Any real artist flirts with being misunderstood, but the greats actively want some large part of the public and even their own admirers to get them wrong. Rapper Kendrick Lamar’s first record since 2017’s Damn, which won that year’s Pulitzer Prize for music, is a concept album of the tortured subconscious, a nonlinear narrative about the infinite beauty and terror of family that veers wildly among blasphemy, obscurity, provocation, and bracing confessionalism. Fans expecting Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, the most anticipated American music release of this decade so far, to be packed with shout-along bangers on the scale of “Humble,” Damn’s biggest hit, or unifying and exuberantly hopeful reckonings with American social ills, like 2015’s “Alright,” will come away puzzled. Some will come away enraged.
The blasphemies get more elaborate the further we plunge into this 18-track, 73-minute journey, a kind of audio novel with recurring characters, lattices of musical and lyrical motifs, and a psychic throughline, expressed in a tap dance rhythm that recurs with the inscrutable logic of actual thought, connecting Lamar to the primordial elements of modern black culture. The many invitations to outrage are a key to unlocking the most challenging record in Lamar’s discography, the one that sounds the least like Stevie Wonder or Sly Stone, a string quartet- and choir-filled sonic and thematic U-turn in which he silences most of his populist instincts and looks the furthest inward.
“Can I vent all my truth? I got nothin' to lose,” he raps on the hard-charging “N95,” all but closing the album’s second track with the lines: “What the f*** is cancel culture, dog? Say what I want about you [N-words].” A song later, on “Worldwide Steppers": “The media's the new religion. You killed the consciousness … [N-words] killed freedom of speech. Everyone sensitive.” This is brave and welcome in a time when free expression is so broadly unpopular, but also fairly rote compared to what’s coming.
“Like it when they pro-black. I’m more Kodak Black,” Kendrick spits in the late-record standout “Savior,” name-checking the hugely popular Trump-supporting rapper who is currently on probation for an assault and battery charge stemming from a rape accusation and who also appears on tracks three, six, and 12. On the album’s second-to-last song, Lamar offers a theory of black pain that’s sure to offend everyone, rapped over spare piano and between a chorus sung in a vibrato-free skeleton soprano belonging to Portishead’s Beth Gibbons: Black men are often the traumatized victims of child sexual abuse, frequently committed by members of their own family, a tragedy which is itself the recapitulation of centuries of slavery and oppression. “They raped our mothers … then made us rape each other,” Kendrick elucidates. “Every other brother has been compromised/I know the secrets. Every other rapper sexually abused/I see 'em daily buryin' they pain in chains and tattoos …This is post-traumatic black families and a sodomy.” Then, his voice rising to a righteous scream: “I set free all you abusers. This is transformation.”
There’s towering hubris contained in this closing line of the staggering “Mother I Sober,” as if Lamar believes his art is so powerful that it can bend the socially-enforced moral order to its will. I don’t know if the causal theory expounded in this song is all that strictly correct or if Lamar even believes all of what he’s saying or if Kodak Black’s constant presence on the record cheapens the artistic statement or elevates it somehow. Perhaps Kendrick felt he needed to rehabilitate a real-life monster to prove he really means what he’s saying — maybe the lines punch harder, now that we’ve listened to an abuser be set free. Or maybe it’s as straightforward as Kendrick says: “Like it when they pro-black. I’m more Kodak Black.” He’s saying, "I am closer to being the widely beloved Floridian sociopath, who came from a poverty-stricken fatherless home and had his biggest hits after being released from federal prison, than I am to being whatever my condescendingly moralistic and probably Black Lives Matter-supporting elitist listeners think I should be."
As a younger man, Kendrick made instant classics about the temptations of street life, such as 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, and about black people's sense of displacement in a country and a world that never seemed to accept them fully, such as 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Because of his star-making collaborations with Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, and Terrace Martin, we have Kendrick to thank for the return of jazz music as a mainstream art form. Between the Pulitzer and his 2015 performance of Butterfly with the National Symphony Orchestra, Lamar has arguably more highbrow credibility than any rapper in history, especially for someone whose father was in the Gangster Disciples and who grew up in Compton around members of the Bloods. But a master of a subversive art form might very well decide that having highbrow credibility is a sign he’s gone wrong. No surprise, then, that Lamar apparently resents being pigeonholed as a streetwise genius who can magically synthesize the broken fragments of American culture and American life — as if anyone can, or even should.
“One protest for you, 365 for me,” he raps on “Savior,” elegantly evoking the gulf between his daily reality and that of cynical or fad-chasing activists who think they’re helping him. “The cat’s out of the bag. I am not your savior,” he declares, rejecting any responsibility to say anything definitive or redemptive about the American racial divide, which has become even more inflamed since the last time we heard from him. No such luck. Instead, Kendrick eviscerates the fashionable and insidiously coercive social justice teleology in almost the very next line: “The struggle for the right side of history/independent thought is like an eternal enemy.” Kendrick isn’t here to make anyone feel any better about their country or their society or themselves, and he expresses his scorn for other people’s self-serving wishcasting about him in spikey, abrasive verse. He feels absolutely no need to be anything but himself or to meet anyone’s expectations but his own.
But what are those expectations? Put differently: What should someone be, what should they do, and what should they care about once they’ve rejected the role that other people have drafted them into? After five years of relative silence, 34-year-old Kendrick Duckworth has produced an album driven by the concerns of middle age. He wants to heal the family, his and everyone else's: “To my partners that figured it out without a father, I salute you. May your blessings be neutral to your toddlers,” he raps on “Father Time,” showing his gift for both world-weary aphorism and dense internal rhythm. He wants to draw closer to a God from which he often feels alienated and further away from soul-numbing technology: “Anytime I couldn't find God, I could find myself through a song/Some people find their life in a phone,” he meditates on “Count Me Out.” He wants men and women to be able to understand one another, as conveyed through a remarkable duet in which Lamar and actress Taylour Paige play a feuding couple who each serve as archetypelike expressions of the other sex’s least-generous vision of its counterpart. Therapy is one of Mr. Morale’s running themes, but if therapy were sufficient for a fulfilled life, this album might not even exist. The closing suite, in which Lamar explores and expunges his own familial dysfunction down to its most painful details, is a final purge, one last self-revelation before his creative project is complete.
Lamar ends “Savior” with a battering ram of an unrhymed line: “I rubbed elbows with people that was for the people/They all greedy … And they like to wonder where I've been/Protecting my soul in the valley of silence.” Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is a declaration of victory, even and especially if the listening public turns out to be divided on it. Lamar descended into his deepest self and returned with his soul intact in a time when so many others lost theirs. And he doesn’t care whether you like what he discovered.
Armin Rosen is a New York-based reporter-at-large for Tablet.