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Review: Kendrick Lamar - Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers

Kyle Boulton defends the Compton rapper's recent release - a "paradoxical" milestone in a genre-defining discography.

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Image Credit: pgLang, Top Dawg Entertainment, Aftermath, Interscope Records

In his five year retreat from the music scene, some began to imagine Kendrick Lamar as an omniscient prophet whose return was simultaneously imminent and immanent. During To Pimp a Butterfly's (2015) final track, ‘Mortal Man’, the rapper simulates a post-mortem interview with Tupac Shakur, who envisages a future where “[black people are] tired of grabbin’ shit out the store”, and instead turn to “bloodshed”. Whether Tupac was referring to a new form of violent revolution or the perpetuation of pre-existing violence is unclear, but the apocalyptic imagery he describes was chillingly mirrored in the discontent of Summer 2020. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, social discontent ravaged the public spaces of America in particular, as communities across the world confronted the centuries-long displacement, alienation, and killing of black people. Soon enough, the act of protest turned into black squares, GoFundMes and corporate hashtags, whilst the promise of revolution once again dissipated into apathy.

Despite being the “defining poet of his generation”, according to The Independent’s Ben Bryant, Kendrick remained notably silent throughout this period. So notable, in fact, that rapper, poet, and activist Noname subtweeted his failure to speak up:

“y’all favourite top selling rappers [...] discographies be about black plight and they nowhere to be found”.

For an artist who had so profoundly articulated the conflict between afro discontent and optimism, his absence during a time when he was arguably needed most was difficult to fathom. Was it that Kendrick had nothing to contribute, or had he come to resemble one of Tupac’s other prophecies?

“A black man only have like five years we can exhibit maximum strength and that’s right now while you’re a teenager (...) ‘cause once you turn 30 it’s like they take the heart and soul out of a man”.

Now a father of two children, the 32-year-old rapper appears to be contemplating and renegotiating his position within black culture. In DAMN (2017), the messiah complex that originated in good kid m.A.A.d city (2012) had mutated into exhaustion and fatalism. In Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers (2022), the consequences of this trajectory are explored in Kendrick’s most introspective album yet.

Contrary to its evocative name, Mr. Morale is anything but inspiring. Empowering at times, perhaps, but even in the most braggadocious tracks - namely ‘N95’ - Kendrick’s usual bravado is underlined by doubt. The self-love he so beautifully discovers in songs like ‘Real’ and ‘i’ is replaced with emptiness; from the vacuous materialism of cars and Rolexes to his financial sufficiency, the wealth that Kendrick possesses appears to be more of a curse than a blessing. Although this dynamic was explored in DAMN’s standout track ‘FEAR’, the anxieties he posits throughout are revealed to have resulted in a much-needed trip to the therapist’s office.

The more Kendrick ruminates, the more Mr. Morale resembles another 2017 album - Jay-Z’s 4:44. Beyond their minimal marketing campaigns, both projects deconstruct the ‘masculine auteur’ that Brooke Rollins describes in cinematic terms - a male author whose privilege is perpetuated by the “desires” and fantasies of their audience (‘Some Kind of Man’). Both artists reveal their commonly romanticised relationships - Hov with Beyonce, Kendrick with high-school sweetheart Whitney Alford - to be mired by issues of infidelity. Calculated yet strikingly pathetic, Kendrick’s self-confessed addiction to sex culminates in the memorable ‘We Cry Together’.

In this challenging listen, a passionate Florence and the Machine vocal sample - “hold on to each other” - is destabilised by a spoken-word interjection: “this is what the world [really] sounds like.” What follows is a theatrical shouting match comprising every insult and accusation imaginable. Taylour Paige of Zola fame embodies Kendrick’s other half, matching his energy to make the listening experience an uneasy act of eavesdropping. It’s a particularly uncomfortable performance, yet Kendrick’s sense of humour and self-awareness delineates the hyperbole of their exchange.

Themes of infidelity in the album’s first disc are complimented by an exploration of masculinity. In ‘Father Time’, Kendrick explores his experiences with male role models, both personal and within his community, and how they have informed his newfound position as a father. The generational “curses” that continue to intrude upon the black family unit are alleviated by a powerful quartet:

“And to my partners that figured it out without a father / I salute you, may your blessings be neutral to your toddlers.
It’s crucial, they can’t stop us if we see the mistakes / Til then, let’s give the women a break, grown men with daddy issues”.

