New York Magazine
How Do You Really Feel?
Kendrick Lamar takes us to therapy.
kendrick lamar is in a tight spot. People want the guy who wrote “Alright” and “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” and “The Blacker the Berry” to come back and tell us we have what it takes to survive the conflicts of our time, to save the soul of a divided nation. But he wants to be a better partner and father and son and nephew and cousin— a more present person in the relationships that matter most to him. He wants to unpack generational trauma and unlearn toxic thought patterns. The Gospel of Matthew says no man can serve two masters; K. Dot peaced on us, got himself a therapist, and came back to share what he learned, redraw some boundaries, and refuse the titles of Voice of a Generation and Best Rapper Alive.
His new album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, delivers this news with an air of apology. He knows it’s not the message people want; he feels it is the one they need. Mr. Morale is an album of provocations and denunciations and affirmations and realizations, a dramatization of the upheaval that comes before reconciliation and healing. It is forcing uncomfortable conversations. It is rebuffing hero worship. It is ditching narrative cohesion for messy sprawl, gesturing to pop but insisting on lethargic tempos. Mr. Morale is a perfectionist’s swan dive into his imperfections.
“The cat is out the bag,” Lamar raps in “Savior,” “I am not your savior.” These songs come with a light sprinkling of teachings from Eckhart Tolle and heavy helpings of spirituality and psychoanalysis. Kendrick doesn’t want to be seen as a leader, but he is aware that there are people who take it to heart when he speaks. He wants us to know he’s human and fallible. He also wants to map out the hundred ways we’re fucking up.
One single denounces materialism, while in other songs he catalogues jewelry he has never worn.
“Father Time”—home to a soul-crushing chorus from
Sampha—is a song about the perils of drinking that
will also make a killer drinking anthem. The Tolle stuff and the faint moral skepticism sit weirdly with the Christianity, but that’s nothing new for fans of Lamar, whose previous album, DAMN., floated Black Hebrew Israelite ideas the Church does not approve of. Multiple guest spots from Kodak Black—the talented South Florida rapper whose legal woes include pleading guilty to a lesser offense after a 2016 sexual-assault allegation and who has spent time at Mar-a-Lago—don’t square with the songs for women or the calls for men to end cycles of abuse.
Mr. Morale is a double album with three distinct threads braided into the 18-song track list. “We Cry Together,” opener “United in Grief,” and “Worldwide Steppers” lean into storytelling and wordplay over productions that reward the tricks Lamar pulls, like the elaborate set pieces throughout the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games. “Father Time,” “Crown,” “Mother I Sober,” “Rich (Interlude),” and “Savior (Interlude)” luxuriate in orchestral flourishes and cascading piano notes. Then there are songs that might fly on the radio, bubbly R&B cuts such as “Die Hard,” “Count Me Out,” “Savior,” and closer “Mirror,” as well as trap bangers “N95” and “Silent Hill.” Mr. Morale covers a lot of scenes and swats a lot of wasps’ nests. Like Tolle, Kendrick treats bluntness and transgression like tools: When you’re mad at him, it is because he wants to shake you out of the popular thinking. When Dot says life failed R. Kelly, then muses about Oprah being abused in “Mr. Morale,” he’s speaking, however crassly, to the myriad manifestations of childhood trauma. The nasty couple’s argument with Zola star Taylour Paige in “We Cry Together” is actually a reminder to “stop dancing around the conversation,” as Kendrick’s fiancée, Whitney Alford, says at the end of the song.
Kendrick thinks political correctness is stifling hip-hop and rappers don’t speak their minds the way they used to for fear of social-media backlash. It comes up in “Worldwide Steppers”—“The media’s the new religion, you killed the consciousness / Your jealousy is way too pretentious, you killed accomplishments / Niggas killed freedom of speech, everyone sensitive/If your opinion fuck around and leak, might as well send your will.” In “N95,” he prefers moral grays to absolutes: “I’m done with the sensitive, taking it personal/Done with the black and the white, the wrong and the right.”
There’s a kernel of truth in what Kendrick is saying about contentious internet debates, but it’s hard to see why a man this criticproof would be even a bit pressed. The early reaction to “Auntie Diaries”—which traces Lamar’s evolution as a queer ally and employs pointed deadnaming and repeats slurs he later condemns—has been largely, sometimes combatively, supportive. (This is one where Kendrick’s knack for letting his characters speak for themselves would’ve come in handy. The song is one of the strongest LGBTQ-rights endorsements to appear on a cishet mainstream rap album— and it uses more gay slurs than an Eminem song.) If Mr. Morale wants to drop a lyric about giving women a break and then pass the mic to a person convicted of assault and battery, as it does between “Father Time” and “Rich (Interlude),” it’ll float. K. Dot always floats.
When it’s not trying to rattle the listener, Mr. Morale is a blast. “Count Me Out” and “Silent Hill” both prove Kendrick can nail the tuneful, cloistered excess Drake excels at. The loud “HUUU” in the latter song, like the giddy “Yeah, baby,” in “Purple Hearts,” eases tension with humor, as many of these songs do. “Father Time” takes a break from unpacking daddy issues and challenging toxic masculinity to admit to enjoying Drake and Ye’s beef. Paige—whose performance in the exhausting “We Cry Together” is as passionate and lacerating as anyone else’s here—claims the victory when she counters Kendrick’s snarky “Still beat tho” posturing with a concise “I should’ve found a bigger dick.”
Kendrick’s a lot like an early-’90s rapper: daring, intimidatingly smart, deeply into the woo-woo shit. It makes sense that he’s interested in Eckhart Tolle, who teaches that the mind is to blame for most of our worst problems. It figures he’d be interested in Kyrie Irving and controversial herbalist Dr. Sebi, pillars for a certain type of guy, the kind who is so suspicious of moral mandates and ideological consensuses he might take the weird side of an argument to be unique. This album surrounds its lighthearted tracks with the headiest shit imaginable. “Purple Hearts,” a powwow with Atlanta vocalist and organic-food enthusiast Summer Walker and Wu-Tang mystic Ghostface Killah, chases the taxing “We Cry Together” with big hooks and ephemeral production that feels like someone ran a radio hit through YouTube’s 0.5x-speed setting. The time jumps between stories of family gatherings and church services and schoolyard arguments happening in “Auntie Diaries” are both poignant and disconnected, like bad memories resurfacing out of order. The same is true of “Mother I Sober,” which jumps around generations to map out traumas.
Whatever your problem is, Mr. Morale wants you to talk it through. It doesn’t care what conclusions you arrive at as long as you are dealing with the past and living in the now. This is not the sentiment we expected from the Butterfly guy two years after the country nearly cracked open in the wake of protests met with police brutality. But if detaching and dislodging from the old methods—leaving obvious hits and his longtime label, Top Dawg Entertainment, and reassuring politics behind—is what this man’s version of freedom looks like, good for him. It beats the repetition and diminishing returns plaguing other rappers a decade into their major-label tenures. Mr. Morale might have been a chiller experience if dude had gotten into psychedelics and Alan Watts rather than teetotaling and Tolle. He didn’t have to knock as much shit over as he did.