I’ve never owned a diamond, won a Pulitzer or checked into a hotel that didn’t lose a star by the night I checked out. I don’t know what it’s like to sweep an awards show, blazing a trail hotter than a red carpet. I have never boosted a TV, jammed it in the trunk of a car and fled a copper siren. My bank balance remains decidedly off balance. I’ve never seen a jail, nor written about an inmate. When a new friend appears, I have never questioned their intentions while Hennessy is passed between hands like a chalice. My family is small. No-one hangs on my word. But Kendrick Lamar makes me feel like they do, that in an essentially humdrum, comfortable, white existence, I am another person in extraordinary circumstances.
Few musicians have this gift. Moreover, even fewer can build manifestos on the state of capitalism, religion, race, commodities and institutionalised carnage without losing a sense of taste or touch. Kendrick’s poetic abilities – his choice cuts of what to say about what happened where – are matched by a furious lens on the system we all participate in. Wherever you’re coming from, he can touch you. That’s why he’s rocketed beyond rap to become The Guy Everyone Should Try: you might love him, and you might feel something else that pierces your head forever, a note of outrage strapped to a homing missile.
Yet it’s been five years since DAMN, and as much as Lamar can challenge perspectives with wit, grace and provocation, we are not the only ones changing. He has changed too. The uncertain, embattled prophet of his last album is gone. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers sheds the weight of performing like the pope when he goes out to buy slippers. If Section.80 and Good Kid, M.A.A.D City told the story of an ambitious young adult firing his words into space from a bitter wasteland, and To Pimp A Butterfly wrestled with the cash register opening on every utterance, this record is about Kendrick the man. For better and worse, it draws a curtain around him and the listener, explaining why we might want to leave him the hell alone.
Like Butterfly, the project is grandiose. The effect, however, is more cumulative and brooding. The album gargles simple piano melodies and ratty, filthy bass notes; a tap motif clacks through the track list, announcing when Kendrick is about to get mad or avoid a problem. “Stop tap dancing around the conversation!” yells Taylour Paige on ‘We Cry Together,’ one of the most uncomfortable, astonishing songs you’ll hear all year. Wonky minor-key jazz plunges us into a spat between two partners, their rhymes half meeting each other or slinking towards denouement; the chorus ( “Fuck you!” “Nah, fuck you!”) is hilarious out of context, but in the nuclear arms race of the domestic scene, spits and jags like a viper. An epic Florence & The Machine sample dissolves into ugliness. Kendrick accuses Taylour’s character of fake feminism, a performative sin, while she just about blows her larynx linking his toxic superiority to Harvey Weinstein. Shades of ‘u’ crawl over their lacerations. She gets the deepest, longest digs in before they have sex, a highpoint of disc one’s (The Big Steppers’) gaze into the darkest consequences of masculine fame.
What is a Big Stepper? Slang for a gangbanger who isn’t shy about violence. Or perhaps it means stepping beyond your wildest dreams, following the bulletin of competition at all costs. Another first-disc standout is ‘Worldwide Steppers’ in which everyone’s a killer. The beat sucks and whuffs like brain fever as Kendrick raps about the dismal results of good intentions. “Compton handed out eulogies,” he notes, thinking back to passing out food at TDE’s Christmas Toy Drive. “Not because the rags in the park had red gradient / But because the high blood pressure flooded the catering.” God is speaking through him but he’s texting so many women his thumbs hurt. We encounter a serious beef: the media begging us to indulge bad behaviour, to hide behind Photoshop, airbrushing our real selves from our eyes. As with the preceding track, ‘N95’, “This ain’t monogamy / We all getting fucked.” Infidelity is an expression of the adultery we commit against our true lives in the 21st century, so subtly we hardly notice.
It’s a fine balustrade for an album, but not a double album, and Kendrick knows it. Much of Mr. Morale is a game we’re invited to play: How much of this is real? He tests credulity with statements pressing the push pins of cancel culture, fake wokeness and the speed at which alleged abusers are torn down from their careers. On the title song, he contrasts a pair of black celebrities at opposite ends of America’s moral scale, R. Kelly and Oprah Whinfrey, asking whether the first could’ve been a better man if he hadn’t been abused as a boy, or if the latter feels at peace with “the way that she postered the hurt a woman carries.” Plenty of you will bristle at the comparison – ditto the cries to put down your phone because you aren’t real enough; has Lamar been living in the valley of silence for so long (away from social media and the mic) that he’s embodying a truth we don’t dare achieve?
