Kendrick Lamar Delivers Game-Changing Vulnerability on 'Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers'

Kendrick Lamar Delivers Game-Changing Vulnerability on 'Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers'
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When Kendrick Lamar, one of this generation's most influential artists, dropped future Pulitzer Prize history-maker DAMN. some 1,800 days ago, the world was a much different place. We've since lived through the worldwide reaction to the murder of George Floyd, a pandemic and a barrage of other issues that have fractured society in numerous ways. On his (very) long-awaited double-disc follow-up album, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, Lamar immerses listeners in the reasoning behind his deafening silence: he was dealing with stuff, just like the rest of us.

This isn't a progressive rock album (as some theorized), an overly experimental affair or a direct followup to any of his past works. Instead, with a vast cast of guests and producers including, among others, his cousin Baby Keem, the Alchemist, Cardo, longtime collaborator Sounwave and Lamar himself (under his Oklama moniker), he crafts a jazz-heavy opus that stands as his most profoundly personal to date, touching on issues of Blackness, trauma, celebrity, infidelity, grief, gender politics and spirituality (in particular, the philosophies of German spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, whose audio serves a narration role throughout the album).

Therapy acts as the album's crux, with each song almost sounding as though it came straight from the logbooks of in-depth sessions, complete with breakthroughs that sound convincingly cathartic for K.Dot himself with just as much emotional payoff for listeners. On early track "Father Time," featuring Sampha, Lamar works through his daddy issues, which he credits for his callous and immature behaviour in relationships. Later, he shows us the effect in the Alchemist-produced "We Cry Together," a duet between Lamar and actress Taylour Paige that finds them hurling insults at each other for nearly six minutes. This harkens back to a point made on "The Heart Part 5," released days before Mr. Morale, where he expresses that "hurt people hurt more people."

Throughout Mr. Morale, Lamar explores how such hurt goes unresolved and how these cycles of trauma perpetuate. In album opener "United in Grief," he explains how he pacified the compacted trauma of fame with frivolous spending as he attempted to fill his emotional emptiness ("Poverty was the case / But the money wipin' the tears away"). In the opening of the Baby Keem-helmed "Savior (Interlude)," Tolle exclaims, "If you derive your sense of identity from being a victim, you develop a sense of self that is based on the bad things that happened to you." The album's most endearing height is watching Lamar overcome this mindset that he inherited throughout his lifetime.

No moment along these lines is as poignant as the dramatic "Mother I Sober," where Lamar, alongside Portishead's Beth Gibbons, details his mother's sexual abuse and her subsequent suspicions that he was being abused, which he says passed some of that trauma down. He discusses the "lust addiction" (coined as such on "Worldwide Steppers") that led to his admitted extramarital indiscretions. The song ends with him, flanked by his wife and children, letting all the hurt go, breaking a once-unspoken cycle that affects many within the Black community and beyond.

While using his platform to advocate for the often taboo-in-hip-hop topic of mental health — during Mental Health Awareness Month, no less — Lamar takes special care to deconstruct the idea that he is a saviour. It makes the crown of thorns iconography on the project's cover feel intentionally ironic. Instead, the album strategically positions him as flawed, like when he fails to see the bigger picture in a Drake and Kanye reconciliation on "Father Time" or his coming to terms with the treatment of his transgender family members on "Auntie Diaries," where he expresses his growth in understanding the inappropriateness of the "f—" slur (though after uttering it 10 times in the track).

While delivering an open book into his personal life, the album positions such vulnerability in the context of cancel culture and the perceived death of free speech in the entertainment industry: fodder for both the legions of stans feverishly searching for Easter eggs and those looking to take him down. (As he says on the charmingly fun "N95," "Say what I want about you niggas, I'm like Oprah, dawg.") He also brings up the infuriating nature of 'fake wokeness,' best articulated later on "Savior" as he laments on those who hold their tongues and those who make decisions based on what they perceive as the "right side of history," as he elegantly puts it. "Independent thought is like an eternal enemy, capitalists posing as compassionates be offending me," he raps. He further offers that his jarring experiences on both sides of the proverbial fence provide insight into why he's been "protecting my soul in the valley of silence."

While K.Dot is lyrically sharp and the production sounds great, nothing here feels like a clear-cut hit. Though some individual tracks like "N95" or the Blxst- and Amanda Reifer-featuring "Die Hard" are solid standalone experiences, the songs' lengthy, shifting structures make the bulk of it oddly unclassifiable. For those who don't connect to some of the heavier themes, moments here may be unnecessarily uncomfortable.

But as he says himself on "Crown," "You can't please everybody."

It's impossible to think other creatives on similar planes of cultural significance aren't the slightest bit envious of Lamar's ability to unplug so wholeheartedly. It is incredible that, with a voice as powerful as his, with a platform as large as his, he could father a second child without causing any commotion. Getting this type of content from someone so guarded makes Mr. Morale more powerful and brave, especially given some of the topics he breaches. Kendrick Lamar lets it all out, and even if it's the last time we hear from him in this form (it's been long positioned as his final album for Top Dawg Entertainment, his label for nearly two decades), he's metaphorically put his whole heart on the table, with yet another body of work worthy of multiple spins and endless dissection. (pgLang/Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)