On ‘Mother I Sober’

Photo of Kendrick Lamar
 Kendrick Lamar’s 18 track album contains many songs that deal with tough topics like transphobia in “Auntie Diaries” and sexual assault and generational trauma in the 17th track “Mother I Sober.”  (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

Content warning: This article contains references to sexual assault.

Five years and one month removed from the release of “Damn,” Kendrick Lamar has shared his brilliance with the world yet again through his new album, “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers.” The 18-track double LP is Lamar’s Top Dawg Entertainment swan song — the 14-time GRAMMY award winner has announced that he will be parting ways with the record label juggernaut — and in his final act, K-Dot undoubtedly sticks the landing. “Big Steppers” offers the perspective of an older and wiser Kendrick, willing to strip his mask and allow his audience a glimpse into the world he’s lived in over the past 1,855 days. Leaning on themes of authenticity, autonomy, masculinity and panentheism, Lamar unveils his struggles with his depression, relationships, writer’s block and more. 

Much has already been made of Kendrick Lamar’s return, deservedly so. The album has it all: sonically diverse and enthralling production, well-placed and intentional feature performances, culturally relevant and, at times, groundbreaking content and the perfectly chaotic flow that only the good kid from the m.A.A.d city can execute.

Only the test of time will determine what the final verdict will be on the latest addition to Oklama’s discography — however, as listeners will almost universally attest, the album has certainly stormed out of the starting blocks. 

Yet, in the midst of the honeymoon that audiences are currently embarking on with “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers,” there has not been enough discussion regarding the central focus of the most profound song on the album: “Mother I Sober.” 

It is no coincidence that “Mother I Sober” is by far the longest of the 18 tracks featured on the project — Kendrick had a lot to say. Opening with a solemn piano melody amalgamated with the soft but firm thump of a kick drum, the somber tone of the song is evident at the outset — a stark contrast from the up beat tempo of the preceding “Mr. Morale.” The first line of “Mother I Sober” further crystalizes the lugubrious mood: “I’m sensitive, I feel everything, I feel everybody.” 

Upon the foundation of this expression of radical empathy, King Kendrick builds arguably the most compelling song he’s ever released. Featuring a euphonious chorus by the versatilely gifted Beth Gibbons, “Mother I Sober” takes its listeners on a journey through Lamar’s experiences with masculinity and sexuality. 

Beginning in his childhood, he speaks of the powerlessness he felt while witnessing his mother’s abuse, unable to come to her aid. Lamar outlines familial accusations of his cousin’s sexual abuse of him, despite his persistent insistence that nothing of the sort had ever occurred. Though it is later revealed that Lamar’s mother was projecting this victimhood onto him, as she had suffered abuse of this nature earlier in her own life, the psychological toll that these speculations took on young Kendrick led to his feeling pressured to assert his manhood. Lamar alludes to his use of sex as an unhealthy coping mechanism in adulthood and the consequences that his actions had on his relationship with his fiancee and mother of his children, Whitney. 

In recording “Mother I Sober,” Kendrick Lamar stood toe-to-toe with some of his innermost demons — something he admits with the line, “Now I’m affected, 20 years later trauma has resurfaced / Amplified as I write this song, I shiver ‘cause I’m nervous.” We must applaud Lamar for this powerful display of vulnerability, as the release of this song serves as an invitation — a catalyst — for a long overdue discussion surrounding sexual trauma and healing, both in hip-hop and in the Black community, at large. 

Sexuality is not simply a vehicle of physical pleasure — what is physical is inherent to what is personal, which will always be directly correlated with the political. Conceptions of sex in many ways inform one’s understanding of oneself and one’s inherent value. As Anthony Giddens writes in his book on intimacy, “Sexuality is a terrain of fundamental political struggle and also a medium of emancipation … Emancipation thus presumes autonomy of action in the context of the generalization of plastic sexuality.” 

This is an autonomy that has been stripped from the Black community since its forced introduction to the United States. There is a long, traumatic, documented history of the sexual degradation of the Black body in the U.S., dating back to enslavement and persisting to this very day, as Kendrick Lamar alludes to in the song: “A conversation not bein’ addressed in Black families / The devastation, hauntin’ 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.” 

The objectification and commodification of the Black body is the defining motif of the Black experience. W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of the double consciousness manifests itself palpably in this regard, as our understanding of our sexuality often is imposed through the eyes of others. It begins in childhood –– Black girls ogled and sexualized early into their teens by grown men, Black boys pressured to lean into the stereotype of their sexual prowess early and often, a desperate attempt to affirm their masculinity within the Western patriarchal hegemony — and continues well into adulthood, deeply affecting our relationships with ourselves and with each other. 

Whether through abuse, addiction, projections of queerphobia or even general confusion and insecurity, this is a generational trauma that has touched all of us in the Black community in some capacity at one point or another. It is certainly an ugly and uncomfortable truth but it is the truth nonetheless. But, as Lamar says, by and large, this is a reality that does not get addressed in our circles. When we speak of liberation for Black people, so much of the conversation centralizes changing external circumstances such as media representation, capital redistribution and interpersonal microaggressions — and while these issues certainly warrant space, far too often, we disregard the battles that we must fight within to decolonize centuries of internalized oppression. 

Collective sexual trauma may be the most poignant example of this inward struggle, hence why we have yet to truly grapple with the matter. Perhaps we don’t know that we need to, perhaps we don’t know how or perhaps we are just simply scared to go there.

In “Mother I Sober,” Kendrick Lamar, informed by his experiences and the experiences of those close to him around sex and sexuality, argues the contrary, breaking new ground in the hip-hop landscape by doing so. He asserts that we as Black people must go there: that we have no choice if we want to liberate ourselves of this generational trauma and that we will only continue to perpetuate a cycle of pain if we don’t address the elephant in the room. It may be the most profound message of Kendrick Lamar’s decorated career — a lesson that each of us must take to heart if we hope to set free our minds, our bodies and our souls.