Kendrick Lamar spends much of his new 18-song double album, "Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers," wrestling with big issues: identity, spirituality, monogamy, mortality.
But no single track has sparked more online conversation than "Auntie Diaries," on which Lamar explores his evolving relationship with his trans relatives.
The song is a vivid, exceptionally provocative look into the mind of a younger Lamar forming a concept of transness amid a working-class Compton culture not often inclined to embrace it. But true to form, the Pulitzer Prize-winning hip-hop star doesn't approach it in an easy redemptive arc.
The song has already antagonized some listeners with its pointed use of anti-gay slurs and other purposefully ugly language around gender and sexuality. But it's also won over some trans listeners for being wrenchingly accurate about this cis, straight Black man's path to a fuller understanding of his relations.
The song plays out over years of his youth, as Lamar comes to understand that a figure he once knew as a favorite aunt has transitioned into a male identity. "My auntie is a man now / I think I'm old enough to understand now," he says at the song's opening. "I watch him and his girl hold their hands down."
Later, the song revisits the story of a cousin he once knew as Demetrius, now a trans woman named Mary-Anne (who first appeared in his song "Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter's Daughter," off his 2012 album "Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City.") "The Barbie dolls played off reflection of Venus / He built a wall so tall you couldn't climb over," he raps.
The song's mis-genderings and slurs are startling but certainly intentional for their effect; Lamar is one of the most detailed, precise and challenging lyricists in all of music today.
Cruel gestures like deadnaming (using a trans person's name from before they transitioned) and repeating slurs over and over would be unforgivable in conversation. But the song's provocations feel like a wincing look back on the young mind set Lamar inhabited on tracks like 2012's "Backseat Freestyle," a fan favorite for its evil strut, but a character study of a naive young man in the throes of foolish influences.
On "Auntie Diaries," a younger Lamar tries to make sense of his affection for and fascination with the trans relatives around him, while navigating and absorbing the slights and violence he sees around them. "See, my auntie is a man now, slight bravado / Scratching the likes from lotto / Hoping that she pull up tomorrow."
Lamar cites his trans uncle as the first person he ever saw writing raps — an influence that made his career possible.