Like Hov in 4:44, Kendrick therapeutically deconstructs the responsibilities of black fatherhood. However, whereas the former packages these insights within a concise 36-minute project, Kendrick’s album is scattershot and unrefined, just like his wandering thoughts.

The healing process is played out in two halves: in disc one, Mr. Morale, Kendrick dissects his false prophet persona. Bold comparisons to Martin Luther King and Tupac in the previously mentioned ‘Mortal Man’ are subverted by intense moments of domestic melodrama and insecurity. Thus, if Mr. Morale depicts the difficult act of confession, disc two - The Big Steppers - is the equally challenging, yet sobering comedown.

This is epitomised in the twin brother of DAMN’s ‘FEAR’ - ‘Mother I Sober’. Accompanied by Portishead’s elusive vocalist Beth Gibbons, Kendrick explores the violent traumas that have haunted black families for generations. Unlike his flirtation with black Israelite conspiracies in DAMN, Kendrick’s historicization of black suffering is cogent and penetrative. Grand theories of existential curses are replaced with a grounded admission of corporeal suffering, allowing Kendrick to better understand his unresolved traumas.

In this vulnerable state, Kendrick initiates a paradoxical narrative of maturity. Whilst GKMC and TPAB replace fatalism with a collective vision of black pride, Mr. Morale falls back into despair. Importantly, however, this portrayal of despair does not resemble the existential ramifications of Afropessimist discourse; rather, the potential for liberation is counteracted by Kendrick’s inability to control his actions. This backwards development comprises the album’s heart. Unlike DAMN - an album hindered by its lack of clarity - Kendrick reflects upon his failures without obfuscating them. Traumas and vices thought of as long-forgotten resurface to make the poet’s words both a letter of confession and apology to those he loves.

Meanwhile, the prospect of unconditional love between Kendrick and his fanbase is deconstructed and perhaps finally put to rest. Those who are unwilling to embrace his honesty are left with an assortment of out-of-context soundbites that are open to scrutiny. Take ‘Auntie Diaries’, for instance, in which the story of a relative’s gender transition is explored. Rather than sanitising the story, Kendrick recalls the hateful slurs that he and those around him used to describe his now-uncle. His use of deadnaming and the F-slur, in particular, have been justifiably questioned by many on his right to appropriate hate speech.

Whilst these criticisms are more than valid, Kendrick’s approach here is, above all, without compromise. By reciting the slurs and pronouns he once used, Kendrick’s gradual development from ignorance to acceptance is made more potent. Emphasising the importance of “humanity” over “religion”, the song offers a moment of trans allyship in a genre that has been historically hostile to non-conforming gender and sexual identities.

Ironically, what is less redeemable is the album’s biblical notion of forgiveness. In the messy run-up to Donda’s 2021 release, Kanye West championed Marilyn Manson and DaBaby - an accused sexual abuser and homophobe respectively - through promotional stunts and song features. The problematic duo, who financially profited from this dynamic, became Kanye’s ill-advised guinea pigs - two sinful subjects through which Ye could perform his delusory messiah complex. In Kendrick’s case, this is replicated through Kodak Black, who appears thrice throughout the album.

The antithesis to Kodak - whose convictions include sexual assault and battery - is Kendrick’s Gen-Z cousin, Baby Keem. As dichotomous students, the two rappers complete Kendrick’s shoulder angel complex. Whereas Keem represents the confidence that his music has instilled within a new generation of black artists, Kodak exemplifies the remaining fatalism of inner-city life.

Product of his environment or not, the decision to offer Kodak a platform is difficult to fathom. By entertaining the prospect for redemption, Kendrick opens himself to a level of scrutiny that moves beyond perspectival nuance. Like Donda, Mr. Morale’s hosting of abusive figures is less a holy quest, as their respective artists believe, but more so an unnecessary flirtation with the devil.

With that said, the contradictions of human nature, alongside the newfound ability to accept one’s failures, is at the heart of Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers. Rather than perpetuating the saviourism of his past projects, Kendrick abandons his position as “Compton’s human sacrifice”, focusing on his responsibilities as a father and husband. Deep insecurities are shared without obfuscation, and so begins the process of healing. The album epitomises that famous Samuel Beckett line - “Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better” (Worstward Ho). For only in acknowledging failure, and therefore accepting his mortality, can Kendrick live free of others’ expectations.

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