GLASTONBURY, ENGLAND – JUNE 26: Kendrick Lamar performs on the Pyramid stage during day five of Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm, Pilton on June 26, 2022 in Glastonbury, England. (Photo by Joseph Okpako/WireImage)
MUSIC

Kendrick Lamar, Crowned

Kendrick Lamar took the Glastonbury stage in a crown of thorns, but as he told the crowd of 200,000, he’s not anyone’s savior. Let’s talk about what this apparent contradiction really means.

Kendrick Lamar bore a diamond-encrusted crown of thorns from Tiffany & Co. on Sunday evening at England’s Glastonbury Festival — but he is not your Savior.

Rising to his feet as the “Big Steppers” strutted alongside, Lamar took the stage at Worthy Farm in Somerset to perform a set surpassing one hour showcasing his new album, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, and top cuts from his unendingly relevant catalog.

It had been almost five years since we’d heard from Compton’s best rapper, aside from an appearance or two at family affairs. He had gone silent since Marvel’s history-making 2018 Black Panther soundtrack, but Lamar’s penchant for scrambling his puzzle pieces never left. And in August of 2021, he confirmed what became Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers as the last project with the label he’d worked with since 2005, Top Dawg Entertainment, launching media venture pgLang alongside manager Dave Free.

The project dropped on May 13. A double album as promised, it broke Apple Music’s worldwide record for the most first-day streams for an album released in 2022 and opened atop the Billboard 200 with ease, earning 295,500 equivalent album sales in its first week (well over 500,000 now), making it the year’s biggest debut week to date.

K-Dot was back. And suddenly, it was time to get out in front of the people once again.

Kendrick hit the streets at Paris Fashion Week, performing “Savior,” “Rich Spirit,” “Count Me Out” and “N95” seated next to supermodel Naiomi Campbell at the Louvre. Delivered as part of a tribute to late Louis Vuitton creative director Virgil Abloh during the brand’s menswear show, it was merely a taste of what was to come at Glastonbury, to say nothing of the world tour that everyone knew was going to follow.

The Big Steppers Tour kicks off later this summer, and it’s coalescing into a massive evolutionary leap for Lamar’s live performances in terms of sheer ambition and grandeur. But major points of elevation don’t come without major points of contention; Lamar received backlash for embodying Jesus by dousing himself in fake blood and bearing a crown of thorns.

Juxtaposed with the Mr. Morale track on which he declares multiple times that he’s not your savior, it’s a seeming contradiction.

So, which is it? To suss out the essence and significance of this revisionist Christ figure who deals not in salvation, we’ll need to conduct a close reading of the path — musical, emotional, spiritual — that led Kendrick to Glastonbury 2022.

Sunday’s festival set provides helpful context as to why Kendrick has chosen to present himself in this manner, as well as why the whole approach isn’t actually brand new. For better or for worse, he’s been building up to this his whole career.

With that in mind, let’s examine Lamar’s relationship with Jesus and the very idea of salvation through his music, his collaboration with Tiffany & Co. that produced the crown in question, and, of course, what it all means for the Big Steppers Tour.

This is Between Kendrick and Jesus

Kendrick Lamar’s upbringing wasn’t particularly religious. His parents didn’t raise him in church; rather, it was his grandmother who provided him with early biblical exposure.

Lamar took it upon himself to explore those teachings further as he grappled with an intense, trying world around him. One of his earliest songs, 2009’s “Faith,” deals with survivor’s guilt over losing a close friend. A subsequent mixtape and Lamar’s debut studio album — 2010’s Overly Dedicated and 2011’s Section.80 — resurface his struggles for salvation amid turmoil. Several of his earliest interviews touch on his spiritual laments as well.

The intro to 2012’s breakthrough Good Kid, m.A.A.d City opens with a prayer. Lamar all but admitted that 2015’sTo Pimp A Butterfly was an album he made for God, which engages with this higher calling of being a prophet for his fans. He reportedly got baptized while supporting Ye (formerly known as Kanye West) on the Yeezus tour in 2013.

