Kendrick Lamar has been the king of emotionally fraught storytelling for almost a decade now. Across his unmatched discography, the Compton rapper has masterfully fused diaristic tales of his upbringing with sharp social commentary. Five years after his Pulitzer-winning fourth studio album, DAMN., Lamar returns with Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, a sprawling and vulnerable project proving the rapper still has plenty of personal layers to reveal.
Instrumentals have never been a weakness for Lamar, but they’ve never been an obvious strength for him either, often overshadowed by his otherworldly lyrical abilities. While Lamar’s rapping is still the main attraction on Mr. Morale, his instrumentals provide nuanced emotional backdrops for his lyrics, which ties the project together in a stunning way. From the album’s first track, “United in Grief,” Lamar’s instrumental evolution is immediately obvious: The song begins with short, ominous piano chords that grow into a smooth, jazzy texture before immediately being replaced by a frenetic drum break. Later in the album, on “Auntie Diaries,” Lamar describes his path to accepting the gender identities of two transgender relatives with a powerful instrumental that grows from a glitchy, lo-fi beat to a glorious orchestral chord progression. Yet, Lamar’s message of personal growth is undercut by his repeated use of homophobic slurs and misgendering of his uncle and cousin. These charged lyrics have caused some serious contention amongst fans and raise the question of whether true allyship can result from such heavy-handed language.
What serves as Mr. Morale’s guiding star is Lamar’s forthright discussions of personal relationships and history of family trauma. The rapper has been remarkably private about his personal life since entering the public eye, making this in-depth exploration of romantic and familial hardships almost a novelty. We hear from Lamar’s fiancée and the mother of his two children, Whitney Alford, on the track “Father Time,” as she declares, “You really need some therapy,” to which Lamar defensively replies that he doesn’t “need no therapy, fuck you talkin’ about?” Across the album, he admits his infidelity towards Alford, tracing the roots of this behavior back to an unstable relationship with his father and subsequent indulgence in sex to cope. Lamar speaks through these moments with unabashed candor, revealing the therapy session-like narrative structure of Mr. Morale.
As the album nears its midpoint, Lamar begins to express vulnerabilities far deeper than his disconnect from modern pop culture. The song “We Cry Together” depicts a fiery domestic argument between Lamar and a woman, portrayed in the song by actress Taylour Paige. Above a dissonant piano line, the argument devolves into the woman blaming Lamar, and all men, for electing Donald Trump in 2016, and Lamar accusing all women of being fake feminists without real virtues. It’s a difficult listen due to the emotional weight behind the words of Paige and Lamar, but it’s also peak storytelling from Lamar, rivaling the powerful narrative of 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City.
Throughout the second half of the album, Lamar opens up even more: On the emotional ballad “Crown,” Lamar repeats the line “I can’t please everybody,” referring both to his legion of fans and his personal relationships. He also expresses dismay towards his own status as a king of hip hop (“Heavy is the head that chose to wear the crown”), sharply contrasting Lamar’s use of regal imagery to describe himself on past songs like “Compton,” “i” and “DNA.” On the album’s penultimate track, “Mother I Sober,” Lamar joins forces with Portishead’s Beth Gibbons and finally lets it all out as he discusses his experiences with sexual assault in his family, substance abuse and generational trauma dating back to slavery. While Mr. Morale is a bit scattered conceptually leading up to this point, “Mother I Sober” ties everything together as Lamar reveals unambiguously what Mr. Morale is all about: himself.
As “Mother I Sober” bleeds into the final track, “Mirror,” the listener is met with the voice of Kodak Black. After close to seven minutes of emotionally charged testimony on the generational harm of sexual violence, it’s almost unsettling to hear Black’s voice declare, “I choose me.” The Florida rapper has a history of sexual abuse allegations, the most high-profile of these accusations coming in 2016, when a high school student confided in her school nurse that Black raped her in a hotel room after a performance. Given the deep-rooted trauma that sexual violence has caused in Lamar’s own family, it’s difficult to reckon with Black’s feature throughout the project.
Quandaries like this prove to be confusing but not altogether out of place given Mr. Morale’s overarching theme of ambivalent virtues. The track “Savior” distills this contradiction best, as Lamar states on its opening lines, “Kendrick made you think about it, but he is not your savior.” Lamar wants to distance himself from the moral pedestal he’s been placed on as one of our generation’s greatest rappers. The album, in many ways, serves as a chronology of his faults and vices, making it futile to peg Lamar as a poster child for perfect ethics. Mr. Morale may have its moments of inconsistency, but Lamar intentionally harnesses these incongruities to form a deeply profound confessional piece of art.