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Kendrick Lamar reveals his imperfections on Mr. Morale And The Big Steppers

The rapper’s fifth studio album shares controversial sentiments that will divide public opinion, but Kendrick sounds more relatable than ever before

“Please never let a major label tell you what to do!” I implored Kendrick Lamar during an intimate event promoting 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city. In attendance at Rough Trade East that evening was Kendrick, his engineer (Derek Ali), and a bunch of twenty-something Londoners who knew all the words to “Cartoons and Cereal”.

We were among the first people to experience the intoxicating euphoria of the words “Ya Bish” in a live setting. But everyone there also felt protective of Kendrick and most of the people in the queue said something caring to the artist when their turn came around.

“Never bro!” Kendrick eventually replied in a soft-spoken drawl, scribbling his signature onto my CD. “I’ll always do me.” As I walked away smiling, I heard a female fan loudly compare the Californian’s studio debut to Illmatic. Everyone in that room was high off the idea they had just shared air with an ascendent Rap God and – despite having no real right to do so – I think we treated the meeting like we were lovingly talking to a relative about their future on graduation day.

Ten years later and Kendrick’s fifth studio album, Mr. Morale And The Big Steppers, is driven by torching this God Complex (“The cat is out the bag, I am not the savior!” he proclaims with purpose) altogether, melting through the flesh to reveal the complicated sinner underneath. The combination of barely-there creeping bass, twitchy tribal drums, and off-kilter keys on opener “United In Grief” are deconstructed elements of a song, offering no obvious harmonic continuity. The music and rapper appear to unravel together. 

Here, Kendrick talks about doing therapy to deal with the roots of a toxic sex addiction. On “Worldwide Steppers”, he shares guilt for cheating with a “white bitch” on tour in Copenhagen, wondering how far the shame of his Black ancestors and long-term partner Whitney Allford might extend. 

The sprawling “Auntie Diaries” recalls flagrant adolescent use of a homophobic slur. It’s an ignorant mindset Kendrick says he finally outgrew after a transgender family member pointed out the contradiction: “Faggot, faggot, faggot, we can say it together / but only if you let a white girl say ni**a”. The song deserves credit for proving people can outgrow regressive views without being defined by retrospective shame. 

It’s a stunning open dialogue, but Kendrick also messily gets things off his chest at the expense of conventional song structure. The familiarity of trap drums is replaced with discordant synths, and it feels like you’re invading another person’s cognitive behavioral therapy session, which isn’t always an easy experience. Kendrick should be applauded for making the biggest major label rap album of the year feel like a distinctly un-mainstream event.

To understand why Kendrick Lamar would want to dismantle his own mythology, we must look backward. Studio debut Good kid mirrored 1993 film Menace II Society, with raw cinematic storytelling that humanised the have-nots (“We’re trying to conquer the city with disobedience” was their battle cry) and forced the white capitalists to experience the violent inner cities they’d greedily signed off on. With three-dimensional songs like “The Art Of Peer Pressure” and “Sing Of Me (I’m Dying of Thirst)”, Kendrick made the listener complicit in everything good and bad that occurred in Compton, California, achieving the tricky balance of being both the preacher and the mosh pit anarchist (“Backseat Freestyle”).

In the years that followed this landmark release, Kendrick rarely tired of pushing musical boundaries. He utilised the scattershot approach of experimental jazz to peel back the layers of the Black subconscious on the masterful To Pimp A Butterfly (2015) and untitled unmastered (2016), with lavishly funky songs that conflated the rush of sex with a hyperviolent, Nate Turner-style insurrection. 

This genre-blending music could be heavier than moonwalking in quicksand (“Mortal Man”, “u”), but it never forgot its responsibility to make the people dance (“King Kunta”), lighting the fires of the Black Lives Matter movement with a collective assurance that things would be alright in the end. By 2017, DAMN rubber-stamped the Kendrick Lamar brand among white, middle-class hipsters. It introduced the world to the Sage-like alter ego of Kung Fu Kenny, creating a clan of angry Fox News adversaries and winning a coveted Pulitzer Prize that solidified hip hop in the minds of European academics.

An unavoidable army of Kendrick-obsessed dissectors seemed to increase with each release. This resulted in feverish levels of expectation, with a vocal fandom insisting everything Kendrick rapped contained hidden, intricate messages that had something deep to say about the human condition. This context goes a long way to explaining the five-year-gap between Damn and Kendrick’s new double album, Mr. Morale And The Big Steppers, with the weight of expectation clearly becoming more and more of a burden for the artist, who tellingly raps here about battling writer’s block and the “struggle to be on the right side of history”. 

This new record also carries a sobering admission that Kendrick himself was the victim of sexual assault as a child. On the brutally exposed “Mother I Sober”, he talks about young Black men “burying their pain in chains and tattoos” to avoid facing up to victimhood. Guest vocalist, Beth Gibbons from Portishead, sounds like she’s slumped over a piano, begging for salvation: “I wish I was somebody… anybody but myself.”

However, not all of the self-moralising lands. ”I think about Robert Kelly / if he weren’t molested, I wonder if life’ll fail him” Kendrick says sympathetically of the imprisoned R&B pedophile and abuser, R.Kelly, on “Mr. Morale”. The suggestion that male abuse victims naturally become abusers themselves, something critics have largely dismissed as a myth, is a limited point of view that fails to reckon with the plight of Kelly’s female victims, reducing them to mere statistics. 

The breezy, smoked out “Silent Hill” provides a welcome tonic to this heaviness, as Kendrick jokes about pushing all the snakes away like “urghhhhhh”. But hearing him share the stage with Kodak Black once again leaves a bad taste. “I’m in the studio with K Dot, fresh out of the Feds,” Black unapologetically boasts in a cartoonish, impish flow. Although he’s referring to leaving prison on a federal weapons charge, it’s difficult not to think of the rape case where a plea deal saw Kodak convicted on the lesser charge of first-degree assault and battery. Of this incident with a young teenage fan, Kodak’s lawyer once depressingly justified: “Kodak had romantic ideas on his mind. She did not. So, he ended up trying to have a romantic encounter with her and bit her as part of that and injured her.” 

Just like Kanye West throwing alleged abuser Marilyn Manson on a song about the brittleness of cancel culture (“Jail”), Kendrick is trying to start a dialogue about the need for forgiveness (he has previously defended the expression of another alleged abuser, the late generational talent XXXTentacion) and redemption. But I also wonder what Kodak’s young female victim will feel about her male abuser being elevated to three guest spots on the biggest rap album of the year? Kendrick’s shrug of the shoulder, “I can’t please everybody” style defense, ultimately feels like a cop-out, and it will be interesting to see whether critics are prepared to give him the pass they refused to give the similarly free-thinking, but flawed Donda

This is an imperfect record about the risks of putting your faith in false idols, carefully crafted by a generational great no longer concerned with being worshipped as a Saintly role model (“Sorry, I didn’t save the world, my friend / I was busy building mine again” are lines that speak volumes). It is someone experiencing a comedown from fame in real-time, and the first Kendrick Lamar album in a while that doesn’t feel like an instant classic. 

Yet by reveling in his imperfections, and sharing controversial sentiments that will divide public opinion, Kendrick sounds more relatable than ever before. Making mistakes is crucial to personal growth, and Kendrick no longer sounds afraid of the ramifications of making them, whether that means facing down consequences of a personal or musical nature. Being seen as a God means nothing if you can’t stomach the reflection of the man in the mirror or breakthrough “generational curses”, and by excavating his deepest, darkest secrets and regrets, Kendrick knows that the process of healing can finally begin.

Mr. Morale And The Big Steppers is out now