The distance between rapper Kendrick Lamar and his previous album is five years, as many Grammys, an Academy Award-nominated soundtrack for the gargantuan Marvel Cinematic Universe, college courses based on his work, several biographies, and, oh, a Pulitzer prize too. He’s virtually as acclaimed as an artist can be—the type of figure who bears lofty labels like, “the voice of a generation.”
Due to his outsized success in spaces atypical for a rapper, he has also become an artist that much of the white world looks to for engagement with hip-hop culture and Black art in general. There are many people who do not listen to hip-hop who do listen to Kendrick Lamar—admittedly, I am close to being one of these people at this point in my life. Lamar often goes out of his way to explain himself in albums like good kid, m.A.A.d city, and his understated public persona passes the general public’s criteria of respectability often foisted upon rappers, making him an easy-to-digest representative for hip-hop culture to a mass audience. Hip-hop is an art form with a rich and specific history that is always growing and recontextualizing itself. It exists outside of the grasp of any single artist, but for the past decade a new album from Kendrick Lamar has tended to be a significant bullet-point on the genre's unfolding timeline.
Lamar is painfully aware that he cannot meet the impossibly high expectations being placed on him on his new album Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, released May 13. “Kendrick made you think about it, but he is not your savior,” he states on “Savior,” a song that comes toward the end of the double album’s one-hour-and-13-minute runtime that plainly states what every other song has been building toward. With frequent mentions of therapy throughout, the album eschews the public figure of Kendrick Lamar for a far more raw and knotty version of himself as it peels back the agreeable and near messianic reputation placed on him. Ever the effective wielder of the imagery of his Christian faith, Lamar dons a crown of thorns on the album’s cover before crucifying the person we thought we knew.
To this end, Lamar spends much of the album going through his psyche and experience with a disarming candor, undoing the “good kid” image he’s carried for so long. At times his introspection is jagged and visceral, such as the admission of various infidelities described with surprising specificity in songs like “Worldwide Steppers” and “United in Grief.” Elsewhere it’s incisive and self-aware, as on “Die Hard,” which lays out Lamar’s fear of intimacy and openness. As on previous works, Lamar’s personal reflection still allows him to look through a wide lens at the foundational conditions that have contributed to who he is as he unpacks generational trauma and sexual assault across tracks such as “Father Time” and “Mother I Sober.”
Further than just deconstructing Lamar’s image, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers seems designed to disorient, discomfort, and even frustrate listeners. It mostly forgoes the kind of radio-ready listening found more consistently on his previous work, instead favoring vaporous and off-balanced production that expands and contracts around the album’s thorny subject matter. Lightning-rod topics such as cancel culture—the elusive and evocative concept that the world has become too sensitive and the soft masses cannot handle anything or anyone who offends their sensitivities—are mentioned almost in passing, without much insight. Perhaps more tellingly, Kodak Black, a Florida rapper and alleged sexual assailant, is prominently featured throughout the album, a decision that’s likely meant to reinforce Lamar’s takedown of his own good reputation. A song called “We Cry Together” centers an intense argument between a man voiced by Lamar and a woman voiced by actress Taylour Paige, which is rendered in such vivid tones that it’s hard not to squirm in your seat while listening. Throughout the album’s long runtime are a series of intellectual stop-and-starts, provocative decisions, and emotional blunt force that offer little in the way of the kind of conceptual clarity audiences have grown accustomed to from Kendrick Lamar.
The difference between steady-handed albums like 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly and the more unwieldy Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is that, for the first time in his career, Kendrick is chiefly concerned with his own needs above all else. He used to use his skills as a writer so that his audience might better understand the world, but he’s now only interested in that which helps him understand his own life, even at the risk of incoherence or inconsistency. His partner and the mother to his two children, Whitney Alford, appears as an authoritative narrator throughout, breaking the album's fourth wall to urge Lamar to “tell the truth” or “stop tap-dancing around the conversation,” as well as to recognize the progress being made. “Session 10, breakthrough,” she announces at the beginning of “Count Me Out,” recalling the album’s therapeutic aimings. Her inclusion in the album is touching; it becomes clear by the end that all of this ugliness is so that they might remain together as a family, happy and healthy. That family includes Kendrick, and in order to be there he needs to put in the work to heal—it’s noted in various forms throughout the album that Kendrick and other men’s shortcomings cannot become solely the problem of the women that love them. “I can’t please everybody,” he repeats over and over again on “Savior,” and he’s done trying. On Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, he’s working for his family by working on himself. “I choose me, I’m sorry,” are the album’s final words.
It’s difficult to critique work that artists make largely for themselves, especially when that work is framed as a necessity for the well-being of the artist, as is the case for Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers. On the one hand, it feels right for an artist to push against the various consumptive attitudes that treat artists less as people and more as on-demand content generators. I want Kendrick Lamar and his family to be happy. But on the other hand, this is an artist's work that they are sharing with the world—what begins as personal is not going to stay that way if it is presented as a commercial work of art, and not all therapy sessions are worthwhile for an audience outside those in the room.
Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers’ public confessionals end up as a mixture of compelling and misguided. Lamar’s vulnerability in exposing his wrongdoings and collapsing the type of hero worship he’s garnered throughout his career are effective and affecting. His skill as a rapper and a sonic art-director remain unmatched. But he loses some of the power of his honesty in pieces of the album that provoke for provocation’s sake. On a song called “Auntie Diaries,” Lamar narrates his and his family’s reckoning with the transgender identities of his uncle and his cousin while using an inflammatory slur numerous times before landing on the conclusion that he probably shouldn’t use that word. The song also focuses on Lamar’s feelings more so than those of the relatives he’s actually talking about, and while some might find comfort in a figure as public as Lamar candidly documenting his understanding and attitudes regarding gender and queer identities, Lamar’s first-preson framing here strikes me as the type of important internal conversation that loses some of its value when made external. It's tough to stay with someone’s intense personal work when it collides so directly with identities and experiences outside of that person. And though Kodak Black’s inclusion on the album is consistent with the album’s purpose, signaling that they both have things to atone for, it undercuts the potent observations about the cyclical and lingering effects of sexual assault made on songs like “Mother I Sober.” There’s a difference between collapsing the loaded notion of respectability onto itself and promoting someone who has caused real and direct harm.
If you choose to journey through the therapeutic sprawl of Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, do so carefully—not cautiously, carefully. As in, full of care. Not because you might encounter language that hits you hard (though you will) and not just because Kendrick Lamar is an artist worthy of care (though he is). Do so because the album is difficult, sometimes frustratingly so, and offers little in the way of firm instruction or analysis on the world outside of Lamar himself. Following too far down any of the various hallways contained in the album likely will lead to dead-ends and over-conflation about Lamar’s artistic vision and intention that will not be made any clearer by the album’s close. You might not necessarily know exactly what he means this time around, and it might be harder to celebrate Lamar as the kind of agreeable, once-in-a-generation talent that we as a culture love to hold up. But if there’s one thing Kendrick Lamar has made clear on Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, it’s that he’s done bearing that cross for us. (PDlang, Top Dawg Entertainment)