Kendrick Lamar’s Messy, Complicated ‘Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers’

Kendrick Lamar has always told us exactly who he is. For all the close reading his work inspired, the thornier parts of his beliefs and worldview never seemed to register. Lamar contains multitudes, it’s just that for many, it’s easier to obsess over the Black liberation themes and calls for nonviolence instead of the clumsy bars about respectability and sexuality. For white audiences especially, understanding Kendrick felt like a cheat code to comprehending Blackness. Even as Kendrick rebuked the notion that he was an altruistic or enlightened figure—as far back as 2011, he proclaimed, “I’m not the next socially-aware rapper”—the world still contorted his message until he fit into that categorization.

Then Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers arrived with all the subtlety of Thanos wearing a kufi. Released last Friday, Kendrick’s fifth studio album is about what happens when a rapper hailed as “the voice of a generation” removes the metaphorical mask (and potentially the physical one, at Kyrie’s suggestion) and reveals that what’s underneath is far uglier, more broken, and more forthright than most had imagined. Across 18 songs, Kendrick trauma-dumps his way through the murk while hoping salvation is there to greet him on the other side. A 73-minute double album—and his final for Top Dawg Entertainment—Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers follows Kendrick as he unloads 34 years of baggage to a therapist and strives to reconcile his disparate views on race, gender, sexuality, addiction, generational curses, and cancel culture. Most importantly, Mr. Morale finds Kendrick coming to terms with a buried childhood memory as he tries to hold himself accountable for the personal havoc he’s wrought, all while tearing down the holier-than-thou image foisted upon him.

The narrative of Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers unfolds like a patient slowly picking away at the crust of a psychic scab. On the intro, “United in Grief,” an emotionally spent Kendrick awakes and ponders whether “the psychologist listenin’” before embarking on another day of healing drudgery. From there, Kendrick reveals in lyrical scraps throughout the album that a character named Whitney—likely a reference to his longtime fiancée, Whitney Alford, assuming Mr. Morale is autobiographical—is questioning his “lust addiction” and the infidelity that plagues their relationship. These disagreements play out more directly in “We Cry Together,” which features Kendrick and Taylour Paige (of Zola fame) arguing with the dramatic flair of Lin-Manuel Miranda performing Eminem at karaoke night. Before there’s nothing left of their relationship to save, on “Father Time” Whitney tells Kendrick to seek out self-help sage Eckhart Tolle. (Tolle’s name appears several times on the album, positioning Oprah’s favorite German guru as Kendrick’s spiritual adviser.)

If Mr. Morale’s first nine songs read as a patient skimming the emotional surface, then it’s not until “Count Me Out” (or “session 10”) that Kendrick has his first “breakthrough.” What comes next is Kendrick embracing his warts as he moves through the cycles of abuse hidden within his family tree and how that’s set him on his current trajectory. While the first half of Mr. Morale circles questions of infidelity, the latter half is more concerned with dredging up familial scars as Kendrick navigates fatherhood. The effect is akin to Kendrick desperately wanting to remake Usher’s Confessions, but halfway through the process observing all the calls for any rapper past 30 to make their 4:44.

Ultimately, Kendrick decides the best way to avoid any misunderstandings about his true self is to underline his main point. “Kendrick made you think about it, but he is not your savior,” he states in a disaffected tone on “Savior,” while also reminding listeners that J. Cole, Future, and LeBron James aren’t suitable liberators, either. Kendrick’s point is astute. Just because “Alright” soundtracked a summer of protest doesn’t mean he’s Malcolm X or that 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly should be confused for critical race theory. Kendrick can be an über-talented rapper, but that doesn’t mean he’s qualified to be a spokesperson for every facet of Black life. Nevertheless, there’s an unmistakable allure to “Savior,” which sets Kendrick’s anger against a haunting, reversed River Tiber sample. When Kendrick goes to war against political correctness, arguing that his musical peers are forced to “bite they tongues” for fear of being “crucified” and that “independent thought” is under siege, it hits the ear in such a pleasurable way that it’s easy to forget the underlying politics of those lyrics.

It’s impossible to contend with Mr. Morale without examining Kendrick’s newfound obsession with cancel culture. So many choices on the album are either a defense to a hypothetical argument that hasn’t happened yet or a barb aimed at the media and critics for robbing Kendrick and his creative ilk of their right to free speech. Nowhere is this more evident than the inclusion of Kodak Black as one of the project’s main narrators. Before Kodak’s voice has a chance to arrive on the album, Kendrick yelps, “What the fuck is cancel culture, dog?” as if steeling himself for the response that comes with standing next to the Florida rapper, who was charged with rape in 2016, after an incident with a high school student, and pleaded guilty to first-degree assault and battery in a plea deal.

What complicates matters is that it’s not completely clear what Kendrick means by cancellation. Kodak’s last album sold 60,000 in its first week, his 2021 hit “Super Gremlin” is certified platinum, and much of the rap world still openly supports and collaborates with Kodak (including most recently Future, who featured him on his chart-topping album I Never Liked You just a few a weeks ago). So when Kendrick proclaims “I ain’t taking shit back / Like it when they pro-Black, but I’m more Kodak Black” the message is muddled. If you’re going to close a song like “Father Time” with the line “let’s give the women a break” and then immediately follow it up with a Kodak interlude, it’s not a cancellation when people question it. Kendrick spent so much of his career skirting the discourse it’s jarring to listen to an album that gets stuck in its web.

