuse, his own extramarital affairs, misogyny, societal inequality, and how he feels that these issues haunt Black families across generations due to the aftershocks of living in a country built upon racism—with a rallying cry to fight to overcome the barriers.
Ultimately, “Mother I Sober” reminds me of Radiohead’s “All I Need” in a weird way. The song begins slowly and softly, only to gradually rise in tempo and vocal intensity as the narrator shifts from abstract commentary to more personal and effusive cries for help, not to mention the neat use of strings in each. This is not a song that any radio station in the world should play—it’s too “heady,” too reluctant to rely on instant gratification for that—and I don’t think that anybody who listens to music purely for purposes of enjoying the sound should necessarily pursue it. I also am quick to say that most people who self-identify as “rap” fans will not find this song particularly compelling as a “rap” song. After all, “Mother I Sober” is closer to spoken word poetry than it is the gratification-based radio rap that the industry has crafted. In fact, it is a defiance of the standard mold of rap, a challenge to the genre to widen the scope of issues it explores. Regardless, if you’re open-minded when it comes to art—if you’re open to experiences in which you emerge a new person after hearing a song—this track might be for you. Then again, the power of this track lies not in its effect on people you’d expect to like it—but on those you wouldn’t expect to appreciate it: in those it truly challenges.
P.S. As many of you are aware, I am dealing with a very rare neurological sleep disorder called Idiopathic Hypersomnia—which makes me profoundly exhausted all day every day. Just thought I’d mention it if any of you wondered why I haven’t posted much lately. I promise I’ll get back to regular posts once I’m well! Thank you.