It turns out Kendrick Lamar doesn’t want you after all.
Does the man on the cover of his fifth album look like he desires our attention? In a photo shot by Renell Madrano, the artist stands on guard like a paranoid Tony Soprano locked in a safe house, an iced-out crown of thorns gracing his head and a gun tucked into the back of his jeans. The presence of his real-life family adds weight to his vulnerability. Contrary to the man that glided over streets blasting a rallying cry, we’re meant to sense the world’s most celebrated rapper as a trapped animal, tense under the weight of adulation. Having spent the last 15 years graduating from aspiring rapper to multi-platinum artist to generational spokesperson, Lamar finds himself in a prison of his own making, warily eyeing the doorframe for trespassers.
Surely he’s acutely aware of the ridiculousness of that praise, oft levied by people of cultural cache without an understanding of rap or black culture at large. For us to have declared good kid, m.A.A.d city an instant classic may have been prescient. Still, it shirked the concept of artistic reassessment entirely far before the culture learned to reward such behavior unapologetically. To win a Pulitzer Prize in Music for a hip-hop album is less an achievement but a curse, a parasite feeding off a fattened ego bestowed by a committee that likely won’t ever cede to the genre again. A curse, that: the same one that goaded Jussie Smollett to victimize himself falsely, tempts Will Smith to lash out on a public stage, and currently keeps someone like Kanye West in a cycle of self-destruction at the behest of his ravenous cult.
“I can’t please everybody,” he muses on “Crown”, and it’s a line equivalent to a baited fishhook. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers won’t be near as universally adored as his most revered works. It’s not just because of its mellowness or because its indulgence in contemporary rap trends sacrifices crossover appeal. Far from the pitch-perfect storytelling of good kid m.A.A.d city or the exquisite poetry of To Pimp a Butterfly, Mr. Morale feels intentionally haphazard, even provocative. The double album is lengthy and prickly, its immediate pleasures counterbalanced by its confusions and difficulties. At its crux is a discussion concerning the corrupted dynamic between the artist (Mr. Morale) and the audience (The Big Steppers) – a dynamic that, like love, is acceptance and rejection in tandem.
If Lamar laments the lens of scrutiny accompanying his platform, he provides songs here that have never felt more designed to be scrutinized. His flat-footed approach to combating transphobia on “Auntie Diaries”, while genuine, likely won’t earn him any slack among younger fans, especially those sensitive to gender-specific language or homophobic slurs. You can hear “We Cry Together” as a powerful commentary on the level of vitriol present in modern discourse or as a tepidly-acted stage play (albeit with convincing acting from Taylour Paige) with an ending that’s way too blunt to be effective. Even “Mother I Sober”, a devastating song designed to touch millions of people affected by the same color of trauma, ends on a contentious note and doesn’t totally earn its tidy, cloying ending.
Most notably, Kodak Black takes up the modal majority of the record’s features, raising the eyebrows of anyone aware of his questionable and criminal transgressions. Kodak’s incessant presence over Mr. Morale is what tips Lamar’s hand about his perverse intentions. Why is someone who poignantly summoned the late Nipsey Hussle in the record’s lead-up choosing to prominently feature a rapper who made waves last year about his lascivious intent to bed his widow immediately? That Kodak takes up not just one but four of the record’s 18 means it’s not just a slip-up; it’s a conscious decision to weave his warts into the text, thus courting controversy. “What you doing with Kendrick?” Kodak asks in “Rich”, knowingly echoing our queries.
Such murkiness consumes Mr. Morale, and that murkiness is the point. Recall To Pimp a Butterfly’s “Mortal Man”, where Lamar made a point about the eventual fate of all platformed Black men. Here he purposefully allows shit to hit the fan, sticking his hand in the mosquito pit to reinforce his point. Look no further than the first line following “Auntie Diaries”, where the intense vexation of the sampled voice echoes thoughtless reactions to his transgressive language. Through landmine after landmine, Lamar’s awareness of the waspish discourse (“Hello, crackers,” he spits on “Savior”) inevitably subsuming any of his follow-ups to 2017’s DAMN. doesn’t just manifest as an element of the record. It’s a linchpin. It’s half of the title, and it seeps into every inch of the album.
Spiritual guru Eckhart Tolle, whose dual tomes emphasize the value of living in the present, pops in occasionally as a counter narrator. The elements of Buddhism in his teachings manifest in the aural shuffling of footsteps, in part an ersatz meditation bell that keeps the listener mindful of our disruptive impact in his world. They’re introduced on “Worldwide Steppers”, a brilliantly confrontational track that sees Lamar offering his past to the judgmental eye and then holding up the mirror of hypocrisy. They build as soon as Lamar’s real-life wife urges him to “see Eckhart” as a form of therapy, which then descends into the early catharsis of “Father Time”. When the dust settles on “We Cry Together”, they return to pass judgment.
If Lamar intends to create a conversation here, the real question is whether he executes it properly. It’s a question that will take weeks to parse fully. Lamar seemingly can’t make a bad album in spite of himself. Yet on Mr. Morale, by nature, it’s hard to determine which specific parts are meant to be intentionally messy and which are real stumbles. On top of this, we’ve known from Section .80 onward that Lamar can’t escape a certain corniness, and though some moments of levity cut through the din – like Lamar’s hilarious delivery of the hook in “Silent Hill” – the mood frequently approaches an almost dire portentousness. To Pimp a Butterfly had this problem too, but only in the intensely candid “u”. Here, the constant sweep of violins sets the mood, markers of stakes destined to fade in the passage of time.
