Kendrick Lamar is a virtuoso of rap. His music often takes on a dramatic form that unfurls itself into so many branches of spectacle. West Coast greats like Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre have vocalised adamant support for Lamar, for keeping alive a pure form of hip-hop that exemplifies the characteristics that built the genre. Yet, every album of his has found ways to pull and push on the ever so slight balance that is an artistic achievement and kitschy homage. As hip-hop’s first and only ever Pulitzer Prize winner, Lamar has crafted a reputation that has spoken loud enough to satiate the desire of fans for five years. It’s a special thing for fans to wait indefinitely solely on the reputation that the artist has created. But, we’ve all seen his reputation cloud the rationality of many, elevating him to a heroic, messianic sort of status, a saviour status.
Prophetic responsibilities are too gruelling for the shoulders of any person and Mr Morale & The Big Steppers simply is Kendrick’s reaffirmation of such a statement. Kendrick for many has exemplified what it means to be a black man in America, especially upon the background of perpetual racial tensions. He’s become the leading authority. But even he feels indignance, and on Mr Morale he lets his reputation fall to reveal his complex and at times tormented self; he lets his image burn and disintegrate in place for a greater message.
It propagates its message with a sort of shock value; Kendrick has always been the beacon of goodness, so to get such a painstakingly honest introspection completely defiles the otherwise undying reputation of Lamar. It’s a worthwhile message, as the common conception of mainstream fame so often follows a naively optimistic view. At this point, most of Kendrick’s fans have come to expect the sort of album that transcends his personal perspective, instead of taking on a highly conceptual and equivocal form. Again, Mr Morale will be shocking.
Its intimacy is at its forefront, the opening line, “Tell them, tell ‘em, tell them the truth” is spoken by Lamar’s long-time partner Whitney Alford. And immediately through the hazy, wandering beats and indomitable drum breaks, Kendrick regretfully tells about Rolex’s worn once and Porsches paid in full, all a way to wipe away the tears of poverty.
“N95” follows with Kendrick taking shots at the “fake woke”, imploring they “take off” the facades that they put up to avoid the troubles that may actually challenge their wokeness. He doesn’t hold back, outwardly displaying his indignance, “You ugly as f—”. It challenges the listener, but from the beginning his stability seems to sway; he slips down a rapidly eroding hill. It’s a slide that is emphasised by the following tracks, all of which assess Kendrick’s surroundings and their impact on him. It al teeters on a fine edge of personal insight, which in some ways reaches a peak on “Father Issues”, a delicate rumination that finds Kendrick coming to terms with the hereditary toxic masculinity that plagued his father and that he recognises in himself. It’s a message delivered over an achingly throbbing beat, featuring disturbed synths and backed by frail vocals by Sampha, amounting to a painfully honest confession.
In a strange plot twist, reminiscent of Kanye West’s recent association with Marilyn Manson, Kodak Black shows up to deliver a surprisingly well realised spoken word interlude on “Rich – Interlude”, outlining his past fears and possible future. “Rich Spirit” arrives next riding on a wavering skitter of a beat, which wobbles with a denialist Kendrick as he seeks to ensure himself of his success in light of the negative criticism he’s facing. “And celebrity do not mean integrity, you fool / I’m a good man, shake your hand, firm grip rule.”
Beyond that on “We Cry Together” we approach the most dramatic of Disc 1’s constant denial and fraught longings. In very much the style of “u” Kendrick dramatises an intense argument between himself and Zola actress Taylour Paige. The profanity-laden track focuses less on the musicality, in this case a constant haunting piano riff from The Alchemist, and focuses on the dramatic outburst, as highlighted by Kendrick’s employment of an actress. Far from the album’s most dignified moment, it definitely makes for a song best not suited to playlists.
As you move into disc 2 of Mr Morale and The Big Steppers, Kendrick reconciles himself to a place of acceptance and understanding, replacing his denial for acceptance, and open discussion with Eckart Tolle, the renowned German self-help guru. His venting turns to reconciliation, “And they like to wonder where I’ve been / Protecting my soul in the valley of silence” (“Savior”).
Following is another Kodak Black feature, both loosely rapping over the elastic and pumping beat on “Silent Hill”, in which they deliver bars about their opulent lives and the consequent lack of earnest connection. “Auntie Diaries” makes grand conclusion in its extremely sensitive subject matter; Kendrick’s auntie and cousin both coming out as trans. Kendrick again shows regret and understanding, reconciling his usage of the f-slur and its similar impact on his trans family, as the n-word being used to belittle him. “Mother I Sober” follows as a desperate and pained emotional discharge as Kendrick expels his childhood traumas in a barely audible whisper. Beth Gibbons of Portishead’s ghostly angelic vocals aid his unfurling of repressed emotions, and ultimately create the album’s most emotionally charged and poignant moments.
Kendrick wants to you to let go of the idea that he is the ultimate messiah, the far-away figure here to purge us all of our impurities and instead self-immolates his proverbial crown. He’s not otherworldly either, even he “was slightly confused” seeing “Kanye [get] back with Drake”. It is a significant way to mark a return, Mr Morale and The Big Steppers. It opts to do the polar opposite of his most diehard fans’ desires, and burn the crown, stepping down from the throne of immortality a position in which has been placed against his will. Mr Morale isn’t a prim and primed album, instead, it’s loaded on emotion, fearful of a traumatic and perpetually haunting past, on that threatens to scupper any chance of healing or progression. “I choose me, I’m sorry”. Can you blame him?
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Mr Morale and The Big Steppers is out now.