album review

How Does That Make You Feel, Kendrick?

Whatever your problem, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers wants you to talk it through.

Photo: Screenshot via YouTube
Photo: Screenshot via YouTube

This article was featured in One Great Story, New York’s reading recommendation newsletter. Sign up here to get it nightly.

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 compounding conflicts of our time, to save the soul of a divided nation. But he wants to be a better partner and son and nephew and cousin — a more present person in the relationships that matter the most to him. He wants to unpack generational trauma and unlearn toxic thought patterns. The Book 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, to redraw some boundaries, and to 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’s the one they need. Morale is an album of provocations and denunciations and affirmations and realizations, a clump of ideas that don’t necessarily complement one another, a dramatization of the expurgation and upheaval that come 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, and calling out commercialism from the comfort of wealth. Morale is a perfectionist’s swan dive into his imperfections.

The album’s cross-purposes are intriguing. “The cat is out the bag,” Lamar raps in “Savior,” “I am not your savior.” He’s leading by example, though, staging a loud vanishing act and inviting listeners to spend less time pocket watching and gossiping and more time getting in tune with their greater purpose. These songs come with a light sprinkling of teachings from Oprah-approved German self-help guru 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 just like us. He also wants to map out the hundred ways we’re fucking up. He thinks woke scolds are hurting discourse, but he has a single denouncing materialism, and in other songs, he catalogues jewelry he has never worn and pools he never swam in. Like good kid, m.A.A.d city’s “Swimming Pools (Drank),” Morale’s “Father Time” — home to a soul-crushing chorus from Sampha about numbing pain with hard liquor — is a song that talks 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 last album, DAMN., floated Black Hebrew Israelite ideas the church does not approve of. Multiple guest spots from Kodak Black — the talented South Florida rapper and aspiring Hebrew Israelite convert whose legal woes include pleading guilty to a lesser charge after a 2016 sexual assault allegation and a 2019 gun charge pardoned in 2021 by Donald Trump — don’t square with songs for women or calls for men to end cycles of abuse. (People think Kodak is here as provocation and counterpoint, a voice from the streets to play off the mansions and Jeeps, but what if he and Kendrick are just on similar faith journeys?) 

As it pivots from bubbly love songs to prickly tracks about relationship woes, the album almost feels as if someone has tried to fit the honest unhappiness of Speakerboxx and the giddy romanticism of The Love Below into the same frame. Like the beloved OutKast release, Mr. Morale is a double. But really, there are three distinct threads braided into its 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 in 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 like “Die Hard,” “Count Me Out,” “Savior,” and closer “Mirror,” as well as trap bangers “N95” and “Silent Hill.” In “Crown,” Lamar laments not being able to please everybody, but in a little over 70 minutes, Mr. Morale covers a lot of scenes and swats a lot of wasps’ nests.

Photo: Renell Medrano/Interscope

The messiness seems pointed. The album is very considered and more balanced upon closer inspection than the wilder pull quotes may suggest. Like Tolle, Kendrick treats bluntness and transgression like tools: When you’re mad at him, it’s because he wants to shake you out of the popular thinking. When Dot says life failed R. Kelly and 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.

Lamar thinks that political correctness is stifling hip-hop and that rappers don’t speak their minds the way they used to for fear of social-media backlash. This 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.” And in “Savior”: “Bite they tongues in rap lyrics / Scared to be crucified about a song, but they won’t admit it / Politically correct is how you keep an opinion / Niggas is tight-lipped, fuck who dare to be different.” “N95” 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.” It’s a popular sentiment. The last Lorde album was an ode to the joys of living off the grid, Lana del Rey deleted all her accounts last fall, and the new Black Star album has a lot to say about going outside and cooling off. 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 — even through unpopular plays like the respectability politics he pushed in the wake of the killing of Mike Brown — would be even a bit pressed about woke backlash. The early reaction to “Auntie Diaries,” which traces Lamar’s evolution as a queer ally and employs pointed deadnaming and repetition of slurs he later denounces, has been largely, sometimes combatively supportive among those who even blinked. (How useful is your queer-allyship anthem if your straight fans react by nagging your queer fans, though?) If 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.

Kendrick isn’t the only creator of this era pushing difficult art while trying to be less online, raging against the machinery of internet outrage, and sometimes hyperfocusing on the listeners who might object to his message. (Hi, Dave.) It seems like self-congratulating posturing. Why fuss about haters and clout chasers if family’s the most important connection? When you get to the end of the album, you realize Kendrick has been engaged in a very Christian process of squeezing unimportant people and processes out of his life along with a revelation and denunciation of his own tastes for sex, money, and status. By “Auntie Diaries,” he is even reassessing his relationship with the church: “The day I chose humanity over religion / The family got closer, it was all forgiven.”

Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers is a prickly listen, but it’s annoying us on its way to enlightenment. K. Dot has the nagging, arrogant conviction of a man who has no problem telling anyone about themselves because he’s genuinely trying to sort his shit out. He thinks it’s more important to model the process than to make proclamations from a place of moral superiority, although this album is certainly not devoid of those. If he gets anyone within earshot to consider therapy and pledge to treat Black women better and cool it with the transphobia and really interrogate the ideas they’ve grown up with about gender roles, it will have done good. (If you’re put out by “What the fuck is cancel culture, dawg?” or the weird bars about masks or the language in “Auntie Diaries” or the Kodak appearances … will he even respond? The list of successful male rappers who don’t platform abusers is short.)

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 just 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.” Like the latest season of Atlanta, Mr. Morale is juggling dark comedy and serious subject matter, crassness and concern.

But its moments of brilliance are offset by jarring choices. You start thinking Kendrick’s onto something, and he sets about throwing you off his trail. He’s a lot like an early-’90s rapper; he’s daring and intimidatingly smart as well as deeply into the woo-woo shit. It makes sense that he’s interested in Tolle, who teaches that the mind is to blame for most of our worst problems so detaching via meditation is imperative. (The stuff in here about “pain-bodies” — Tolle’s idea that residual pain accumulates in our consciousness and actively destroys us, that groups with great shared adversities have a harder time coming to grips with this, and that the big fix is to turn off the mind more often and stop creating the sadness that binds us — isn’t so different from DAMN.’s notion that Black Americans are a cursed tribe in the way it rests all the onus for community improvement on the community alone.) It figures he’d be interested in Kyrie Irving and controversial herbalist Dr. Sebi, pillars to a certain type of guy, the kind who’s so suspicious of moral mandates and ideological consensuses he might take the weird side of an argument just to be unique.

Photo: Screenshot via Twitter

Mr. Morale’s resistance to easy solutions and hip-hop radio staples like “i,” “Loyalty,” and “Poetic Justice” makes for the rockiest ride in Lamar’s catalogue — no small feat for an artist who dabbled in primal-scream therapy with To Pimp a Butterfly’s “u” and spoke powerfully to death and dying in “Sing About Me.” The new songs take disorienting twists, like the chipper humming that graces a story about sleeping with the daughter of a white law-enforcement official who put an uncle in jail amid the jittery ragtime shuffle of “Worldwide Steppers” or the way this album surrounds its lighthearted tracks with the headiest shit imaginable. “Purple Hearts,” a summit 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 setting. The self-righteous ire of “Steppers” is followed by “Die Hard,” the smoothest love song in the batch. The lengthy story songs float between past and present in ways that make them tricky to follow. The time jumps from stories of family gatherings to church services to schoolyard arguments happening in “Auntie Diaries” feel both poignant and disconnected, like bad memories resurfacing out of order. (This is one where Kendrick’s knack for letting his characters speak for themselves would have come in handy. It’s missing a handle on how it must’ve felt to have family members, clergy, and even children mock your appearance and try to force you to live with a gender identity that doesn’t feel right, to say nothing of the sting of one of the strongest LGBTQ+ rights endorsements in a cishet mainstream-rap album using more gay slurs than even Eminem songs dare.) The same is true of “Mother I Sober,” which jumps generations to map out traumas visited upon Kendrick and his mother, whose abuse led her to believe her son had been treated the same way. The medium is the message. Whatever your problem, Mr. Morale wants you to talk it through. It doesn’t care which conclusions you arrive at as long as you’re dealing with the past and living in the now.

This is not the sentiment we expected from the Butterfly guy in 2022, two years after the country nearly cracked open in the wake of protests and the police brutality they were met with. (As was the case with Jay-Z’s 4:44, a lot of this advice gets easier to follow the more financial resources you can corral to carry them out. It’s simple to tap out when you can afford mansions and jet-setting. It must be easy to learn to center yourself and meditate when you have access to the man from the Oprah Winfrey Network miniseries about centering yourself and meditating.) But if detaching and dislodging from the old methods of thinking and patterns of creating art, if leaving obvious hits and Black Hippy and Top Dawg Entertainment and reassuring politics behind is what this man’s version of freedom looks like, good for him. Better this than the careful trend watching going on in the Donda albums. It beats the repetition and diminishing returns plaguing other rappers a decade into their major-label tenure. He didn’t have to knock as much shit over as he did this time. Mr. Morale might’ve been a chiller experience if dude had gotten more into psychedelics and Alan Watts talks than teetotaling and Tolle. There’s still time.

How Does That Make You Feel, Kendrick?