Okay. It’s weird, judging us while pleading for understanding. And clearly Kendrick is sympathetic to unsavoury artists – Kodak Black’s presence on several songs evidences a belief in slapping a wrist instead of cuffing it. Remember, this is the rapper who lamented of Michael Jackson, “That n**** gave us ‘Billie Jean’, you think he touched those kids?” on 2015’s ‘Mortal Man.’ No, you don’t have to forgive abusers for their art. Yes, some people are beyond redemption. Instagram and Twitter might be cesspools half the time, yet they’re also restorative waters. Without them, #MeToo wouldn’t have gained momentum, and female suffering (a crime that Kendrick is at pains to address) would lie under more covers.
So by all means, quibble with the messages on the surface, but the thing is, I think we’re meant to look beneath them at the guilt and terrors that make a man deflect. The record’s entire conceit is therapy: the flinty stare at your dad, uncles, assaults, words you can’t take back, reactions you’d rather bury, and whether you’re confronting anyone but yourself. ‘Father Time’ flashes through “a generation of home invasions,” mixing in fuzz like we’re wearing out a tape. His father told him to step up to anyone who gave him crap, but Kendrick is thankful because he learned to do the very opposite. It just took a while. Kanye and Drake’s reconciliation shocked him; aren’t men supposed to be antagonistic if they feel trod upon? He’s still had growing up to do. A female voice twists and cries, the inarticulate sound of women who are buried beneath macho feuds.
Mr. Morale frequently saves tender looks for the marginalised victims of what is already an ungodly amount of abuse inflicted on black men. Pain leads to pain from people who know – really know – degradation down the family tree. Kendrick’s knuckle-ready rage at iphones and witch hunts may hold more than a grain of honesty, but he’s also saying that his urge to fight is deeply ingrained. He’s been raised this way. Hundreds of millions of us are. If you haven’t, don’t be swift to condemn. The album is so concerned with betrayed women because it sees them as the losers either way.
We can go around and around this topic until it resembles a spinning black vinyl, so let me turn back to the music. I fear that’s getting lost. But we can leap from an Issue if you like, such as the revelation that Kendrick fucked a white girl on the M.A.A.D City tour – a girl whose sheriff father happened to have locked up his Uncle Perry years ago. As ancestors watch approvingly, we hear distant bangs: are they judgement, or someone trying to pound Kendrick awake?
‘Purple Hearts’ almost has a harp that flutters and kisses the beat. When Ghostface Killah enters on the third verse, strings beam and clarify like light on a priest’s pulpit. The drums sit on the bench, narrowing our attention. In a sense, we’re back to the Good Kid days: heavy topics made seductive. The track reminds us of something else too – that Lamar is a half-good singer. He’s always had one of the more melodious throats in rap, but Mr. Morale confirms that his dexterity isn’t confined to speed and character acting. Whether it’s on ‘Crown’ (wise and silky) or the dismissive “huh”s of ‘Silent Hill’, it’s a pleasure to find harmonies that haven’t been waterboarded with auto-tune.
The album’s careful sandwich of hate and love, theatricality and simplicity, stacks highest in a pair of late songs that pull the same trick. The first, ‘Auntie Diaries’, stands toe to toe with anything in Kendrick’s catalogue. It has patience, a canny hook and a beautiful affirmation of personal liberty. “My auntie is a man now,” he ponders. “They walk the corner like a California king / Cold hand all up her skirt, cars whistling down the road.” Another uncle here: the man who introduced Kendrick to writing rap instead of learning it. She, now a he, lives their reality until the family accepts it. But does Kendrick’s cousin Demetrius get that respect too? He’s become a woman. No, Kendrick says, she doesn’t. The instrumental froths from a groundswell of emotion, perfectly underplayed by the close-to-your-ear delivery. Violins pick up. You could be listening to Moby in 2003.
And then, Kendrick confronts Demetrius’/Marianne’s preacher: “The laws of the land or the heart, what’s greater?” His voice inflates with conviction. The music joins him. We are there, right there, maybe in the early afternoon on the church steps, staring at a fraught parson. Marianne will be loved. No-one can stop this. The family is healed, yet with a last dark sting, we get a reference to the infamous Becky incident, suggesting that slurs may overpower one another or carry no weight at all.
The second, ‘Mother I Sober’, gets a lot of emotional mileage from Portishead’s Beth Gibbons – surely his most left-field collaborator since U2. Like ‘Auntie Diaries’, we are threaded along a wire, a persistent piano, a mind ticking over towards revelation. Pizzicato strings mount at Kendrick’s breakthrough: he saw his mother abused many times as a boy. He couldn’t pick up a gun to save her. And when a family member is accused of touching him, he says they didn’t, and is disbelieved. The wound pours. We are encouraged to drink it up, to assess our complexities without an easy answer, and if that’s going to keep Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers from classic status, well, maybe that’s what a project black and blue from contention deserves.