To some, the most egregious disappointment might be that musically, like DAMN. before it, Mr. Morale doesn’t aspire to be anything more than a solid mainstream rap record. What sold many on Kendrick (and, let’s face it, most of those people were white) was his ability to work in genres other than hip-hop that accompanied, even enhanced, the greater themes of his works. In other words, Lamar’s albums were able to be both appreciated more readily by those with broader musical tastes and enjoyed by those who otherwise wouldn’t appreciate rap of its ilk.
That will make Mr. Morale’s focus on trap beats and contemporary rap trends a dealbreaker, especially for those who can’t see the appeal in someone as charismatic as Baby Keem. These people would be ignoring his brilliant meshing of trap and orchestra, a fusion that isn’t necessarily novel but arguably hasn’t been executed better. It doesn’t leap off the speakers per se, but the details – the weeping strings underlining “Silent Hill”, for instance – make the record a much more rewarding listen on repeat. Even at a surface level, who could really complain about a dance track like “Die Hard” or a hook as immediately accessible as the one on “Father Time”, graced by Sampha’s indelible vibrato? Elsewhere, “Crown” boasts a piano progression that’s gorgeously regal, “Purple Hearts” indulges in lush synths, and “United in Grief” provokes chills in its string-laden grandeur.
Indeed, the overarching mellowness of the album belies some of the best production on a Kendrick Lamar record yet. Many returning names, including Sounwave, Boi1da, and the Alchemist, contribute track after track of smooth trap crossed with piano and strings. Nothing is particularly explosive, but every sound feels cared for. Kodak’s monologue on “Rich (Interlude)” is filtered into the right speaker as piano keys cascade in the left. Sampha’s chorus on “Father Time” cuts like a knife, as does Amanda Reifer’s on “Die Hard”. The instrumental restraint on “Mother I Sober” lends Lamar’s confession even more elegance.
Lamar’s ability to combine depth and deft wordplay also hasn’t dulled at all in the last few years. True to his MO, stanzas that bury troves of meaning fly by like passing cars. His delivery also remains elastic, as Lamar’s voice runs the gamut from bubbling menace (“Worldwide Steppers”) to emollience (“Auntie Diaries”) to humor (“N95”, “Silent Hill”) to heartbreak (“Mother I Sober”). Such variance typically makes Kendrick Lamar records dizzying affairs, but the comparative quietude of the accompaniment brings that variance to the foreground. It makes his clunkers stand out even more, but it also results in moments so clear-eyed and emotional that some might find them too difficult with which to engage.
There will be those that will listen to Mr. Morale, noticing only that Lamar is repeating himself or not transcending the realm of hip-hop, and deem that it fails to meet their lofty expectations. Are those expectations unfair? According to Lamar, absolutely. He makes our profound misunderstanding of his intentions a vital theme of the record, and that’s essentially a form of critic-proofing, but that misunderstanding is also inevitable. Even before pressing play, it’s possible you already carried some irresponsible insight on the record. Thousands of takes on social platforms whizz by the ears, missing the center by meters or miles. Hasty critic reviews surface online, each hoping to be the next shepherding voice in some twisted form of colonialism. In his words: “That is a predator, hit reverse / All of your presidents’ evil thirst”. Discussions on online forums blaze and stink like dumpster fires. In these, the zoom-out is outpaced by the zoom-in, as details – intentional bear traps – are magnified, dissected, and discarded in favor of a more grounded, complex picture.
Lamar, like so many rap artists in America, knowingly operates under the watchful eyes of cultural critics, many of whom can’t possibly fathom his circumstances. These artists perform to primarily white crowds, who can afford lofty ticket prices and merchandise. Their music is discussed online by people who primarily have the privilege to wring their hands about the potential implications of uttered slurs, the absolution of abuse, or the intentional platforming of controversial rappers. “Like it when they pro-Black, but I’m more Kodak Black,” he drops on “Savior”, and the words linger on the tongue like acid. Should we be disappointed in Lamar, or are we meant to acknowledge that if he can forgive someone like Kodak, who transgressed against his values, we should too?
Kendrick Lamar is not perfect. He’s not a monster either. But the clear takeaway from Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is that he’s no longer entertaining the ridiculous idea that you might regard him – or Oprah, or Kobe, or Kanye, or even R. Kelly – in black and white terms. The record’s final track, and what might be his last one for a while, revolves around choice words: “I choose me, I’m sorry.” It’s directed to us: every fan, every enemy, every listener, every critic, every influencer, and person with their own idea of what Kendrick Lamar as a public person means to them. When the track closes abruptly, we’re left with an empty pedestal and the notion that if Lamar believes he’s good enough for himself, so should we feel for ourselves: each of us, like the album, is perfect in our imperfection.
Do we discount people entirely for their mistakes, egregious as we might interpret them to be? It’s a question whose response will differ from listener to listener, even though the real answer, in his eyes, ought to be obvious. What’s more important is that an artist as revered as Lamar – someone weary from acclaim and fresh into fatherhood, who simply doesn’t need us anymore, who may even find us too damned to save – is still willing to reach out and try.