Poor, poor Kendrick. It is strange to say this when listening to the new album of perhaps the most critically acclaimed rapper of his generation, but the main feeling upon listening to the start of Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers is one of sympathy towards him. Put mildly, this is not an artist who relishes the limelight. After releasing this, his first record after five years of near-silence, he promptly went off to Ghana, a good way to avoid the avalanche of media attention heaped on the record in the US.
On the album, he tells us he was so uninspired that he had writers’ block for two years. The subsequent sense of urgent release is evident in some of his delivery here: on the opening track, the words seem to burst out of him. (In this mood, he is most reminiscent of André 3000 on Frank Ocean’s “Solo (Reprise)”, where the similarly reclusive genius fires out a breathless and brilliant lament.)
Mr Morale and the Big Steppers sounds like it could easily be the final record in Kendrick Lamar’s discography: not because he has no more to say, but because it has the sense of completion, of being the last type of album he had not yet made. Broadly speaking, good kid, m.A.A.d city was Kendrick’s feature film; To Pimp a Butterfly was his manifesto; Untitled Unmastered was his jazz album; Damn was his pop album; and Mr Morale and the Big Steppers is his one-man stage play. It is a furiously internal piece of work, unconcerned with the huge hooks and even bigger guests that appeared on his earlier records. There is no Rihanna, Jay-Z or U2 here, and there are few songs that will be the soundtrack to summer barbecues. Instead, it is largely melancholic and gorgeously orchestral, with chords and drums reminiscent of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” and “15 Step”. But it is not lesser for this creative choice. Kendrick has given us a journey — his journey — through therapy, through grief and through some of the most damaging aspects of traditional masculinity. It is probably no coincidence that Ghostface Killah, whose lyrics are famed for their vulnerability, is a prominent feature here.
This journey may be an alienating listen for many people. Kendrick is brutally honest in his assessment of his own flaws and those of others like him, to whom this record is presumably directed. For the most part, it is a cathartic illustration of the need for men to be better, yet if there is a major controversy here it is in Kendrick’s decision to feature Kodak Black, who only last year pleaded guilty to the assault and battery of a woman in 2016. Perhaps Kendrick’s intention here is to hold himself accountable for the company he keeps. On “Savior”, a track where he tells listeners not to ask too much of artists, he says, “like it when they pro-black, but I’m more Kodak Black”. It is an ugly and uncomfortable moment; the listener can take it or leave it, but one thing they cannot do by the end of this is revere Kendrick as some sort of deity, floating above the affairs of mere humans. “I can’t please everybody,” he chants over and over again. “I can’t please everybody.” While Stormzy sang “heavy is the head that wears the crown”, he sounded like someone who was still ultimately happy to wear that crown for a long time. Kendrick sounds as if he is almost desperate to remove it.
Mr Morale and the Big Steppers is a contradictory yet still somehow coherent record. It is Kendrick at his best but also his worst. While the presence of Kodak Black will rightly invite much criticism, the album’s standout track is remarkable. That standout is “Auntie Diaries”, where Kendrick begins “my auntie is a man now”, and then delivers a loving soliloquy to two of his trans relatives. It may well emerge as one of the most moving and important songs that his genre has produced. Coming as it does towards the end of this work, it feels like a marker of the mature soul that he seeks to become, the bristling misogyny that he sometimes clumsily navigates on earlier songs having fallen away. “I chose me, I’m sorry,” says Kendrick on “Mirror”, the album’s closing track, apologizing for his apparent decision to step away from music. If he did step away, this would be the perfect time; he has his money, he has his awards, but most of all he has his family. Kendrick has helped countless people to heal during his passage through fame and into legend, but most importantly, he sounds as if he has gone no small way to healing himself.