Mr. Morale is the first Kendrick project devoid of artifice. Kendrick built a cottage industry on deciphering the intricacies of his work. He’d sequence albums like Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and DAMN. in ways that obscured plot details and rewarded repeated listens. His verses were so dense with allusions and metaphors they often bordered on impenetrable. With each project, gawking upon the time spent chiseling his latest masterpiece was just as important as whether you liked the resulting sculpture. Genius can be blinding. The true brilliance of Mr. Morale is that instead of chasing perfection, the album seems more preoccupied with revealing the internal discord of its protagonist. For years, Kendrick was often the least interesting character in his life’s story. Across mixtapes and albums, he’s introduced audiences to the voices of his parents and family. Names like Dave, Chad, Sherane, Keisha, and Tammy appear throughout his music like eulogies for lives either lost or gone astray. Because we knew so much about everything surrounding Kendrick, there was a feeling that we truly understood Kendrick. But if you look past the Dave Chappelle–ian and Joe Rogan–ian talking points of Mr. Morale, Kendrick’s real fears are laid bare—as he raps on “Die Hard,” “If I told you who I am, would you use it against me.” There’s only so much growth an artist can attain when they’re hemmed in by their own mythology.

On Mr. Morale’s penultimate track, “Mother I Sober,” the arc of the album snaps into focus. Kendrick tells the story of when he was 5 years old and questioned by his family about whether he was molested by another relative. Kendrick uses the moment to take stock of his life and how this traumatic experience is inextricable from his current reality. He shares that he began rapping as a “copin’ mechanisms to lift up myself” and that the views he’s extolled on songs like “Swimming Pools” and “A.D.H.D” about substance use are in part his need to reclaim some semblance of control. Thirty years later, Kendrick admits that the loneliness he’s felt from the experience has become inescapable. He connects this foundational moment to his intimacy issues with Whitney and prays that his “children don’t inherit me.” But it’s at the song’s climax that Kendrick tries to tie a bow on the politics that grip this album:

Every other brother has been compromised
I know the secrets, every other rapper sexually abused
I see ’em daily buryin’ they pain in chains and tattoos
So listen close before you start to pass judgment on how we move
Learn how we cope,
Whenever his uncle had to walk him from school
His anger grows deep in misogyny

For all of Mr. Morale’s good intentions, it’s fixated on boiling down complex and pained topics into digestible ethical nuggets that can fit into the framework of a four-minute rap song. As descriptive a storyteller as Kendrick tends to be, he often introduces these dilemmas without painting them with the level of depth they deserve. When Taylour Paige yells “You the reason R. Kelly can’t recognize that he’s abusive,” all Kendrick’s character can offer in return is “Man, shut the fuck up, we all know you still playin’ his music.” Even if he openly bristles at the thought of being a savior, it’s clear he feels some calling to interrogate the way figures like Kodak and R. Kelly are treated in society. This choice isn’t surprising, considering it was rumored that Kendrick threatened to pull his music from Spotify (The Ringer’s parent company) in 2018 as a result of artists like R. Kelly and XXXTentacion being removed from curated playlists under the company’s “hateful conduct” policy. But since there’s no specificity on what Kodak and R. Kelly are being denied, it can feel as though Kendrick is merely pointing toward perceived injustice without any concrete proof.

This lack of precision is rampant throughout the album, especially on “Auntie Diaries” where Kendrick tells a story about two transgender family members. As well-meaning as the song appears to be, many in the trans community have taken issue with Kendrick deadnaming and misgendering two individuals, while also using gay slurs to get his point across. “N95” sees Kendrick urging listeners to take off the Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, and Birkin bags, even as his media company PGLang works with Converse and Calvin Klein. There’s nothing wrong with Kendrick being a hypocrite, especially since it’s an issue he returns to often in his music. But if he’s adamant about delving deeper into what’s wrong with our current political reality, then it’d help if the listener had a better understanding of what he actually believed in beyond the surface-level incendiary comments about vague threats of cancellation.

Mr. Morale is a flawed album made by a rapper most of the world deemed infallible long ago. Despite the album having been out for less than a week, multiple publications have already given the project a perfect score, which is possibly the greatest illustration that many missed the point. Kendrick isn’t a symbol. He’s as messy and complicated as the next rapper. On Mr. Morale, underbaked politics can live next to poignant examinations of fatherhood and one of Kendrick’s worst songs ([cough, cough] “We Cry Together”) can stand next to one of his best (“Mother I Sober”). More than a decade into his career, we can finally discuss who Kendrick is and not who we want him to be. For 18 tracks, Kendrick fought for that freedom. In the coming days there will be many debates about what responsibility artists have to the community that consumes their art. As contentious as those arguments already are, it won’t be a cancellation, but merely a discussion about how we hold an artist accountable. And if nothing else Mr. Morale is an album about accountability.

As Kendrick says on “Father Time:”

Need assistance with the way I was brought up
What’s the difference when your heart is made of stone
And your mind is made of gold
And your tongue is made of sword, but it may weaken your soul?

Kendrick, like us all, is a product of his childhood and the place that raised him. His specific worldview is the reason we still care five albums later. The biggest success of Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is how often it’s willing to fail to reveal something new about its creator. And dissecting that is a far more worthwhile experience than debating the perfection of another Kendrick Lamar album.

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