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Kendrick Lamar is ready to talk. Is he ready to listen?

<em>Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers</em> is the first album from Kendrick Lamar since <em>DAMN.</em>, the 2017 release that made him the first rapper to win a Pulitzer Prize.
Renell Medrano
Courtesy of the artist
Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is the first album from Kendrick Lamar since DAMN., the 2017 release that made him the first rapper to win a Pulitzer Prize.

No one does isolation like Kendrick Lamar. More and more in his career, he has shrouded himself in mystery, emerging for the occasional one-off appearance and then vanishing again. As the years following his 2017 Pulitzer-winner, DAMN., came and went without a new album or even a consistent social media presence to speak of, that mystery grew mythic. He wasn't a rapper any longer, he was some thing — folk tale, hero, beacon for Black America. Even as listeners trapped indoors by a pandemic first began to reemerge, welcomed back to the world by vaccines and milder weather, Lamar seemed content to stay home, reveling in the seclusion. As he proclaims on "Purple Hearts," a cut from the fabled follow-up album that's finally arrived, "Whole life been social distant."

Lamar has long used isolation to fuel his creativity, but he knows well the effect it has on his image. On Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, his new double LP, it seems he's here to tell us he's not everything we thought. Take him at his lyrical word and you'll learn he's spent his time away grappling with sex addiction, reconsidering his relationship with two loved ones who are transgender and railing against what he sees as an era of extreme political correctness.

Perhaps most notably, he's also sought therapy. In structure the album mirrors cycles of recovery, from those awkward early stages of remembering trauma to the breakthrough moments when said trauma reveals its connections to current behavior. As usual, there's palpable tension between what he's thinking and what he's saying, and he peels off just enough of himself to reveal a more complex being. But this time, he seems less concerned with how he looks doing it — pushing boundaries harder than ever, simmering in the after effects of the solitude he's practiced for so long, toeing the border between personal reflection and interpersonal reality.

As quickly becomes clear, it's not only the artist's past trauma weighing on him, but the act of excavating it. Working on yourself is hard, and risky for someone like Lamar, whose music is dissected and studied in barbershops, on Reddit threads and podcasts, and in schools. Historically, his reputation has been sturdy and sleek, with little room to get much wrong in the eye of the public; that's how much his music has meant to his fans over the years. But on Mr. Morale, he's willfully chipping away that veneer. Lamar is going through something — a lot of things — and doesn't yet seem to know what to make of it. It's understandable: You don't shake off being shot at and watching your friends die or go to jail without developing emotional calluses. Left untreated, the skin thickens over the abrasion, and Lamar is one of many Black American men who have been taught since childhood to keep grinding no matter how much it hurts.

That lesson goes back to his dad, Kenny, according to the new LP's "Father Time." "Hid my emotions, never expressed myself," Lamar exclaims. "Man should never show feelings, being sensitive never helped." On his breakthrough 2012 album, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, his father was presented as an optimistic force — a guy who was capable of extremely tough love, but really just wanted his dominoes back. On DAMN., the rapper portrayed Kenny as crafty and comedic: Anthony Tiffith, the would-be CEO of Top Dawg Entertainment, used to stick up the KFC he worked in; Kenny gave him extra chicken and biscuits to get on his good side, in case he robbed the restaurant again. Here, though, the antihero has become the villain — "Father Time" makes the case for Kendrick's toxicity as the result of Kenny's generational trauma. To hear him tell it, everything from shaking off scraped knees to rejecting true love connects back to his father's iron fist.

Lamar is on a lonely journey, but he isn't alone. Self-help author Eckhart Tolle and the rapper's own partner Whitney Alford serve as narrators on the album, prodding him along a cathartic path. And with production from Duval Timothy, Sounwave and Dahi, hooks from Beth Gibbons and Summer Walker and verses from Kodak Black (whose past sexual assault charge makes him an inflammatory presence here) and Ghostface Killah, Mr. Morale may be his most contemporary-sounding release, far removed from the kaleidoscopic soul of good kid, m.A.A.d city and the avant-jazz of To Pimp a Butterfly.

As is his custom, though, even upbeat tracks have a hidden solemnity — like the two-stepping, club-focused "Die Hard" and "Rich Spirit," which respectively lament the ills of pill-popping and online clout-chasing. When Alford appears, she urges him to seek help to address unprocessed distress and what he refers to as a "lust addiction." Her voice haunts the margins of "United in Grief," on which Lamar speaks of a model he met on tour in Chicago and the bond they formed over collective sadness — her mother was absent, her father was in prison and one of her brothers was killed at 21. Elsewhere, the running commentary is non-verbal. At moments when Lamar may be losing his nerve, resisting or evading the unbridled truth, the clicking of tap shoes tells the story he won't.

Over time, he grows more honest — uncomfortably so. "We Cry Together" is Malcolm & Marie reborn in song, a cringe-worthy Jody and Yvette screamfest that illustrates a relationship at its most emotionally raw. The premise is clear — sometimes passion can take you there — but the landing is awkward and feels like a misstep. The same goes for "Auntie Diaries" on the album's back half, where he wrestles with the gender transitions of an uncle and cousin, peppering in homophobic F-bombs that anchor sharply on the ear. He repeats the word for emphasis, offering that his past use of it came from a child who didn't know any better, yet still saying it, as a grown adult who should know better.

That he would take a shock jock's approach to a term that isn't his to reclaim speaks to a bigger, more wearying theme of this album — a grudge with, in Lamar's words, "cancel culture," a volatile term whose precise meaning depends on who speaks it. His disdain first manifested visually in the video for the non-album track "The Heart Part 5," through deepfake technology that morphed his face into those of, among others, O.J. Simpson, Kanye West, Will Smith and Jussie Smollett, figures for whom scrutiny of their lives and choices loom as large as their original claims to fame. In a quip on "Worldwide Steppers," he hammers his thesis a little harder: "Ni***s killed freedom of speech, everyone sensitive." Then, on "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
Ni***s is tight-lipped, f*** who dare to be different
Seen a Christian say the vaccine mark of the beast
Then he caught COVID and prayed to Pfizer for relief
Then I caught COVID and started to question Kyrie
Will I stay organic or hurt in this bed for two weeks?

On one end, there's nothing wrong with encouraging free thought, and since no one can move the needle like Lamar, he may be the only musician working who could make listeners reconsider social practices that drown out nuance. Not every public transgression merits a one-strike policy. But Lamar doesn't sound nuanced in these moments — he sounds grumpy, longing for bygone days when celebrities could say and do whatever they chose unchecked. He sounds like a famous person with a lot to lose.

If Mr. Morale has a manifesto, it's the penultimate track, "Mother I Sober." Over faint piano taps and rhythmic bass drums, Lamar yearns for a retreat from the spotlight, time in someone else's skin. An insecure soul with gifted child syndrome, he's still wrestling with how to be famous with flaws, how to reconcile Kendrick Lamar's opinions with those of Kendrick Duckworth. He's not a lost cause: He knows Alford's pain, and he understands that counseling isn't just for him — it's for his son and daughter and the innocence they still have. The song is the aha moment in therapy, when all those long sessions finally lock into a moment of self-discovery and an opportunity to do better.

Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is the testament of a complicated soul with a lot more work to do, and the result is a mix of expansive ambition and messy incoherence, tumbling down dark roads with no clear exit strategy. In that way, it's a kitchen-sink record about real life, in all its surprise twists and turns. Self-actualization is a lifelong journey; at least he's on the path.

Marcus J. Moore is the author of the book The Butterfly Effect: How Kendrick Lamar Ignited the Soul of Black America.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marcus J. Moore