A few days before Kendrick Lamar premièred “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers,” his first album in five years, he released a song called “The Heart Part 5,” a diatribe about Black culture and the celebrity’s place in it. In the song’s music video, Lamar stands alone, using deepfake technology to morph into famous doppelgängers. “As I get a little older, I realize life is perspective / And my perspective may differ from yours,” he says in the intro. The face-swapping happens in tandem with lyrics that correspond to various controversial men, ranging from the recently scandalous to the infamous: Will Smith, Kanye West, the late rapper Nipsey Hussle, Jussie Smollett, Kobe Bryant, and O. J. Simpson. The video previewed the new album’s big provocations and themes: Black masculinity and responsibility, the cyclical relationship between Black art and Black trauma. Lamar has clearly grown weary of his role as an anointed genius, and his cynicism bleeds into the music, which is increasingly possessed by discourses on cancel culture and the demands that the public makes of artists.
Lamar had been mostly quiet since 2018—the year he opened the Grammys, headlined the “Black Panther” soundtrack, and won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2017 album “DAMN.” He spoke at the time about wanting to start a family, which he described as making the “ultimate connection with words to man.” In 2019, he and his longtime sweetheart, Whitney Alford, had a daughter, and two years later, he finally emerged from his hiatus with a note on his condition. He was off the grid, going long stretches without a phone. “Love, loss, and grief have disturbed my comfort zone, but the glimmers of God speak through my music and family,” he wrote in a statement on his Web site. “While the world around me evolves, I reflect on what matters the most”—those things seemingly being heritage, and influence.
The entire family appears on the cover of “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers,” with Alford holding one child and Lamar—a crown of thorns on his head and a handgun in his waistband—carrying another. His return initially seemed like that of a wise man emerging from an abbey to bring revelations to a broken world. The music itself is less lofty. “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” is as inefficient as it is awe-inspiring: a dynamic, if occasionally awkward, thesis on lineage and legacy. The burdens of celebrity and activism set off anxiety in Lamar, who performs as if overwhelmed by his obligations. The album is a messy, challenging consideration of accountability and regret, self-deception and integrity, performance and therapy, idol worship and its reverberations. Lamar, addled by the demands of the public, attempts to straddle many perspectives. This dulls his commentary and produces bungling oversimplifications. “Every thought is creative, sometimes I’m afraid of my open mind,” he raps on the track “Mr. Morale,” and at times it does seem that the music is pouring out without a filter.
Still, the record has its bouts of genius. Some of the most airplay-friendly music Lamar has ever recorded is packed in with some of the most avant-garde work of his career. He plays the punch-drunk balladeer on “Purple Hearts,” alongside the Wu-Tang polyglot Ghostface Killah and the R. & B. sentimentalist Summer Walker, and the unlikely triumvirate log a mesmerizing, five-minute ode to devotion. On “United in Grief,” Lamar moves relentlessly as the beat shuffles beneath him, from solo piano keys to distorted noise and Gatling gun drums: listening to it is like watching Bugs Bunny tap-dance around the bullets Yosemite Sam fires at his feet. The record has many moments of spectacular technique and detail, staged with an ear for dramatic tension (see: “We Cry Together,” featuring the actor Taylour Paige), but there is nothing here as carefully threaded as “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” as anthemic as “Alright,” or as downright gobsmacking as “DNA.,” despite the album’s ambitions.
The production on “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” is disorienting, sprawling, and ornamental, building outward from the wonky, hard-hitting sounds of Lamar’s musical universe. To form the core of his creative team, the multidisciplinary artist Duval Timothy and the singer-songwriter Sam Dew join the longtime TDE beatmaker Sounwave, the frequent Lamar associate DJ Dahi, and the “DAMN.” collaborator Bekon. These new additions bring shimmering piano notes and choral flourishes to the foreboding, unsteady arrangements, which serve as portals to vivid, jarring experiences: the jitters of cabin fever and the mania of release on “N95,” the spooky sex terrors of “Worldwide Steppers,” the pulpit anticipations of “Savior.” Even the sensations of more banal occurrences—getting hard-fouled on the court, or overhearing too much in the next room—are imbued with a certain gravity. Still, the record comes across as more of an outburst than a statement. The music seems to spring from Lamar’s irritation at having to answer for something, instead of the buzz of having something to say. It’s there in the vocals: motormouthed profession, undead deadpans, frenzied yawps, whining chants.
“Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” picks up threads from the “To Pimp a Butterfly” track “Mortal Man,” which wrestled with the artist-audience relationship. Lamar has grown increasingly fixated on his own connection with his fans and detractors, and his verses tense up at nearly every mention of critics. “If I told you who I am, would you use it against me?” he raps on “Die Hard.” One of Lamar’s most conspicuous provocations is his collaboration with the talented, notorious twenty-four-year-old rapper Kodak Black. Since 2016, Black has been a regular in courtrooms, charged with first-degree criminal sexual conduct, among other things. (In 2021, after being pardoned by Trump on another charge, Black took a plea deal in the case and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of first-degree assault and battery.) Lamar aligns himself with the young artist in defiance of what he sees as liberal consensus: “Like it when they pro-Black, but I’m more Kodak Black.” As Black stands in as proxy for the eternal art-versus-artist debate, Lamar’s cousin, the rapper Baby Keem, represents the familial connections that can supersede notoriety. Lamar draws a tenuous parallel between these two types of relationships, which can feel both loving and parasitic when you’re famous.
Lamar clearly has many thoughts about “political correctness,” most in step with the rest of the celebrity class—“Niggas killed freedom of speech, everyone sensitive / If your opinion fuck ’round and leak, might as well send your will,” he raps on “Worldwide Steppers”—but the most prominent one seems to be a note on function and culpability: that rappers can’t save us, that their job is strictly to instigate. In part a response to the adoption of “Alright” as a protest song and the backlash to Lamar’s purported silence during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, he rebukes his position of influence, taking offense to any implication that he should be doing more. “They idolize and praise your name across the nation / Tap the feet and nod the head for confirmation,” he sings, observing that rebellion can breed its own complacency.
Lamar idealizes family as a sanctuary from a judgmental outside world, but his memories also surface the strife that festered in his childhood home. He has often drawn insight from his tumultuous upbringing—see the autobiographical revelations of “good kid, m.A.A.d. city”—and on “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” he is most perceptive when peering inside his own family, using his household as a diorama to examine the conflicts and curses of the Black family unit. With “Father Time,” he exposes the ways his dad’s hardliner methods scarred him, and his aggressive, chin-checking flows seem to simulate the hardscrabble lessons imparted. The haunting “Mother | Sober” tells the story of how abuse ravaged his home; he raps feebly, under his breath, as if he is trying to keep some of his family’s darkest secrets private. Less effective is “Auntie Diaries,” a well-meaning but fumbling chronicle of how Lamar came to embrace a trans relative.
By stepping down from his pedestal and looking inward, Lamar starts to unpack some of his own myth-making, a gnarly bit of work for an artist who has fed his own veneration as a rap messiah with knotty, trapdoor verses and cipher constructs his entire career. (He once said that “DAMN.” was made to be played backward.) He can’t resist a bit of religious self-aggrandizement—on “Rich Spirit” he compares himself to Christ and the Buddha—but he is markedly human on this album: paranoid, insecure, and flawed. Most of the songs reveal a desire to be relieved of his duties as a public figure. On “Mirror,” he sets aside martyrdom to become a family man. “Sorry I didn’t save the world, my friend / I was too busy buildin’ mine again,” he raps, before singing, “I choose me, I’m sorry,” over and over in bleating vocals. Lamar has long made the case for artistic greatness—including his own—as a status beyond reproach, but he also yearns to be accepted in his fallibility and freed from expectations. It’s in navigating this tension that the album pulls itself apart.