The ground is gonna open up and swallow all the evil
Giving the devil and the dead affectionate nicknames and new names like fan or Luci to subdue their hold on the psyche leads Kendrick Lamar to his truest angel and predecessor, Tupac Shakur. Kendrick reanimates Tupac in order to have a living conversation with him, on “Mortal Man” and gives listeners the best example of call-and-response we have in recording history. The twelve minute song opens with dejected soliloquy, punctuated by Kendrick doubting he has any loyal fans or friends— when shit hits the fan, are you still a fan, he chants and threatens. But then he forgets his disillusionment and is ambushed by exuberance and duet as soon as Tupac’s timbre touches the ear and the atmosphere of the music; that hollowed haloed smile in his voice comes in and clears the bitter questions. And they body jump. Kendrick becomes the hungry ghost and Tupac the vessel he needs to know and occupy. The point of access is a cryptic overfamiliarity somewhere between fate and dream.
An acapala reading of a poem by Kendrick, I was gonna call it ‘another nigga’ but it’s not really a poem just... the confession ends, and then in a boyish literary workshop style Kendrick asks ‘Pac, who has been there the whole time listening and waiting, what he meant by the ground, as if he’s groping to get back down to earth. The ground, we learn, is the people, and they will collaborate to open up and swallow all the evil, and that cannibalism will be the treasonous nausea of justice, poisoning the very foundations and subterrestrial zones that demand it. Tupac laughs an inside-joke laugh and muses, we might eat the rich, joining the etymology of that warning. A piano breaks the background silence with its sighing war cry glance, in agreement. The mood is celebratory and reckless, like sneaking into heaven with a crowd of heathens.
All good things come to those who stay true
Names and forms are all so mutable and subjective in music, anyone can be resurrected, played back, recast as the last surviving hero, or gossiped and riddled into presence. I like to imagine (like a whole heap of smirking dreamers does) that Tupac faked his death, that he crawled into a song and it was this song of the future, a song as conversation, a wrong-way elegy called “Mortal Man.” It’s comforting to consider him among us now, as a deep fake or shadow or immortal, lurking between lyrics, weaving in and out of notes and realms. And why not. Since for me it’s just a fantasy I have no evidence but wish, nothing to calculate about how or why this dead man is alive, just a sense that performance doesn’t stop offstage, that narratives can be sneaky and intentional in what we cast as real life, and that black people might be the true authors of the myths that stalk us, Legbas and Damballahs and less obsessed with our images than we pretend. Black slaves in the U.S. used to fake their deaths and run away, since they had control over the church and the burial grounds only, and so-called master really believed they were too docile for mischief when worshiping or mourning. Death itself is our fake, convoluted way of explaining a free(d) spirit. Frank Ocean knows and sings on the stage of our myth, they’re trying to find Tupac, don’t let em find Tupac. ‘Pac’s leaving feels less like loss or theft and more like triumph if we tell ourselves it was staged, unreal, his path back into private life, his legend-making way of alerting us to everything he did before the ground opened up and he had to consume himself, at least his egoic identity, to fulfill his own prophecy we might eat the rich.
We aren’t even really rapping, we’re just letting our dead homies tell stories for us
The long, and ongoing tradition of calling forth or raising the dead, and inviting them to join us as we prove they never left, begins with tenderness, sweetness, a whisper or rumor that gathers substance and turns into a faith strong enough to be used as conjure. Kendrick Lamar reads Tupac a poem, and then another, two poems bookend the track, one a jot, the finale an equation that reveals the source of the title of the whole album To Pimp a Butterfly. Between the two estranged love poems Tupac warns Lamar of the window a black man has in the U.S. before he becomes a frightened, diluted, sell-out, afraid to promote any true revolutionary energy. Tupac, assassinated at twenty three in the official story, left this planet before that window closed for him. His aliveness, the palpable quality of his speech pattern, which feels like touch and dance and march, means he’s in limbo but intact, poised to pounce, could never have been killed because he never succumbed to fear or cowardice in the way he might have if he had lived a longer life above ground. When he and Kendrick pray together on “Mortal Man,” how do we decide that they’re not in the same room, breathing the same air, touching the same script of wishes and washing it away with the same trumpet and murmur. Fela Kuti’s song “ I No Get Eye for Back” a song implicating deceit, and enemies who hide their blades in flowers, pulses through “Mortal Man” like a heart monitor marking the deferential nervousness in Kendrick’s voice as he interviews Tupac, and the confidence in Tupac’s responses, which force Kendrick to face the contrived antagonisms of time and space and fame and insatiable hunger. Tupac displaces Kendrick Lamar, and what could have been just an elegy for him becomes doubly elegiac, since Kendrick as about to be swallowed, since his only hope now is his favorite ghost, who has already been swallowed, who lives underground in the collective subconscious, and maybe somewhere else in exilic oblivion.
The more interesting descriptions arise from what we cannot see or refuse to see, all the gods and monsters we construct out of ignorance or paranoia. This song, part shrine, ends when Kendrick finishes reciting the final poem and asks Tupac for feedback only to discover silence and realize he’s been abandoned. There’s something cruel and unfinished and unhinged about the mortality of the exchange, its endless quickening as if Kendrick is trying to enjoy a stolen moment before it burns him for looking too closely. He is both greedy and dispossessed, while Tupac is a pillar of dangerous wisdom, the kind that will make you almost too alive to be witnessed.
However harshly, the trance of concern about betrayal and who to trust that “Mortal Man” is preoccupied with for its first half, is broken as Kendrick is reminded to figure out how to trust himself before he ends up being both cannibal and cannibalized, as most do without even realizing it— gnawing their own contents away and then holding the ruins up like trophies.
The only hope we have left is music
My family’s garage was part woodshed when I was growing up, a space devoted to improvised creative endeavors and the usual garage chaos. It held hundreds of my dusty dance competition trophies from my years performing and winning a lot at competitions in vegas as a kid, escaped child star. Then one year my sister erected a shrine to Tupac in the garage, complete with photos and candles that flickered in the plastic gold mirrors of the trophies like dancing bodies just letting the dead homies tell stories for them. Call-and-response is an important black musical form, born deep in the blues idiom but transcendent of genre, because it outlasts even the songs that employ it and becomes a way of moving through the world and questioning everything, especially the fanaticism that finds us making and receiving shrines, but also the fear that makes us suspicious of all evidence of love and reward. One day I’ll be reading a poem out loud and it will raise the dead, or the ghosts in the poem will animate me and then disappear. Might be some cannibalism up in this, and we’ll laugh, thinking of the story of the griot in West Africa who eats his brother’s arm unwittingly, it’s fed to him by his brother, who is too weak to continue on their journey through a barren desert, so cuts it off and pitches it as animal flesh, because at least one of them needs to survive to tell it. And the survivor is condemned to singing the songs that return them both to forever.