By Joey Brasco
In April this year, Kendrick Lamar chose to bring a Twitter user out of relative obscurity after @raptalksk Tweeted, “Kendrick Lamar is officially retired.” Kendrick chose to answer to this comment with the announcement of a double album, Mr. Morale and Big Steps. Which was certainly a way to put an end to the retirement rumors.
The “Kendrick’s Retired” Feeling Likely Born From No Studio LPs Since 2017 DAMN. There was the Black Panther: The Album soundtrack, as well as great guests since, but a Kendrick solo album is a whole other beast.
Each of his records has been critically acclaimed in addition to mainstream success. Most likely the high point of Kendrick’s critical and commercial acclaim came through the above DAMN., who not only won a Pulitzer Prizebut also earned a number one song with “HUMBLE.”
Mr. Morale and Big Steps is a difficult album to digest. Themes of abuse, trauma and Kendrick’s personal demons permeate the entire record. This is an album that is not suitable for casual listening. What it is however, is a testament to an artist with a deep devotion to his craft and a desire to express every facet of his inner world in a raw and unfiltered way.
When considering an artist of Kendrick’s pedigree, to say there were high expectations for new music would be a gross understatement. “The Heart Part 5” was the first taste of the new album. With each new album cycle, Kendrick updates his “The Heart” series, a growing collection of tracks that prepare fans for what’s to come.
“The Heart Part 5” is a dense meditation on black culture and its controversial figures. On a spectacular sample of “I Want You” by Marvin Gaye, the music video sees Kendrick put on many faces, ranging from Kanye West to OJ Simpson. With this video and this song, Kendrick was preparing the public for a radical fifth album.
Music comprising both sides of Mr. Morale and Big Steps is not as commercially accessible as his previous works. This is evident from the album’s first song, “United In Grief”. Rather than reintroducing itself with a hard-hitting beat and catchy chorus, Kendrick delivers a rant about hiding grief in materialism over discordant piano keys and searing drums.
The sonic oddities continue with the unlikely hit “N95”. The song takes its title from the medical mask of the same name and is a metaphor for the facades we put up to hide our true selves. With its triumphant synth solos, offbeat rap and disorienting music videoKendrick proves that anything he experiences, fans will eat.
The next two cuts, “Worldwide Steppers” and “Die Hard” confront Kendrick’s self-proclaimed “lust addiction” and his desire to better himself. “Die Hard” is bolstered by guest vocalists Blxst and Amanda Reifer, whose vocals on the chorus serve as one of the few moments of unapologetic pop levity on the album. The song’s mantra “I hope it’s not too late to right my demons”, expresses Kendricks’ determination to right his wrongs and save his soul.
Delving deeper into his own psyche, Kendrick reflects on his relationship with his father on “Father Time,” which features a stellar feature from singer Sampha. Kedrick’s grand piano chords and passionate flows make this one of the standout tracks on the record.
Contrasting with the beauty of “Father Time”, the hellish “We Cry Together”. Kendrick and actress Taylour Paige deliver a song that features a toxic relationship. The two don’t rap as much as they verbally assault each other, trade sexual slurs and swear words that would make a sailor blush. As a song, it’s hard listening, but as a display of raw emotion, it’s incredibly well executed.
“Auntie Diaries” is a tribute to Kendrick’s aunt and cousin, who each faced scorn from Kendrick’s family because of their transgender identity. The song slowly builds to a dramatic conclusion, as Kendrick recounts a scene where he defended his cousin against a preacher’s wrath: “I said, ‘Mr. Man preacher, should we love your neighbour? The laws of the land, or the heart, what is greater? It’s a moment when Kendrick approaches a difficult subject with a compassionate sensitivity that most artists could never dream of.
However, not all fans considered this album to be sensitive in its content. In addition to the extreme extreme of a song like “We Cry Together,” fans reacted strongly to Kendricks’ decision to feature controversial rapper Kodak Black throughout the record. Many were quick to report that featuring him invalidated the album’s sensitivity to sexual assault-induced trauma on songs like “Mother I Sober” and “Mr. Moral.”
On this album, Kendrick presents listeners with a wide range of difficult topics to which he’s not afraid to say he doesn’t have all the answers. The self-referential intro to “Savior” says as much: “Kendrick got you thinking, but he’s not your savior.”
While Kendrick may not be a messiah sent to save the world through his music, he is an artist free from public expectations and demands driving his artistic vision. Although his latest album may not have the replay value of good kid, maAd cityor garner critical acclaim Pimp a butterfly and DAMN.it will serve as an indelible testament to Kendrick’s uncompromising persistence in baring himself in his music.