wed 29/06/2022

Album: Kendrick Lamar - Mr Morale & the Big Steppers | reviews, news & interviews

Album: Kendrick Lamar - Mr Morale & the Big Steppers

Album: Kendrick Lamar - Mr Morale & the Big Steppers

The philosopher-king of hip hop culture ventures ever inwards: but will he become too dour?

'There are high energy parts, and crucially the ebbs and flows are impeccably mapped out'

Kendrick Lamar is so breathlessly revered it’s sometimes hard to pull apart what’s going on in his records. It’s sometimes felt like he might become the rap game Radiohead: exploratory, aware, hugely technically accomplished, endlessly thematically “important” – but not actually that interesting to listen to.

And certainly on the 18 tracks of his comeback album after a near four-year break – five since his last album proper, DAMN. – there’s a lot that’s potentially extremely worthy.  

There’s a lot of moody piano lines, there’s a lot of ultra-intricate rhyme patterns, and there’s a whole lot of heavy introspection. There’s no unite-the-people chantalongs like 2015’s electric Black Lives Matter anthem “Alright” – indeed if anything Lamar is constantly questioning his own friends, community and church, sometimes in fairly bleak terms. It’s definitely not funtimes, nor is it rabble-rousing protest or state-of-the-nation music of the sort people often demand from “conscious” rappers. 

And yet, while this is as much of a long dark night of the soul as DAMN., if not more so, it’s no dirge. For starters, while there are borderline beatless meditations like “Crown” (about the pressures of fame) and “Mother | Sober” with Portishead’s Beth Gibbons (about the far-reaching legacy of sexual abuse in the black community), there are high energy parts too, and crucially the ebbs and flows – uncommonly for a 70-plus minute rap album – are impeccably mapped out. 

And this works hand-in-glove with the lyrics. So the second track, “N95” is the closest the album has to a rabble-rouser, with a surging electronic trap/drill beat – but it serves as a demand that the listener strip away affectation and focus on material trappings, the better to join Lamar in his place of contemplation. In lesser hands this could be drearily self-righteous, but Lamar’s brilliance is his ability to pass F Scott Fitzgerald’s famous “test of a first rate intelligence”: the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

Thus he can call out the way material goods are used to hide behind in “N95” while still relishing the pleasures of them in the other trap-styled track of the album “Silent Hill”. He can say “What the fuck is cancel culture? Say what the fuck I want about you” and rail against “fake woke”, while at the same time showing atomic-scale sensitivity about language in “Auntie Diaries” – a song about loving and coming to understand his transgender relatives: a truly revolutionary story for a top-flight rapper with streams into the billions to be telling the world. He can express both profound religious doubt (in the latter song, looking at church hypocrisy), and faith too.  

Partly it’s his position as a social figurehead that makes his songs feel so urgent and engaging even at their bleakest – he’s kind of the anti-Kanye, able to articulate these contradictions and points of oppression rather than chaotically and uncontrollably embodying them. He never provides answers, but he is asking the vital questions of himself and his fans more clearly than anyone else in popular culture, in a way that genuinely moves the wider conversation on. But just as much, it is his brilliance as a musician. Yes, his endlessly complex rhyming is hyper-technical, but it’s his ability to weave that into the work of a dozen plus producers, his own studio technique, and a rollercoaster of musical styles and still sound coherent that truly makes this record. It might not be funtimes, but it is truly, compellingly brilliant: something you’ll want to come back and back to as a piece of music as well as a document of deep thought.

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