Years before anyone uttered the phrase “cancel culture,” JAY-Z wrote a think piece about it. Inspired by a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting titled “Most Young Kings Get Their Heads Cut Off,” Hov’s 2010 song “Most Kingz” references Michael Jackson and Julius Caesar, iconic men who inevitably lost public favor. The track is the Brooklyn rapper’s warning for pursuers of power: “With the same sword they knight you, they gon’ ‘good night’ you with.”
Sometime after dropping his 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick Lamar was knighted as the next MC to enter the pantheon of rap kings — or, as JAY might consider it, a chamber of impending doom. Known for his thoughtful ruminations on ghetto strife, K-Dot’s been hailed as an emblem of modern conscious rap, which of course comes with a rigid set of expectations to do the proverbial right thing. But those are charges he never asked for. He’s just spent almost an entire album explaining why he might not be the guy for the job.
Released last Friday, Kendrick’s Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers explores the Compton rapper’s battles with the weight of responsibility, whether it’s to the mother of his children, his fans or himself. Distilled through a double album setup, Mr. Morale plays out like a therapy session on Broadway, with Kendrick delivering soul-baring couplets with fluctuating tones and a director’s eye for tension. It starts right from the beginning. For “United Grief,” he tackles a shape-shifting beat for an analysis on his own coping mechanisms for trauma, which include emotionless sex and a lot of big spending. Using a rumbling Nigerian afrofunk sample and a frenzied delivery, Kendrick artfully simulates the real-time mania that comes with troubling thoughts.
Channeling the chaos of Eminem’s 2000 Marshall Mathers LP single “Kim,” “We Cry Together” sees K. Dot shout his way through the role of a toxic boyfriend, trading scabrous barbs with a fiery Taylour Paige (of Zola fame) for a violent argument that sounds like a scene from Baby Boy. Uncomfortable yet gripping, the track exhibits misogynistic taunts fans might not have thought Kung Fu Kenny could generate. But those feelings — even if this interaction is fictional — come from a real place.
Kendrick explores the roots of his own distrust and spurts of toxic masculinity on “Father Time,” a tale of a son broken by his father’s tough love. Midway through the second verse, Kendrick lets loose a devastating recollection of a time his dad was too hard on himself, too, illuminating a pain that stretches across generations: “His momma died, I asked him why he goin’ back to work so soon?/His first reply was, ‘Son, that’s life, the bills got no silver spoon.’”
Powered by nakedly human sensitivity and Sampha’s quivering vocals, the track is one the most affecting of Kendrick’s career. “Purple Hearts,” meanwhile, is one of his most endearingly strange. Featuring extraterrestrial soul and some of Kendrick’s woozy, off-kilter singing, the track sees Summer Walker sing about cunnilingus before phasing into a searing lover boy verse from Ghostface Killah. Tongue-in-cheek yet deliriously loving, ”Purple Hearts” is a glittering masterpiece of unorthodoxy, something few outside of K-Dot can pull off successfully.
No matter the context, Kendrick’s showmanship and knack for invention are hard to miss. Imbued with a weightless flow, angelic choral singing, and frenetic stream of self-affirmations, “Count Me Out” is destined to become an anthem for underdogs. It can be a bit drab lyrically, but his Baby Keem-assisted “Savior” has enough passion and mischievous energy to lead to countless rewinds, too.
While Kendrick remains a force when it comes to all-around songwriting, he’s not a great rhetorician. At his best, he’s able to generate emotional urgency with stream-of-conscious details, spurts of quirky melodies and a pulsing flow that can emit everything from fury to exasperation. But some topics require a level of finesse Kendrick’s never shown himself to have, and as a result, his attempts to address big picture ideas sometimes feel a bit too heavy-handed.
This becomes evident on tracks like “N95.” Sprinting across an electronic beat, K. Dot lets loose a breathless barrage of commands to reject pop culture and perceived superficial activism. While his flows are captivating, and the hook is anthemic, Kendrick renders his anti-conformist views into hollow aphorisms. As a result, they spill out like an excuse your grandma uses to get you to stop playing 2K: “It’s a real world outside.” Making matters worse, he begins the song with what appears to be a vague allusion to COVID-19 conspiracy theories, fusing the track with a tackiness that’s only accentuated by his generic ideas.
That clumsiness resurfaces on “Auntie Diaries.” While it might be well-intentioned, Kendrick deadnames Caitlyn Jenner and repeats a homophobic slur several times when rapping about his relationship with his trans uncle. Predictably, the song became a trending topic, putting him in the throes of a lot of criticism if not the type of cancellation he appears to resent so much.
Kendrick’s trite thoughts on cancel culture are made even more glaring by his decision to include Kodak Black on multiple tracks. Last year, Kodak pled guilty to first-degree assault in a case that stems from a rape accusation he faced in 2016. While the Florida rapper has maintained his innocence, the plea as well as Kodak’s behavior outside of it — which includes making remarks about Lauren London shortly after her boyfriend Nipsey Hussle’s death — leaves the question of why Kendrick would give the rapper a platform. If, by chance, it’s to prove a point about mainstream forgiveness, it’s interesting to wonder what sort of persecution Kodak has faced, especially considering that he’s already been on multiple chart-topping albums this year.
Kendrick’s politics can be confusing, but being easy to digest was never the point, especially on this album. Buoyed by inventive musicality, passion and Kendrick’s own comfort with discomfort, Mr. Morale is as abrasive as it is mesmerizing, demanding to be engaged with even when it isn’t pleasant to do so. Crowns are hefty but sometimes haunting thoughts can be even heavier. While Kendrick’s latest opus occasionally collapses under the weight of ideas he can’t lift, it’s compelling to watch him try.