‘Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers’ Is a Difficult, Ambitious Tour of Kendrick Lamar’s Psyche: Album Review

“I’ve been going through something.”

These are the first words that Kendrick Lamar speaks on “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers,” and if the 19 songs that follow over the next 72 minutes are any indication, it’s quite an understatement. In the five years since he last released a proper album, 2017’s best-rapper-alive declaration “Damn,” Lamar became the first hip-hop artist to win the Pulitzer Prize, earned an Oscar nomination, launched a media company, performed at the Super Bowl, and announced his departure from TDE, the tight-knit label that has been his home and a key part of his identity since the very beginning.

But “Mr. Morale” — along with the new, non-album single “The Heart Part 5” — is almost entirely concerned with the long periods that Lamar spent out of the spotlight in between. He’s been going through quite a few things since we last heard from him, and he’s never been more willing to share them all.

Though there’s little on “Mr. Morale” that matches the head-spinning jazz fusion experiments of “To Pimp a Butterfly” for sheer first-listen shock value, this album is likely the most consciously difficult project of Lamar’s career. It contains moments of sublime beauty and frustrating tediousness. Unsparing excavations of ongoing racial trauma and creeping social rot coexist with sour hectoring that can sometimes make Lamar seem older than his 34 years. The music moves in fits and starts, full of head-fakes and sudden cascades into chasms of silence, and there’s little here that screams out for obvious radio play. Its production – from a who’s-who of past Lamar collaborators, including the Digi+Phonics team, Pharrell Williams and DJ Dahi – often seems engineered to discourage absent-minded head-bobbing.

In short, this album will likely frustrate anyone who dialed it up on Spotify in search of another “Humble” or “Money Trees,” and that’s very much by design. More interestingly, though, it will also likely frustrate anyone who wants cleanly-delivered messaging or Instagram-ready pullquotes, and that’s also by design. Lamar has long been attracted to grey areas and ambiguity, always eager to tack on an ambivalent footnote to his most straightforward applause lines. That tendency is dialed up to 11 here, as he finds himself constantly circling back around to poke holes in his own arguments, to take himself down from the pedestal he just constructed, and to make sure anyone who had been nodding along in agreement for too long finds something to give them pause.

Lamar is no stranger to confronting his personal traumas through art, whether he’s using them to situate himself within the rich and troubled heritage of his Compton hometown on “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City,” or to transform his self-doubt into revolutionary self-belief on “To Pimp a Butterfly.” But even by his standards, “Mr. Morale” is often excruciatingly personal. We hear Lamar discuss therapy, infidelity, father issues, depression, and the emptiness of buying infinity pools that he’s never bothered to swim in. His longtime partner, Whitney Alford, serves as the album’s narrator, as well as something of a stand-in for his conscience when Lamar imagines how she’ll respond to his shortcomings. If “Butterfly’s” defining imagery saw him storming the White House, and “Damn’s” key line had him exultantly proclaiming “this what God feel like,” “Mr. Morale’s” thesis statement is probably the chorus of “Crown,” where he wearily repeats “I can’t please everybody” again and again over a drumless piano loop. Here, Kendrick Lamar has done everything possible to remind listeners that he’s just a man, as full of fear and regret and flaws and a thousand tightly wound contradictions as any other.

The album isn’t all provocation and bloodletting, and when it finds a lower-key groove – the airy, cocky “Rich Spirit”; the hard-knocking Boi-1da production “Silent Hill”; the valedictory “Count Me Out” – it reminds you how easily Kendrick Lamar can still summon “Good Kid’s” unkillable vibe when he wants to. But the soul of the album is found more in tracks like “Mother I Sober,” a stark, disquieting track on which he unflinchingly surveys the legacy of sexual abuse in Black America, all the way from slavery to a long-forgotten incident from his childhood.

Lamar’s primary mode of expression on that song and elsewhere is stream-of-consciousness – and not in the messy, “first thought-best thought” sense that that term has since taken on, but stream-of-consciousness as it was practiced by Virginia Woolf: an attempt to dramatize the chaotic curlicues and sudden tangents of human cognition within a framework that is actually tightly controlled and carefully considered. Take, for example, “Worldwide Steppers,” where an agitated-sounding Lamar moves from playing “Baby Shark” with his daughter to worrying about writer’s block to stressing about his health, only to take a very abrupt left turn: “Bacteria heavy, sciatica nerve pinch / I don’t know how to feel, like the first time I fucked a white bitch.” He lets the line hang in the air for a second – as though he’s surprised he just said that, too – then repeats it. This second line reading leads straight into a detailed account of a high school trip to Pacific Palisades, which reminds him of an incarcerated uncle, whose memory gives way to a backstage snapshot from his first international tour, all of which builds to an explosive admission of generational guilt. This is not the way the mind operates; it’s the way a gifted poet finds oblique angles of entry into difficult subjects.

