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Kendrick Lamar turns away from it all on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers

Kendrick Lamar turns away from it all on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers

For 1855 days, Kendrick has been going through something. On his new album, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, Kendrick Lamar returns to the spotlight, to the throne from “King Kunta,” but this time his return is a reluctant one, a turn away from everything that made his release of Mr. Morale among the most anticipated musical events of the last decade.

To say that the shoes he had to fill were huge, that the expectations for this project were astronomical, would be something of an understatement. Kendrick’s absence from the spotlight over the last five years has been conspicuous as well, leading to much speculation and even criticism from fans looking to a visionary artist for guidance in a turbulent time.

But what does an artist owe us, really? What is required of them at the end of the day? The answer, of course, is nothing. Nothing except that they bear their soul to us, that they go deep within to dredge up whatever pain or happiness is there, and to condense that into the singularly complex object of their work, whatever form it takes. It’s undeniable that Kendrick can do this, has done this, but Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers challenges us to grapple with what happens when what the artist brings back isn’t exactly what we want to hear.

It should be said at the outset that Kendrick is, from a technical standpoint, the best rapper alive, insofar as such a title can be conferred on anybody. His mastery of vocal ranges, flows and cadences, voices and perspectives are all on display here, in what is undeniably a masterpiece of form. Kendrick’s vocal performance is complemented by a stunning suite of production from longtime collaborators Sounwave, DJ Dahi, J. Lbs, Beach Noise, and more, moving between the spacious “United In Grief” to the frenetic “N95” to the stripped down “Rich-Interlude,” to the luxurious “Count Me Out” easily, fluidly, and in perfect sync with Kendrick’s mercurial delivery.

In the face of such formal mastery, the question becomes: “where does the master turn their attention.” Put more simply, “If you can make any song, which one do you choose to make?” This is also the starting point of any real criticism, beyond formal complaints, delving into the true substance, the interplay ideology and philosophy and aesthetics, where great artists make their mark. 

Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is a double LP, and the two halves function to explore and unpack the burdens of fame and the presence of trauma that have shaped who Kendrick has been, who he is today, and who he may become. Much of this unpacking comes in the form of rejections, which come hard and fast on tracks like “N95,”:  “Take off the fake deep, take off the fake woke, take off the I’m broke I care/Take off the gossip, take off the new logic that if I’m rich I’m rare.” These rejections are coupled with admissions, as on “Worldwide Steppers,” where Kendrick discusses his infidelities to his longtime partner Whitney Alford, and recounts his thoughts on sleeping with various white women as a form of societal revenge: “Whitney asked do I have a problem, I said I might be racist/ancestors watching me fuck was like retaliation.” The first half culminates in a climactic blow-out fight on “We Cry Together,” which features a phenomenal performance from actress Taylour Paige opposite Kendrick, and perfectly demonstrates the album’s willingness to represent toxicity and trauma in such excruciating detail that listening becomes difficult.

The second disc moves into Kendrick’s response to it all, both in shedding the trappings of fame and excess, and in breaking cycles of abuse which trace their roots back to the originary American trauma of slavery and white supremacy, whose shadows loom large as ever. This response manifests in a turning inward, coupled with a denial of whatever moral or cultural authority we might want to place on Kendrick’s shoulders. “I can’t please everybody” he repeats on “Crown,” though it’s unclear whether he’s’ trying to convince us or himself.  On “Savior,” he goes head-on against the idea of celebrity worship, saying: “Kendrick made you think about it, but he is not your savior. Cole made you feel empowered, but he is not your savior. Future said get a money counter, but he is not your savior. ‘Bron made you give his flowers, but he is not your savior.” On “Mirror,” the album’s closer, he sings: “I chose me, I’m sorry,” leaving us to wonder how genuine the apology really is.

Kendrick’s impulse to step back and choose himself over us is understandable and necessary.  The burden of true saviorhood is by definition fatal, and despite the accolades and attention, nobody really thinks he’s the second coming of Christ. Still, he can’t resist complicating his refusal, wearing a crown of thorns on the album cover and hovering cruciform over the waves in the “N95” video, as if daring us to still view him in such a light.

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His self-centering also leads to the conflicted “Auntie Diaries,” in which Kendrick details his coming to accept two trans members of his family, an ostensibly positive song that stumbles over pronouns and deadnaming and ends in a meditation on equating homophobic and racial slurs, coming to a conclusion that feels fairly half-baked, and more about Kendrick’s own journey that those of his uncle or cousin.

Also troubling is the presence of Kodak Black, the Florida rapper accused of sexual assault, who was pardoned by Trump in 2021, and whose inclusion seems to be a test of how far listeners are willing to go along with Mr. Morale’s theme of breaking generational cycles of abuse through forgiveness and empathy. Black delivers a few decent verses, and does provide a glimpse of the traumas he faced growing up, but stops short of addressing his own failings in a way that feels satisfyingly redemptive, leading some to question whether Black’s inclusion is worth the platform Kendrick gives him.

Taken in the spirit of the project though, these controversial decisions are the point, serving as more examples of why Kendrick is not our savior, and why our attempts to venerate him as such are ultimately hypocritical and wrong. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is an exquisitely crafted litany of flaws, a beautiful thing about ugly things, a rejection of fame and fortune in the form of a highly anticipated commercial album that dares us to sit with it in all its paradoxical glory. At the end of the day, Kendrick has chosen himself, and it’s up to us to decide whether or not we will too.