Kendrick Lamar’s discography comes full circle with ‘Mr. Morale and big steps
I was 14 when “DAMN”. (2017), Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, has been released. I begged my parents for $9.99 to buy the album on iTunes and sat around waiting for the music to download. Lying in a hotel in Tucson, Arizona, in typical “DAMN” protagonist Lamar fashion. was unexpectedly killed off in the first song. Terrified, I listened to the rest of the album, staring at the ceiling of the popcorn hotel in shock. A thriving fanatic, I was puzzled, terrified and, yes, addicted.
Five years later, on May 13, Lamar posted “Mr. Morale and big steps. I listened, again, in a hotel room, immersed in the new sounds Lamar had given us.
Whenever Lamar drops music, listeners should be aware that immense artistic precision has been directed into the piece, and “Mr. Morale” is no exception. From the intro track “United in Grief”, Lamar returns with a complex and intricate entry into the mainstream, analogous to sonic chaos developed on “Kid A” by Radiohead. Returning to the stage as a new character, Lamar appears conflicted, hurt and lost, turning to therapy to deal with trauma. As the album plays, listeners may realize that each track represents a different therapy session, each targeting various important issues through the semi-fictional protagonist, Mr. Morale.
Kodak Black serves as narrator and tour guide through the album’s winding path. The inclusion of the artist is highly controversial, as he was sentenced of sexual assault in 2016. Kodak also identifies as a Black Hebrew Israelite, which is probably an important reason for its symbolism inclusion on the album. Many have wondered if Kodak should be allowed to capitalize of these characteristics in light of his abusive history, but this theme of forgiveness through religion is likely a key reason for his inclusion as a narrator, whether justified or not.
Family issues are the most prevalent topics throughout the album. In the fantastical “Father Time,” Lamar details the masculine expectations his father planted throughout his childhood, recalling when, “His mom died, I asked him why he was going back to work so early? / His first response was, “Son, c’est la vie, bills don’t have a silver spoon.” “Lamar turns his experience into a teaching moment, encouraging other fathers’ ‘Blessings be gender neutral for your little ones.’ Such acceptance of non-traditional gender roles and family dynamics is rare in hip- hop, but Lamar’s activism persists later in the album, bringing to light topics rarely discussed in the genre.
In “Auntie Diaries”, Lamar recalls his descendant relationship with his transgender uncle in scenic detail. One of the first mainstream rappers to have publicly to deploy themselves support for the transgender community, Lamar details his growth in understanding his parent’s identity. Simultaneously, Lamar, an artist well known for his Christian faith and religious themes, directly interrogates the dilettante tendency of organized religious communities to ostracize LGBTQ+ members. When his cousin is publicly called out to church for his identity, Lamar interrupts the sermon, chiding “Mr. Preacher, shall we love thy neighbour?/ Laws of country or heart, what’s greater? Through song , Lamar explains his evolution in thinking from blind follower to thoughtful defender.
However, his lyrical choices are controversial and have offended some fans, especially in his use with an anti-gay slur. This decision divided many of his listeners, with several saying there was no justification for using the word. Some listeners believe that “Auntie Diaries”, and probably more “Mr. Morale”, is another fictional story and should be treated as such. In a variety examJem Aswad notes Lamar’s tendency throughout his career to “criticize his own biases and prejudices” instead of placing himself above the people he designates. In the context of “Auntie Diaries”, Lamar humanizes himself in this way by pointing out his own mistakes and shortcomings in relation to the acceptance of queer people. The New York Times exam from the album has less patience for Lamar’s lyrics, calling his attempts “serious but clumsy” and his use of insult a “misstep”. Although polarizing, this conversation fits into the larger debate about artistic freedom and the acceptance of marginalized groups. Lamar further embraces the trauma in his family later in the album.
In his most vulnerable song, “Mother I Sober,” Lamar reflects on the soul-searching he gained in therapy. In his self-reflection, I find that Lamar speaks differently from what he has done in his past work. Where he claimed to be a prophet, a voice to influence the actions and values of his community back home, he now sees his own flaws and flawed family history more often. In “Mother I Sober”, he delves into the memories of his family’s experiences of abuse, which, after being bottled up for years, are now resurfacing through his therapy.
Turning the conversation towards collective problems, Lamar uses the prevalence of abuse in black families as an explanation for certain phenomena in hip-hop and black culture, poetically prophesying: “I know the secrets, every other sexually abused rapper / I see them burying their pain in chains and tattoos daily.” Such a narrative realization can explain the presence of Kodak Black on the album. Shortly after, Lamar speaks in what can only be described as an exhausted voice, sounding like someone else is speaking through him, freeing himself, his family, and “all you abusers.” Lamar is finally embracing the Christian philosophy he has praised throughout his career in this forgiveness. With the character of Mr. Morale, Lamar creates a new role for himself. Unlike some of his past protagonists, he embodies Mr. Morale most personally, confidently addressing his flaws rather than hiding behind patterns and masks, as he has done in the past.
Kendrick Lamar is unquestionably a generational entertainer, and with “Mr. Morale” and its intimate, theatrical vibe, we’re gifted seats to witness his personal musical production. Lamar no longer seems interested in tap dancing for the public, and as the curtains begin to close on his monumental career, I patiently await the encore.