“I got a greater purpose,” Lamar said in an interview with Complex. “God put something in my heart to get across and that’s what I’m going to focus on, using my voice as an instrument and doing what needs to be done.”

The golden nuggets of symbolism wouldn’t fully manifest, however, until Bacardi Triangle, a lavish three-day music event in Puerto Rico in 2014. Lamar was booked to perform and ended up attending a Halloween party with his longtime partner Whitney Alford. He arrived dressed as Jesus, crown of thorns and all.

Kendrick Lamar & Whitney Alford, Halloween 2014. Barcardi Triangle, Puerto Rico.

As Lamar told The Fader, “If I want to idolize somebody, I’m not going to do a scary monster, I’m not gonna do another artist or a human being – I’m gonna idolize the master, who I feel is the master, and try to walk in his light.”

Things unfolded further with 2016’s untitled unmastered dropped; Billboard noted 17different biblical references on the record.

Miguelito, a contributor for DJBooth, wrote a stellar piece after the release of 2017’s DAMN. that explored the sharp distinction between Lamar’s heavily-burdened displays of his Christian faith in comparison to the uplifting positivity kind put forth by Chance the Rapper.

Kendrick read the thing and responded with a personal email to DJBooth. “I didn’t expect anyone to catch it. How I express God,” he wrote. “No one wants to hear about karma from the decisions they make. It’s a hard truth. We want to hear about hope, salvation, and redemption. Though his son died for our sins, our free will to make whatever choice we want, still allows him to judge us… I feel it’s my calling to share the joy of God, but with exclamation, more so, the FEAR OF GOD. The balance. Knowing the power in what he can build, and also what he can destroy. At any given moment.”

Lamar understands the power of his belief. Perhaps that’s evidence to suggest he’d never do something intently in vain.

But the point is that we only know what he tells us. Everything else — the ultimate truth of it all — well, that’s between Kendrick and Jesus.

Diamonds and Thorns

When Kendrick Lamar returned to the festival stage in his crown of thorns and a white blouse, he had already made a hell of a statement before uttering a word. It was Ye donning the Margiela mask on the Yeezus Tour, but on steroids.

It was the Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers album cover brought to life.

On the album art shot by Renell Medrano, Lamar dons the very same diamond-encrusted crown of thorns on the Mr. Morale album cover.

It’s utterly on the nose for the man who rapped, “You look at my hat and see thorns there” on the “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” remix.

All told, it had long been prophesied that this exact time was coming for King Kendrick — one in which the bare, fundamental elements of his spirituality he’s alluded to for years were finally given a body and blood. With the Glastonbury performance (and in all likelihood, the Big Steppers Tour), energy that was for so long symbolic evolved into performative verve.

With a chance to see Kendrick’s relationship with his faith play out before our eyes rather than being forced to parse through dense wordplay, the seeming contradiction that is his Tiffany crown — we associate a crown of thorns with persecution and death, yet diamonds are the peak of luxury — gives way to a certain clarity. This isn’t contradictory; it’s balance. The kind he wrote about in his message to DJBooth.

“Knowing the power in what he can build, and also what he can destroy. At any given moment.”

Or, as Dave Free explained to Vogue, “The crown is a godly representation of hood philosophies told from a digestible youthful lens.”

Kendrick has always built a distinct fashion and apparel aesthetic around each album release, and the Mr. Morale era has an especially striking centerpiece. The crown, Vogue exclusively revealed, is a custom pavé diamond crown created as part of a collaboration between the rapper, Free, and Tiffany & Co.

A trinity of sorts.

The design process played out over the course of 10 months. As Vogue notes, the crown features 50 “thorns” and 8,000 cobblestone-patterned diamonds adding up to more than 137 carats. All of them were set by hand into the crown’s polished titanium base and required 1,300 hours of labor to complete.

And the more you think about it, diamonds actually make the symbolism of the crown of thorns realer than real. Many believe in the faith-based concept everlasting life through messianic salvation, but what represents everlasting life more plainly and literally than a diamond?

