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Kendrick Lamar albums are a little like Star Trek movies. Or maybe they’re like the movies made by high-profile Hollywood directors who sign on to do a big-budget blockbuster so the studios will greenlight their passion project. You know: One for them, one for me. Ever since releasing his first official album, Section.80, in 2011, Kendrick has always seemed to espouse this pattern. Good Kid, Maad City and DAMN. were very much “for them.”
Yes, they bore all the hallmarks of a K. Dot album – dense, thematically complex lyricism and potent, personal storytelling – but sonically they were rigid, with almost workmanlike structure, giving plenty of mainstream-friendly bops and radio hits to go along with the headier elements; the proverbial spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. Likewise, Section.80 and To Pimp A Butterfly were much more personal reflections, sprawling and musically adventurous.
In that spirit, his fifth and final album under the Top Dawg Entertainment banner very much follows the previously established pattern. It is very much for him. And yet, at the same time, because it’s a Kendrick Lamar album, it’s also very much for us – us, the listeners, us, the society, us, the culture. He’s got a lot on his mind – who doesn’t these days? – and he wrestles with these thoughts out loud, not just to wrangle some sense out of them for himself, but also perhaps to give us permission to do the same.
On Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, his overarching target appears to be “cancel culture.” You know, the pop culture pundit’s bogeyman du jour, the atmosphere of restrictive political correctness that makes it so you just can’t tell a joke anymore (or call people racial slurs or make sexist comments to or about women), dammit. He mentions it more than a few times, on songs such as “N95” and “Worldwide Steppers,” offering missives like, “N****s killed freedom of speech, everyone sensitive.” He also touches on hot-button topics like vaccines and their backlash on “Savior,” seeming to chastise both sides of the debate.
I once complained that it’s hard to pin down exactly what Kendrick’s position is on any given issue. He’s good at being vague. Anything he says can be taken as a metaphor or a projection. Maybe he’s speaking from someone else’s point of view. It’s always been his most frustrating habit – at least, for me – because you never really know what his politics are or what he wants you to take away from any given song, lyric, or project as a whole. Even more infuriating is that he does it on purpose (anyone who can write the way he does could easily make his points plain).
He does this here, as well, but this time there’s more going on beneath the surface. It feels like the sugar and the medicine are both in the lyrics. On projects like Good Kid and DAMN., Kendrick’s pop courting material would hide guidance or critique in radio-friendly production (see: “Swimming Pools” or “Humble”). But on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, Kendrick appears to nearly agree with woke-phobic listeners, using their favorite buzz terms to lull them and lower their defenses before feeding them the same messages that the social justice warriors would have them hear – only from a more empathetic perspective.
On “Auntie Diaries,” one of the most personal and revealing songs in a catalog stuffed nearly to bursting with them, Kendrick unpacks decades of ingrained homo- and transphobia. For years in hip-hop, the culture has struggled with its depictions and diction surrounding queer people. Kendrick’s fellow LA natives Tyler The Creator and Doja Cat were both censured earlier in their careers for letting a certain slur fly in their music or on social media, and both had a hard time articulating the dynamics behind their free use.
Kendrick, naturally, gets it right, expanding on how he thought as a child, constantly exposed to a stream of offensive jokes without having the context for their offense, even as he struggled to relate to an aunt and cousin coming out through the lens of his religious upbringing. It’s ambitious and thought-provoking; by showing the work, his face turn becomes genuine and earned. There are plenty of rappers in his peer group who could afford to do the same introspection.
Then, on “Mother I Sober,” he confronts one of the deepest, darkest open secrets of not just the rap world, but the larger Black culture it stems from. He admits and addresses sexual abuse – especially the kind that is most often committed, the kind by trusted family members against children too young to be aware that anything is even going on. He relates this to rappers, who he says bury “they pain in chains and tattoos,” whose cavalier, dismissive attitude toward sex, women, and yes, even their own misdeeds, can be directly connected to their own abuse.
This sympathy for the devil is highlighted by the extended presence of Kodak Black, someone to whom Kendrick is often contrasted by denizens of Rap Twitter, and who was convicted of sexual assault not too long ago. (It’s amusing to think that, with his official account lying dormant for months at a time, Kendrick is lurking the timeline with the rest of us, taking notes on exactly who to tap for a feature – or even secretly laying the groundwork for the impactful surprise appearances himself.) He seeks empathy for the troubled, younger rapper, even as he acknowledges the harm he’s caused. Maybe in doing so, he can open him up – along with the wider culture – to the possibility of redemption.
Again and again on the double album, Kendrick’s mission seems to be either to end the pervading sense of “cancel culture’s” harmful tendency to put its subjects on the defensive or to dismantle the very concept of “cancel culture” to begin with. It’s hard to be sure; after all, it is Kendrick Lamar. But what he’s doing here – baring his own faults and pointing to his own evolution as a means to demonstrate how true growth operates and should take place (out of the public spotlight, often with the help of a trained therapist) – is groundbreaking in hip-hop.
Sure, many artists have tackled the subjects of their own anxieties and insecurities, but rarely has that work been so closely tied to the zeitgeist. Kendrick can look both inward and externally and draw the connections between himself and his audience to offer the direction he sees as critical for the growth of the community – even if he denies his own role as a role model on “Savior” (along with peers like Drake and J. Cole). He never outright says “you should all do this,” but there’s the sense that he truly believes he can lead by example, even if he doesn’t always think anyone should follow him.
I’m not sure that this is an album I’ll run back a whole bunch. After all, with its quirky production – much of which performed by Kendrick himself under the name Oklama – it very much falls into K. Dot’s “one for me” category. But some of these poignant, powerful observations and self-reflections could well be conversation pieces decades from now as listeners recount how they shook them out of their complacency, changed their viewpoints, or gave them permission to accept their own flaws and begin the work of healing. With his final TDE album, Kendrick appears to have finally figured out how to make one for all of us.
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is out now via Top Dawg Entertainment, Aftermath, and Interscope Records. Get it here.