After what feels like less of a hiatus and more of a lifetime’s worth of anticipation, Kendrick Lamar is finally returning with a full-length project. Often anointed as the best rapper in the game today, K-Dot’s five years in the wilderness of the industry– save for his curation of the Black Panther soundtrack– has left an intimidating void at the heart of hip-hop that has only grown in stature over the years.
Now primed to return on May 13th with Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, fans have begun to enter the sort of collective meltdown that only a generation-defining artist of K-Dot’s caliber can spark. However, what’s becoming clear is that while Kendrick Lamar is undoubtedly returning, it won’t necessarily be as we’ve known him.
Since August of last year, K-Dot has added a new phrase to his vernacular that has had his audience scrambling to decipher its meaning.
Initially deployed when it came time to unveil his “nu thoughts” – which essentially equated to an announcement that not only a new project was coming, but it’d be his final record under the umbrella of Top Dawg Entertainment– such profound sentiments as “there’s beauty in completion and always faith in the unknown” seemed to infer that a new, potentially revolutionary era was a route. And for the avoidance of doubt, Kendrick left a little breadcrumb trail behind that made it clear that the arrival of a new project came with a fundamental shift in his presentation and identity.
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Signed off with the name of “Oklama,” it marked the first affirmation from the man himself that a new record was actually on the way. And ever since, hip-hop sleuths have been analyzing every piece of information that’s emerged in an attempt to establish exactly what Oklama is intended to represent or exactly why now, five albums deep into his discography, the time has come to be rechristened.
After he consistently used the name across Baby Keem’s “Family Ties” visuals, the disclaimers during his Day N Vegas set, and the formal announcement of Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, what or who Oklama represents has become a hot-button issue with no shortage of theories, ranging from the abstract to the entirely plausible.
Amid all the conjecture which surrounds this new moniker, one thing that fans are in unreserved agreement about is that all signs point to Kendrick entering into a longstanding tradition in hip-hop. Throughout the genre’s illustrious history, there has been a precedent set for the use of alter-egos. Often used as a means of shifting narrative or vantage point for the purposes of conceptual and thematic exploration, everyone from Eminem (Slim Shady) and J. Cole (KILL Edward) to Kool Keith (Dr. Octagon) and the late, great MF Doom (Viktor Vaughan, King Geedorah, others) have used alternate identities in order to expand their creative boundaries.
Every single facet of Kendrick’s career has been meticulously planned and usually feeds into a larger artistic vision, and thus he’s a perfect candidate to join the ranks of those who’ve devised new characters as a way to delve into other aspects of their personality or make a broader comment about the world at large.
Given that we’ve yet to hear any standalone output from the Oklama era as of yet, it’s difficult to envision exactly how this will manifest. However, if we examine how he’s approached his craft in the work of cousin and fellow PGLang collective member Baby Keem, it appears that it extends into a new degree of daringness. As such, it appears that Oklama will be deep-woven into the very fabric of his new music and will be far more overarching than the Don Cheadle-saluting nickname of “Kung Fu Kenny” ever was. While he fleshed out the concept of his martial artist persona on tour with a short film that saw him in search of “the glow,“ the corresponding album, DAMN.was an inherently autobiographical work that reflected on his own sins.
While the assertion that he’s “still an old-school Gemini “from” Family Ties “would allude to a certain degree of duality in itself, Kendrick’s adoption of a brand new delivery style– which saw him reveal a distinctly southern twang– as well as his newfound penchant to cover his face with a bandana as seen in the visuals marked a distinct move away from where we’d last seen him.
With Oklama appearing to be a clear conduit for experimentation, Kendrick’s vocal aloofness would be expanded on even further in “Range Brothers,” creating one of the most divisive moments in his entire career with the “top of the morning” refrain. But away from being used as a medium to switch his style up, Kendrick’s tendency to give his listeners layered work that merits analytical unfurling would suggest that the name represents something far deeper than eccentricity.
With Kendrick making reference to “the Elohim, the rebirth,” on “Family Ties,” some have speculated that this next phase of his career links back to the metaphorical death that he suffers at the hands of the blind woman on DAMN. Meaning that now, he’s been resurrected as the higher being known as Oklama.
