Has anyone ever voluntarily returned a Pulitzer prize? A snap reading of Kendrick Lamar’s seemingly truculent fifth album Mr Morale & the Big Steppers suggested that the 2018 winner for music might wish for.
It’s not that Lamar has renounced the hyperliterate dexterity and sense of daring which made him one of the 21st century’s most universally praised artists. Rather, his tolerance for the scrutiny that comes with adulation has expired, and resolution with his inner fallibilities feels impossible under the gaze of a public quick to anoint him as a savior. He can’t please everybody, as became obvious when this double-sided, 73-minute-long therapy session into his traumas and coping mechanisms landed.
Mr Morale represented a sizeable risk for Lamar, a point that perhaps got lost in the froth of commenters getting het up about silly throwaway lines like “what the fuck is cancel culture, dawg?” on album highlight N95. This personal excavation was so messy that Lamar played with not releasing it at all. His hesitation was mirrored in the public’s initial response. Even after the once-in-a-generation run of 2012’s Good Kid, Maad City, 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly and 2017’s Damn, faithful fans struggled: the first moment in a decade where Lamar’s halo slipped.
In one sense, the premise of the record made that inevitable. The great challenge inherent in Mr Morale is that Lamar is constantly wriggling on his chaise, rolling out barbed wire to not only prevent the listener from getting too close, but purposefully entangle them. Your activity is fraudulent, your subscription to moral binaries is false, you’re ugly under that mask; worst of all, you still look up to me?
Even in a crowded field of musicians reckoning with trauma, Mr Morale still stands out for Lamar’s deeply attuned, perceptive and often unflattering storytelling. Whitney Alford, his long-term partner, braids the record’s interstitial passages, massaging breakthroughs or chiding his “dancing around the conversation” (which explains the frequent sound of tap shoes on hardwood). Whether you have bandwidth for the king’s blues is determined by how authentically Lamar’s self-reflection rings.
But other contradictions made Mr Morale harder to love. Auntie Diaries, an otherwise commendable sermon of love for the transgender community, was pockmarked by deadnaming and slurs. The album featured rapper Kodak Black, who pleaded guilty to first-degree assault and battery in a sexual assault case last year, in an exculpatory role; Yet headlining Glastonbury this summer, Lamar proclaimed: “Godspeed for women’s rights.” This blurriness created interesting questions in turn: what does Lamar owe his audience? And what happens when mechanisms ingrained to tough it out through life come face to face with those who suffer as collateral damage?
At any rate, it was hard to argue with the album’s sumptuous production. Mr Morale contains some of Lamar’s best songs: on opener United in Grief, Duval Timothy’s probing piano evokes a throbbing before temple Lamar bolts through a field of flow-switching. Aided by the Alchemist’s grimy beat and a star turn by actor Taylour Paige, We Cry Together’s precisely meter-bound invective makes for the most grimly fascinating portrait of domestic misery since the wallpaper-peeling claustrophobia of early Eminem. Mother I Sober, featuring Beth Gibbons’ harrow-for-hire tones, calls to mind Good Kid, Maad City’s Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst, an early sign that Lamar possessed something truly special.
And compared with the creative plateauing and unrepentant toxicity of fellow top-bracket superstars Drake and Kanye West, Mr Morale is miles clear. The moments where his execution matched his vision were rarely rivaled in something of a transitional year for hip-hop. Polarising as the album may be, Lamar can’t be faulted for at least trying to break out of maladaptive patterns and push through to a healthier place. As he yells skyward on the freeing finale Mirror: “Sorry I didn’t save the world, my friend / I was too busy building mine again.”