Some of the first words we hear on Kendrick Lamar’s long-awaited return, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, are from Whitney Alford. “Tell them,” she urges Lamar, her partner, on the album’s opener, “United in Grief.” “Tell ‘em, tell ‘em the truth.” The pressure swells, Alford’s voice crests. “Tell ‘em your—”
The curtain lifts on one of today’s highest-profile perfectionist’s uncanny knack for dramatic tension, Lamar’s ability to turn a song on a dime. “I’ve been goin’ through somethin’,” he spills, and so follows the album — an often insular work that saddles provocation and introspection in equal measure, an uneven rejection of the various titles conferred on Lamar over the past “one-thousand eight-hundred and fifty-five days.” In that span between the release of DAMN. and Mr. Morale, Lamar went to therapy. Consider Lamar’s latest a testament to what he learned, his fifth studio album acting as a diary of the moments when the past clicks into place with the present.
The album finds Lamar using the events of his personal life as a filter through which to view the world — an approach that produced some of his best work — and yet the world that he looks out on is tinged by the new cynicism of fame, idolatry and his status as a savior, the prophetic voice of Black Americans. These are titles Lamar does not want: “Sorry I didn’t save the world, my friend/ I was too busy building mine again,” he says on closer “Mirror,” between the plaintive refrain of “I choose me, I’m sorry.” “I can’t please everybody,” he explains on “Crown.” His head has grown heavy.
It is a potent album when it goes there, when Lamar turns his gaze onto his life. But it’s full of discordant riffs, an album that’s one to one in the profundity that made Lamar ascendant in the first place and in the half-baked moments in which Lamar can’t quite tease out the nuance of his observations. Take the stellar “N95,” the closest Mr. Morale comes to the stopping power of “DNA,” that uses masks as a metaphor for the faces we put on, until, all of a sudden, cancel culture is invoked. Lamar lets loose without the care to draw out the finer points: He takes issue with cancel culture’s drowning of nuance, but, considering the track’s ambitions, he does not give nuance the attention his lyrics only suggest.
The same goes for “Auntie Diaries,” a protracted track about two of Lamar’s relatives who come out as transgender. He raps about coming to terms with their identities with sincere, but unwieldy, regret. A homophobic slur is dropped, then repeated. The slur being thrown in perhaps speaks to the uncharacteristic lack of artistic commitment on “Auntie Diaries,” a story with a happy ending set to a flat, wanting soundscape. “The family got closer, it was all forgiven,” Lamar raps.
Taking a step back to look at the album on the whole, that’s harsh. For every beat of dull writing, there’s a counterpoint of upbeat prose. And briefly, there’s an absurd middle ground in “We Cry Together,” wherein a partner (as spoken by the actress Taylour Paige) and Lamar square off in rounds of petty, full-throated shouting matches. Their fight turns outward from themselves into the issues on which they both discover themselves to be hypocrites, but the track always returns to a relationship beyond repair.
Elsewhere on the album, relationships provide Lamar with his best food for thought, and the album shines in the interplay between family and accountability, uncertainty and that masculine ideal of confidence. Mr. Morale manages to be most profound when Lamar hones in on his family. The tension Lamar sets up in his opener drips down throughout the album, keeping his listeners on the edge of their seat, even when Lamar’s rougher diversions take hold.
It’s a scattered, raw, honest approach to the scenes playing out in Lamar’s head and beyond, the unfeigned ponderings from a man who’s spent the past five years thinking. “Every thought is creative, sometimes I’m afraid of my open mind,” Lamar raps on “Mr. Morale.” Every now and then, creativity calls for a filter.