Photo Credit: Renell Medrano
“I cannot get over the most popular and influential artist in modern music displaying a working nervous system, admitting mistakes, trying to process intergenerational trauma and prejudice,” said Lorde of Kendrick Lamar’s new album. It’s perhaps the most succinct encapsulation written yet of the highly anticipated fifth album by one of the greatest rappers of all time. Ever since the release of Good Kid, M.A.A.D City a decade ago, Lamar has wrestled with being an uneasy generational spokesperson – one both brutally aware of the weight his words carry and the limitations of his position. On Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers – his first album since 2017’s DAMN. – Lamar turns his focus inwards; examining dueling traumas – both that of growing up a Black child in a systemically racist country and that of being a restless superstar with world-conquering ambitions.
Lamar still has a political message to spread on MM&TBS, but it’s no longer the central focus – which is for the best, considering that Lamar’s political messages here (skewering the “fake woke” and cancel culture, primarily), for the first time in his career, tend to feel a little stale. It’s not that what he has to say is wrong, so much as that it’s nothing that you haven’t read in countless viral tweets.
Thankfully, however, when Lamar turns his focus inwards he excels; cementing his status as a rapper unrivaled. On the Florence & The Machine-sampling “We Cry Together”, Lamar – with the assistance of Taylour Paige – turns a five-minute argument into a stirring piece of music. As the song progresses, the argument intensifies, with Paige invoking R. Kelly and Harvey Weinstein, while Lamar makes sweeping generalizations about women. In the final minute, the song becomes graphic in an entirely new way – as Lamar and Paige’s characters find solace in sex. “We Cry Together” is a gripping, and utterly unnerving, portrait of marital dysfunction that exemplifies Lamar’s unique boundary-pushing tendencies.
Things become yet more introspective on Side B of Lamar’s new double album. “Auntie Diaries” – perhaps the album’s most talked-about song – sees Lamar meditate on a family member being transgender while confronting the casual homophobia that he grew up around and once perpetuated. The song’s ambitions are admirable, and it cannot but overstated how seismic an occurrence it is for a rapper of Lamar’s caliber to release an explicitly pro-trans anthem. However, the song’s delivery of its core message is muddled, to say the least. Across five minutes, Lamar uses the f-slur multiple times – an attempted commentary on how casually that word is thrown around by many. Some may dismiss concerns from the LGBTQ+ community about Lamar’s use of the word as woke-posturing in the face of a broadly supportive song, but the truth is that Lamar’s use of that word – a word that for many an LGBTQ+ person has been the last thing they heard before meeting a violent end – will undoubtedly be used by many straight fans as a justification for their own use of the said slur.
However, without wanting to defend Lamar’s use of the f-slur, the Compton-born rapper does at least seem aware of the inherent contradictions that lay at the core of “Auntie Diaries.” “To understand love, switch position,” Lamar raps in the final verse before considering how his own use of the f-slur compares to the use of the n-word by a white fan who he famously reprimanded on stage.
The messiness of Lamar’s self-examination – while leading to awkward moments like those on “Auntie Diaries” – more often than not leads to compelling, staggeringly honest moments. On the centerpiece of the album’s second half – “Mother I Sober”, featuring Beth Gibbons of Portishead – Lamar tackles sobriety, self-hatred, sexual assault, and cyclical trauma. In the past, it’s been possible to hide from the brutal truths of Lamar’s music in the music’s fantastic beats, arrangements, and Lamar’s speed-of-light delivery – which makes it easy to miss what he’s saying on casual listens. No such thing is possible here, with Lamar guided by little more than one repeating piano note. With Lamar sounding utterly alone at the microphone, there’s suddenly nowhere to hide and so instead of hiding, Lamar chooses to fight – battling his inner demons with disarming openness. “I bare my soul, and now we’re free.”