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FEET OF CLAY AND “TAPDANCING AROUND THE CONVERSATION”: KENDRICK LAMAR’S BREAKTHROUGHS

The breadcrumbs Kendrick Lamar spreads throughout his albums as clues to future releases are famous among his fans. Characters and concepts pop up only to be expanded upon years later. The latest of these harks back to the closing track of 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, entitled “Mortal Man.” His new album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, reveals the superheroic MC to be a very mortal man indeed—flawed, with feet of clay, anxious to step down from the cross of a messiah complex unfairly foisted upon him.

A sonic consistency to Kendrick’s first album in five years comes through piano and occasional hardwood shuffling (the titular big stepping), which often serve as transitions between songs. Rumors of a rock-laced album proved false. Instead, we’re served kinetic production by collaborators like Pharrell (“Mr. Morale”), the Alchemist (“We Cry Together”), Beach Noise (producer of five tracks), Sounwave (who guided the majority of the double album) and more of his recording studio’s usual suspects. What Kendrick lays over their sounds constitutes a concept album concerned with generational trauma, therapeutic catharsis, grief and the evils of ego.

It’s as highbrow as we’ve come to expect from the Compton rapper, whose last studio album, DAMN., won the Pulitzer Prize for Music. His latest effort comes as multilayered as an August Wilson play. Occasional narration by longtime fiancée Whitney Alford and spiritualist Eckhart Tolle lends an almost theatrical air to the proceedings. The main takeaways here: Kendrick’s spent his time away from the spotlight in therapy (and, for two years, battling writer’s block); Kendrick is nobody’s savior, nor is he interested in the role; and Kendrick has traded the Hebrew Israelite flirtations of DAMN. for a far wider new spirituality.

“Hurt people hurt more people,” the 34-year-old MC mentioned on his preview single, “The Heart Part 5” (not included on Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers). Damaged psyches abound on Mr. Morale, including Kendrick’s own. His mother’s childhood sexual abuse surfaces on “Mother I Sober,” the emotional centerpiece of the album, featuring Portishead’s Beth Gibbons on a mournful chorus (“I wish I was somebody/ Anybody but myself”). He reveals bouts of infidelity—involving, pointedly, white women—on “Worldwide Steppers,” a source of pain for Alford (who later intones, “Stop tapdancing around the conversation”). He critiques an upbringing under his dad’s toxic masculinity on “Father Time,” and peels back the transgenderism in his extended family on “Auntie Diaries.”

Kendrick’s been unpacking a lot on the couch lately. One could say he’s earned the navel-gazing self-care considering all the creative gifts he’s shared: the classic good kid, m.A.A.d city, the Pulitzer-winning DAMN., the Black Lives Matter anthem “Alright.” But where do you go from up? With his unimpeachable talent and high-quality run of concept albums, Kendrick Lamar has been immortalized in two biographies, taught in college courses and compared to icons like Bob Marley, Fela Kuti and Marvin Gaye. Comparisons to Gaye and Stevie Wonder caused D’Angelo and Lauryn Hill to disappear from the public eye for decades.

The deified rapper’s stop-the-world-I-wanna-get-off move involved a five-year sabbatical, during which he became father to a son (Enoch, whom he mentions twice) and daughter. “I can’t live in the Matrix,” he says on “Mirror.” Translation: He refuses to be our Neo. “Savior” lays things even plainer, mentioning himself with J. Cole, Future and LeBron James (who replaces Kanye West, according to the initial Apple Music lyrics) among people who don’t deserve the messiah treatment for opening the occasional fan’s third eye.

The burden of expectations to be this generation’s Marley or Fela would obviously weigh heavily on any artist. Tolle, in the Oprah Book Club pick A New Earth, describes the ego as the part of your mind that tries to control thinking and behavior—instead of allowing us to just be. Kendrick mentions ego several times (“ego must die,” “wipe my ego,” etc.) even as Tolle appears repeatedly with new-age pronouncements. Kendrick mentions fasting and “praying to trees” (Tolle books advise spending time in nature) and spent his first album release since 2017 on vacation in paradisiacal Accra, Ghana. It’s a long way from Compton.

Then there’s Kodak Black. On an album that makes room for Ghostface, Baby Keem, actress Taylour Paige and Summer Walker (the “It ain’t love if you ain’t never eat my ass” line on “Purple Hearts” is so Summer Walker), including embattled rapper Kodak Black can only be meant to serve two purposes; either Kendrick intends to spend cultural capital on public-perception redemption for Kodak (who’s been convicted of sexual assault) or his presence is proof of Kendrick’s own I’m-not-perfect decision-making. Regardless, Kodak performs spoken-word duty on “Rich (Interlude)” and raps on “Silent Hill.” Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers would’ve sounded all the better without him. His presence is like sullying A Love Supreme with an R. Kelly feature.

Alford introduces “Count Me Out”—the 10th song and the first on disc two if this were truly a vinyl album—as “session 10, breakthrough.” The entire record works as a series of therapy sessions, and that’s most certainly the point. Yes, Kendrick slides in commentary on COVID-19 (“N95” briefly recalls the De La Soul chestnut “Take It Off”), the Russo-Ukrainian war (“Vladimir making nightmares”), the Ye-Drake war (“When Kanye got back with Drake, I was slightly confused”), cancel culture and more. But Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers still ranks as Kendrick’s most personal album to date. Despite protestations about not being able to please everybody, his step back from the limelight results in an undisputed big step forward.

Miles Marshall Lewis is the author of Promise That You Will Sing About Me: The Power and Poetry of Kendrick Lamar. The veteran music journalist is a former editor at Ebony, Vibe, XXL and BET. His writing has appeared in (among many other places) GQ, The New York Times and NPR.

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