Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Kendrick Lamar Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers

pgLang/TDE/Aftermath/Interscope
2022
pgLang/TDE/Aftermath/Interscope
2022

No. Absolutely not. Fuck this. I reject the premise of the assignment. This whole “Premature Evaluation” feature has its limitations built right into the name. The idea is that it’s not a comprehensive review, just an instant reaction to a big and important new album. But let’s be real: We usually get the album promos way ahead of time, and even when we don’t, we treat these pieces like they’re straight-up reviews. I can’t do that here. This is too much. Kendrick Lamar, the most extravagantly praised artist of his generation, has come back after staying mostly silent for five tumultuous-ass years. He’s returned with a sprawling double album where almost every track has like seven different producers. I’ve been up since 5AM, and I’ve had Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers on repeat the whole time, but I don’t feel like I’m even beginning to wrap my head around this album. That’s by design. Kendrick Lamar has made a record that actively resists this kind of insta-review. This article should not exist.

It doesn’t ultimately matter. Kendrick Lamar is critic-proof, and he always will be. He’s not worried about a critic; that ain’t the protocol. With his new album, Kendrick aims to overwhelm, and he succeeds overwhelmingly. Kendrick has presented Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers as a double album even though it’s not his longest. If CDs were still a thing, this would fit comfortably on a single disc. But Kendrick didn’t make this album with a single-CD mentality. Instead, he’s gone for messy overreach, rebelling against the idea that a Kendrick Lamar album should be a world-changing event. A new Kendrick Lamar album is a whole lot for anyone to process, especially for Kendrick Lamar himself.

On opening track “United In Grief,” Kendrick says he went and got himself a therapist, and it’s like: Yeah, no shit, buddy. If it’s anything, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is a therapy album. Kendrick spends the bulk of the record interrogating his own perceived failures. He talks about his “lust addiction,” about his “daddy issues,” about dealing with “writer’s block for two years.” Eckhart Tolle, a German spiritual-leader type who I’d never heard of before this morning, pops up multiple times. On “Savior,” Kendrick directly addresses the idea of his own importance, and he repeats over and over that he can’t be the leader that some people want him to be. He’s not even sure that he can be the man the he wants himself to be. It’s a necessary corrective.

Five years ago, Kendrick devoted a large chunk of DAMN. to proclaiming his own greatness in ways that went beyond rap. He owned his status as an artistic and commercial colossus, and he made hits. On Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, Kendrick has evidently lost all interest in making hits or in dominating the rap world. When his old competitive instincts flare up again, Kendrick presents them as a weakness, a personal flaw: “When Kanye got back with Drake, I was slightly confused/ Guess I’m not mature as I think, got some healing to do.” The money that came with the fame hasn’t helped, either; Kendrick has bought infinity pools that he’s never swum in. Instead, he’s out to heal himself. It’s a big task.

One thing that people are already noticing about Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is that Kendrick Lamar says a whole lot of stupid shit on it. “Auntie Diaries” is Kendrick’s song about learning to embrace his trans relatives, and it’s a genuinely empathetic gesture, but it’s also muddled and awkward, with Kendrick misgendering his family members all over the place. He tries to own his past prejudices, but he never sounds like he’s completely over them: “We didn’t talk for a while, he seemed more distant/ Wasn’t comfortable around me, everything was offensive.” Again: No shit. Maybe everything wouldn’t be offensive if Kendrick didn’t fuck the pronouns up so often.

When Kendrick mentions famous abusers, he makes the point that these people are often victims of abuse themselves, and he comes dangerously close to absolving them because of that: “I think about Robert Kelly/ If he weren’t molested, I wonder if life’ll fail him.” (It’s a pretty big reach to suggest that life failed R. Kelly.) The stuff about COVID vaccines is both confused and confusing: “I caught COVID and started to question Kyrie/ Will I stay organic or hurt in this bed for two weeks?” (One more time: No shit.) There’s also this: “I’m not in the music business, I been in the human business.” That’s not problematic or anything; it’s just a bad line.

Already, a whole lot of people are calling out the way Kodak Black appears multiple times on the album. This is an intentional move on Kendrick’s part, a provocation. Kodak and Kendrick come from different generations and different rap traditions, but Kendrick apparently sees some of himself in Kodak. Kodak is a troubling figure. Years after being arrested for sexual assault, Kodak pleaded guilty to assault and battery while insisting that he’d never raped anyone, and that’s not enough for Kendrick Lamar to distance himself from someone. In fact, it’s the opposite. Kendrick seems to use Kodak as a vessel to show how he’s not the figure that some fans want him to be: “Like it when they pro-Black, but I’m more Kodak Black.” Kodak does sound pretty great on Kendrick’s ornate productions; he didn’t sound anywhere near that good on the sloppy-ass album that he released earlier this year. But Kodak isn’t on this album strictly for musical reasons, and it’s worth asking why Kendrick wants to die on that hill.