Although he’s never one to have a messianic complex in the vein of Kanye, there is reason to believe that Kendrick’s ties to the spiritual world have only been deepened in recent years as he continues his journey towards a state of enlightenment.
In one lengthy post on the R / KendrickLamar subreddit, one user posited the theory that Oklama would be deeply inspired by the work of Eckhart Tolle. Seen alongside K-Dot in the PGLang visual statement, the “spiritual teacher” and author of books such as The Power Of Now: A Guide To Spiritual Enlightenment operates on a philosophy that tells us that “our true selves are the formless Consciousness, which is Being, which is God. We are all One, and thus we are all God. “
On Reddit, user Pinata Photographer proclaimed that:
“Kendrick has stated he has been doing Vipassana Meditation (Insight / Clear-seeing), which helps one develop a clearer understanding of themselves and the world around them. This type of meditation also means learning to let go of dwelling on the regrets of the past (being involved in a murder at around age 16) and worries of the future that often distract us from focusing on what matters, which is whatever you are engaged in during the present. Learning to be present is so important in life because it allows you to give full attention to whatever you are doing and fully develop it. Whether it is being fully engaged in the conversations you are having with others instead of on your phone, which will lead to deeper feelings of connections with that person. Or fully engaged in whatever work you are doing, which produces a higher quality of work, and allows you to get into the flow state (which feels like bliss).
During his journey (the album) he will discuss the ways in which he has engaged in self-deception and self-destruction (eg letting his Ego control him) because of his dark Gemini side and how he overcame it. “
In addition to ideas surrounding his own consciousness, fans have put forth a litany of other explanations for where Oklama could be reading us. For one user, it appeared to be “an acronym for all the most important things in life for Kendrick: To be “Ok,” Los Angeles “La” and his mother “Ma.” In the eyes of others, it may have allusions to the Old Testament and come complete with critiques of modern technology.
Yet where these possible explanations come from all manner of independent viewpoints, one consistent thread in the dialogue surrounding Oklama’s meaning is that it may have intrinsic links to America’s 44th President.
Ever since the name was first unveiled, fans have been seeking to discern whether Oklama is a play on Obama. Along the way, a wide variety of takes on how this may manifest have cropped up including some who believe that Barack himself will pop up at the end of the record in the same vein as the late Tupac Shakur did on To Pimp A Butterfly‘s “Mortal Man.”
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For others, they feel Oklama will be the vessel through which Kendrick can discuss everything that’s happened in this turbulent world and deeply tribalistic political climate in the years since we last heard from him.
“The oKLama era in my perspective will be closely correlated to the moral goals set out by the oBama era in terms of leadership,” wrote Reddit user MidnightMuffin.
Within a separate thread, GoatedUche put forth the idea that it is the culmination of not only everything Kendrick has witnessed in the intervening years between albums, but all that he’s achieved in his career.
“At the time of writing those lyrics for DAMN, Kendrick saw the increasingly fragmented and polarized state of America as being a catalyst for the rise of Donald Trump. He suggests that Americans realized they took Obama’s term as president (which coincided with the release of TPAB-an album which delves into the African American struggle) for granted in light of the current tensions in America.
I think that given Kendrick’s prolonged absence and the further fragmentation / polarization of American society (or even the devolution of the standard in Rap music), this may be a possible origin of this Oklama figure ”, they continued. “In light of the current situation now, we see just how important TPAB was, just how good DAMN was in the light of artists nowadays, and we promised to never doubt him again.”
Compelling as all of the theories are, it’s important to take them all with a pinch of salt. After all, let’s not forget that the entirety of the hip-hop sphere was once convinced that DAMN. would be followed by a subsequent album known as NATION.
Whatever the case, what can be said with certainty is that the alias of Oklama represents a bold new era for one of music’s most fiercely creative and unyielding minds. As a result, no matter what conceptual ideas emerge or how Oklama himself conveys them, the last thing that Friday, May 13th, 2022 will be underwhelming or boring.