Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Mortal Man’ – more than just music

Now that the dust has settled on Kendrick Lamar’s critically acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly, it’s only natural that every concept and theme established throughout the album is dissected, dismantled and analysed with a fine tooth comb. While the album itself stands on its own as a feat of music, it is the social and racially contextual messages that propel the project forward into unchartered waters.

Mortal Man is one of the tracks that I keep coming back to, for a multitude of reasons. The song itself serves as a fitting ending to the story behind the album, but also raises several questions about the plight of a young African American man trying to succeed in a cut-throat industry. Kendrick poses a recurring question to his audience, “When shit hits the fan is you still a fan?” challenging the dedication of those around him, and the need for dedication in the environment that he struggled in for much of his own life.

The poem that seamlessly weaves the album together concludes at the end of this track, as Kendrick portrays a hypothetical interview with cultural icon and arguably the modern era’s most influential rapper, Tupac Shakur. To search for snippets of Tupac interviews and create a chilling moment speaks to the innovation and ingenuity behind Kendrick Lamar’s musical process. As Kendrick ends the recital of his poem, the eagerness for appreciation and recognition from Shakur is apparent; we almost forget that Kendrick is the king of the current rap game; here he is, a star-struck boy from Compton, interviewing his idol. Concept albums are sometimes hard to revisit in terms of replay value, but Kendrick leaves the audience with a sense of helplessness, and as he repeats “Pac?” over and over again we are offered a haunting reminder of the mortality of the industry. Even the most influential rapper, Tupac Shakur, was not immune to the problems and issues that face young African-American men, and this is the tool that Lamar uses to emphasise the stark nature of this environment he and his fellow youth are facing. Success, fame and wealth do not act as a safeguard from these perils, in some ways they are exacerbated.

Mortal Man is a touching track that preaches the message that unity and respect in the current climate is paramount, and that a lack of recognition amongst the African-American community will only lead to worse conditions and social environments. If we are to take any message from To Pimp a Butterfly, it is the poem that lays foundation behind the music;

“I remember you was conflicted
Misusing your influence
Sometimes I did the same
Abusing my power, full of resentment
Resentment that turned into a deep depression
Found myself screaming in the hotel room
I didn’t wanna self-destruct
The evils of Lucy was all around me
So I went running for answers
Until I came home
But that didn’t stop survivor’s guilt
Going back and forth trying to convince myself the stripes I earned
Or maybe how A-1 my foundation was
But while my loved ones was fighting the continuous war back in the city, I was entering a new one
A war that was based on apartheid and discrimination
Made me wanna go back to the city and tell the homies what I learned
The word was respect
Just because you wore a different gang colour than mines
Doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a black man
Forgetting all the pain and hurt we caused each other in these streets
If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us
But I don’t know, I’m no mortal man, maybe I’m just another nigga”