It’s not a mystery. Kendrick tells us. When we’re talking about Black rappers in America, we’re talking about people that have been through generational traumas that many of their fans, including me, will never understand. Kendrick gets deeper into those traumas than most of his rap peers. On the shattering “Mother I Sober,” Kendrick tells stories about being freaked-out because his mother was certain that he’d been molested, even though he never was. Later on, he learned that she felt that way because she’d been molested. Kendrick expands on that further: “I know the secrets, every other rapper sexually abused/ I see ’em daily burying they pain in chains and tattoos.” To Kendrick, all that pain, epigenetic and otherwise, is the reason why we should not judge the people who we don’t know.

When Kendrick Lamar says dumb shit on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, that dumb shit has a purpose. Kendrick is being intentionally messy. He’s presenting a world with no heroes and no villains. On “We Cry Together,” already a hugely divisive track, Kendrick shows us what that’s like in practice. “We Cry Together” is a jarring, disturbing little radio-play, a bit like Eminem’s “Kim,” but it’s not just one person screaming on another person. Instead, it’s two people screaming on each other. Rather than duetting with another rapper, Kendrick has brought in an actor, Zola star Taylour Page, to go toe-to-toe with him. She sells the hell out of it. For nearly six minutes, these two people just lay into each other, both of them saying the most hurtful shit they can conjure. Some of that gets into political realms, too. Page compares Kendrick’s mentality to Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, R. Kelly. He throws her words right back at each other. It’s an auditory representation of the worst fight that you’ve ever had with a significant other, and it ends with the two of them fucking. They haven’t fixed their considerable problems, but they need each other, and they know it.

“We Cry Together” is a powerful, effective piece of music, and I completely understand why so many people are saying that they never want to hear it again. It’s uncomfortable and stressful, and it makes you feel like your head’s spinning. A lot of the musical decisions on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers are trying to make you feel like that, too. Discordant noises share space with orchestral splendor. Tracks switch up mid-stream, keeping us off-balance. Some tracks are just busy clusters of piano. Others are dense and cluttered, like they’ve got too much music in them and it’s spilling out the sides. Most of the producers on the album are people who have long histories with Kendrick: Sounwave, J.LBS, DJ Dahi. Kendrick knows how to navigate their tracks. He raps out of his mind, again and again. Kendrick has worked with these producers to create a vast and unpredictable sonic environment, and he’s let his voice bounce all around in that environment. As ever, it’s thrilling to hear him cut loose.

I don’t know if any of the tracks on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers will become hits; it seems a little unlikely. Maybe Kendrick didn’t release an advance single from the album because the album has no singles. Still, I love a lot of the musical decisions that he’s made here. I love the restrained grace of “Rich Spirit,” which sounds like James Blake and DJ Mustard trying to go afrobeats. I love how “Savior” flips the drums from Clipse and Birdman’s “What Happened To That Boy?” and the eerie piano line from Raekwon’s “Ice Cream.” I love Pharrell’s runaway-UFO beat for “Mr. Morale” and Ghostface Killah’s feverishly intense crying-style verse on “Purple Hearts” — a performance so inspired that it could kick off a career renaissance. I love every part of “Mother I Sober,” the album’s longest and realest song, driven by muted pianos and by Portishead’s Beth Gibbons murmuring that she wishes she was somebody, anybody, but herself.

Kendrick Lamar already won. He’s almost universally acknowledged as an all-time great rapper, an artist of the highest order. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is a fascinating, engrossing answer to the question of what a Kendrick Lamar album might be in 2022. It’s not even just one album; it’s two, even if I don’t totally understand how the two halves of the album are supposed to be different from one another. With this album, Kendrick makes it clear that he can’t and won’t be all things to all people. He’s not the voice of a generation. He doesn’t even have his own shit figured out, and he’s worried that he’s doing more harm than good in the world. He’s definitely not down to be a corporate avatar for social progress and racial reconciliation: “Capitalists posing as compassionates be offending me/ Yeah, suck my dick with authenticity.” An album like this could’ve been a long-delayed victory lap. Instead, it’s self-consciously knotty and clumsy and sometimes ugly. I don’t agree with all the ideas that the album presents, but I love how wild and ungainly it’s willing to be.

How are these songs going to sound in 10 years? I have no idea. I don’t know how they’re going to sound in 10 days. I don’t know how this shit’s going to work when Kendrick gets up onstage and does these songs at Rolling Loud. He probably doesn’t know, either. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers actively resists interpretation, categorization, and canonization. I’m pretty sure it’s a great album, but I don’t know how it fits into the rap pantheon or even into Kendrick’s own discography. Right now, this moment, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers has already made me think and feel a whole lot. Maybe it’s done the same for you, too. Maybe that’s all we can ask it to do.

Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is out now on pgLang/TDE/Aftermath/Interscope.

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