As often as this sort of lyrical restlessness can yield unexpected rewards, there are just as many instances where Lamar can’t seem to resist the urge to get in his own way. On “Auntie Diaries,” he offers perhaps the most explicitly pro-trans-rights statement we’ve yet heard from a rapper of his stature. Telling the stories of a trans uncle and a cousin with considerable empathy, the song culminates in an encounter with a disapproving preacher, which prompts Lamar to “choose humanity over religion” and celebrate his relatives for being who they are. In order to tell these stories, however, he makes frequent reversions back to the perspective of his less enlightened younger self, which entails using a gay slur no less than ten times.

It’s important to mention that Lamar’s use of this slur is clearly purposeful, and he’s aware it’s a problem – by the end of the song he wonders if he should say it at all, even if to recall how he used to use it unthinkingly. (Here he references a viral concert moment from 2018, when he admonished a white fan for failing to omit the N-word from his lyrics as she rapped along to them onstage, asking himself whether he has any more right to the former word than she did to the latter.) But does that purposefulness excuse its use? Does Lamar’s willingness to complicate his advocacy make the track a richer text than a more bloodless, standards-and-practices-approved declaration of allyship would have been? Or is it just a needless, edgelord-ish last poke in the eye to LGBT+ hip-hop fans who have already had to suffer through hearing that word countless times in the music they love?

There are no easy answers to any of those questions. But taking a wide-angle view of the ambiguity in “Auntie Diaries” seems key to reckoning with the album as a whole. As much as he’s rightly been held up as a liberatory figure, Lamar has also been prone to occasional reactionary impulses – revisit “Section.80” if you need a reminder – and “Mr. Morale” leaves them out in the open, raw nerve endings that he makes no attempt to sanitize or shroud in metaphor. He’s never sounded as cantankerous as he does at a few points here, and his constant swipes at “cancel culture” and social media start to veer into grumpy-uncle territory. Of course, it’s not fair to demand he have a totally coherent and agreeable ideology, because Kendrick Lamar is not a politician. And on an album so averse to self-censorship, it seems unwise to take every single thing he says at face-value. The line between clear-cut declarations of belief, and polemical thought-experiments that Lamar interrogates and pushes to their furthest conclusions, is always left somewhat murky. One can respect that, while still finding some of these impulses tiresome.

The album’s guests are sporadic but smartly deployed, even when – as with controversial inclusion Kodak Black’s turn on “Silent Hill” – their contributions seem at odds with the Lamar verse that preceded them. Sometimes this is for the better: after opening with a somewhat subpar Lamar verse, “Purple Hearts” sees Summer Walker land the biggest laugh-out-loud line on a record with precious few of them, only to cede the stage to Ghostface Killah, whose verse is one for the books. Sounding almost as ancient and shamanistic as Popa Wu did back in Ghost’s “Cuban Linx” heyday, the veteran offers pearls of runic spirituality, reckons with grief, and reminds everyone why his face belongs alongside Lamar’s on any hip-hop Mt. Rushmore.

On a more surprising note, “We Cry Together” pairs Lamar with “Zola” star Taylour Paige, and the two portray a toxic couple who scream at each other in rhyme for the entirety of the song. Eminem’s “Kim” may be the closest comparison point, but this is something quite new, more audio theater than music, and the intensity level of Paige’s performance somehow makes it even more chilling than Marshall Mathers’ notorious murder fantasy. It’s a stunning work – an out-of-nowhere five-minute hailstorm of pure rage that leaves you staring at your speakers in disbelief. It’s also hard to imagine why anyone would voluntarily listen to it twice.

And frankly, the same could be said about several tracks on this album. It’s possible to come away from “Mr. Morale” impressed – even awestruck – by its boldness, honesty, and far-out lyrical virtuosity without necessarily knowing if you like it or not. It’s the sound of one of America’s foremost poets offering an all-access visit to the darker corners of his mind, unconcerned with whether anyone would choose to take that trip again. “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” may not be a masterpiece, and it may not always be pleasant, but it’s clearly the work of a genius, accountable to no one but himself, intent on showing you all the scars that he acquired on his way to becoming the defining rapper of his generation, and plenty that came after that, too. He’s been going through something, alright. Let’s hope the interval between this album and the next one is kinder to him.

 

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