One of Kendrick Lamar’s great strengths as a rapper is his ability to acknowledge and criticize his own biases and prejudices and not place himself above the people he’s singing out. It’s a characteristic that appears frequently in his work, particularly on his deep and dense new album, “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers,” which arrived late Thursday some five years after his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2017 album “DAMN,” and particularly on the song “Auntie Issues,” which is a topic that few rappers have addressed at all, let alone with empathy.
In the song, Lamar speaks of an aunt who’d become an uncle, and speaks of his challenges with it but primarily concludes that he loves his family and defends it to his friends.
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He also effectively equates the politics and emotions behind slurs, particularly the n-word and the f-word, and points a finger at himself for not fully understanding the distinction when he brought a white girl onstage to rap one of his verses at the hangout festival in 2018, and she used the N-word, as he does in the song. She was booed and Lamar gently but sternly lectured her onstage — and apparently has come to think twice about what he said at the time.
With thanks to Genius.com for the lyric transcription, the song begins:
My aunty is a man now
I think I’m old enough to understand now…
I watch him and his girl hold their hands down
Tip of the avenues under street lights made his
Thinking, “I want me a bad bitch when I get big”…
My aunty is a man now
Asked my momma why my uncles don’t like him that much
And at the parties why they always want to fight him that much
She said “Ain’t no telling
N—s always been jealous because he had more women
More money and more attention made more envy
Calling him anything but broke was less offending”
In the second verse, he drops the F word.
Back when it was comedic relief to say “F—-t”
“F—-t” “F—-t” “F—-t”, we ain’t know no better
Elementary kids with no filter however…
She wasn’t gay, she ate p—y, and that was the difference
That’s what I told my friends in second grade
She picking me up from school, they stare at her in the face
They couldn’t comprehend what I grew accustomed to…
My auntie was a man now, we cool with it
The history had tricked down and made us ign’ant
In verses 3 and 4, we see the return of the Demetrius, mentioned way back on Lamar’s major-label debut, “Good Kid, MAAD City,” who may or may not be the aunt in the song — and later has a Caitlyn Jenner reference.
Demetrius is Mary-Ann now
He’s more confident to live his plan now
But the family in disbelief this time
Convincing themselves “He ain’t living discreetly, he’s fine”
They said they never saw it in him, but I saw it
The Barbie dolls played off the reflection of Venus
He built a wall so tall you couldn’t climb over
He didn’t laugh as hard when the kids start joking…
I had to be very mindful of my good cousin
I knew exactly who he was but I still loved him
Demetrius is Mary-Ann now
I mean he’s really Mary-Ann, even took things further
Changed his gender before Bruce Jenner was certain
Living his truth even if it meant see a surgeon
The final two verses bring religion into the equation, and revive the recurring “I knew you was conflicted” line from “DAMN.”:
More spiritual when these dudes were living life straight
Which I found ironic ’cause the pastor didn’t see him the same
He said my cousin was going through some things
He promised the world we live in was an act on subscription
And Demetrius was to blame
I knew you were conflicted by the feelings a preacher made
Wondering if God still call you a decent man…
I said “Mr. Preacher man, should we love thy neighbor?
The laws of the land or the heart, what’s greater?
I recognize the study she was taught since birth
But that don’t justify the feelings that my cousin preserved”
The building was thinking out loud, bad angel
That’s when you looked at me and smiled, said “Thank you”
The day I humanity chose over religion
The family got closer, it was all forgiven
And finally, it winds down with self-examination: Lamar recalls the 2018 concert in which he brought a white girl onstage to rap one of his verses, and she used the N-word, as he does in the song. She was booed and Lamar gently but sternly lectured her onstage — and apparently has come to think twice about what he said at the time.
Mistakenly I didn’t think you’d know any different
See, I was taught words was nothing more than a sound
If everything was pronounced without any intentions
The very second you challenge the shit I was kicking
Reminded me about a show I did out of the city
That time I brung a fan on stage to rap
But disapproved the word that she couldn’t say with me
You said “Kendrick, ain’t no room for contradiction
To truly understand love, switch position
‘F—-t, f—-t, f—-t,’ we can say it together
But only if you let a white girl say ‘N—a’”
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