Steppers Worldwide

2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was a personal reflection of the life Lamar grew up in. 2015’sTo Pimp a Butterfly saw him pointing out the sociopolitical systems that created these conditions. 2017’s DAMN. spoke directly to the anxiety born from becoming a fully commercialized artist.

But on Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, Lamar retreats within, rejecting the notion that he’s the voice of a generation and instead urging us all to go to therapy and find our own inner peace; as the artist said at Glastonbury of his motivations for the album, “the reason I wrote Mr. Morale because everybody is going through something.”

But not everything that’s inside can stay there forever, so the Big Steppers are headed out on the road for the massive tour — its tagline is “Come help Mr. Morale get out of the box” — that begins on July 19 in Oklahoma and wraps in New Zealand in late December.

Some lucky fans got an early taste of what the tour may have in store, first in an intimate set at the Cannes Lions Festival in France and later at the Milano Summer Festival in Italy. But nothing quite compared to watching Lamar command the stage with his Glastonbury set.

The best moments came when he performed soulful protest song “Alright,” scathing anti-toxic masculinity rant “Humble,” and “Swimming Pools (Drank),” which reckons with his grandfather’s alcoholism, each amplified at every turn by dancers who captured the superstar’s internal and external struggles through carefully honed choreography. In the second verse of the Mr. Morale single “N95,” which tackles wealth disparity and the pandemic, the Glastonbury stage lights went dark and the dancers turned flashlights onto Lamar, laying bare his own unease with fame and fortune in a turbulent world.

In so many ways, the show was heavily conceptual in its artistic direction, but never reached teetered at a level of avant-garde that would have risked losing or confusing the audience. And when it was time for a dramatic climax, the Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers cut “Savior,” was the natural choice. Among the dancers, the men and women — the latter of whom appear to be protecting Mr. Morale — were never on stage at same time during the song until the very end.

Perhaps this choice was a nod to what continues to divide us, as “Savior” examines COVID conspiracies, the Black Lives Matter movement, political correctness, and Kendrick’s own personal flaws all juxtaposed with his experiences with faith.

On the track, he speaks not only to us about our personal responsibility…

Kendrick made you think about it, but he is not your savior
Cole made you feel empowered, but he is not your savior
Future said, “Get a money counter,” but he is not your savior
Bron made you give his flowers, but he is not your savior

…but also to himself:

The cat is out the bag, I am not your savior,
Yeah, Tupac dead, gotta think for yourself

Introducing the song, he explained the message was“imperfection is beautiful” — another seeming contradiction he proves to make sense — and that in our rush to judgment, we often lose sight of others’ humanity. All the while, a huge mirror stood tall against the backdrop of the stage, as Lamar references this mirror concept heavily throughout the album (“Mirror” is literally the title of Mr. Morale’s outro).

The message was simple. Kendrick can’t save you — but you can.

As fake blood that felt real in the moment trickled down Lamar’s face, the rapper chanted, “They judge you, they judge Christ. Godspeed for women’s rights!” This was just two days after the US Supreme Court officially overturned Roe v. Wade and the constitutional right to an abortion.

Kendrick can’t save our civil rights — but we can.

By the end of Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, Kendrick needs you to know that until we realize that we may all be part of the problem one way or another, the dream of salvation is impossible.

If you consider that a puzzling thing to hear from a man wearing a diamond-encrusted crown that directly evokes Jesus, you’re not wrong. And perhaps, in many ways, Kendrick is the biggest hypocrite of 2022. And 2015. But so are we as long as we insist on waiting around for others to save us instead of daring to take the Big Step and do it ourselves.

Whether or not you consider Kendrick a prophet is a matter of personal preference. But if he’s the messenger we need to help us take the Big Step — for reproductive rights, for Black lives, for criminal justice reform — then we owe him our thanks for reminding us in the plainest possible terms that he, of all people, is not our savior.

Even if he had to repeat himself.

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