The cat is out of the bag: Kendrick’s favorite subject is himself.
Anyone who’d been paying attention to his music already knew this, of course. Even in To Pimp a Butterfly, his ostensibly “political” album, he was equally drawn to issues of his own mind, and the hypocrisy that he found there, as he was to the broader social issues that so clicked with BLM protesters. You remember that like 2Pac, he was conflicted?
But media discourse and the public imagination tends to take on a life of their own, once an important artist unleashes an opus, or two, or three, as Kendrick has managed. So BLM protesters chanting “Alright”, plus its album’s provocative cover art, and several other tracks that explicitly tackled racism in America, led to Kendrick being seen as the politically tuned-in voice of a generation; the anointed savior of the BLM movement.
Artists usually do their best to quickly shake off such an image – see also Bob Dylan in the 1960s, who famously turned to surrealist rock n’ roll (and many other genres subsequently) in order to escape the burden of his “folkie protest singer” image. The burden of responsibility of being seen as a political leader is too much for most people. And music stars, lest we forget, are just people.
So it’s no surprise that Kendrick has retreated further and further away from his anointed role as spokesperson for a generation. First there was DAMN., which was all about him, and the abstract concepts that comprised his personality like DNA. Now there’s Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, which delves deeper into his autobiography than ever before.
The “concept” (which, as with all album concepts, is pretty loosely adhered to) here is that of a therapy session for Kendrick, with spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, whose narration pops up several times, seemingly acting the part of therapist to a Kendrick who is ready to unspool all of his pent-up issues. Like most therapy sessions, this leads to a lot of material about family life and childhood, a lot of self-inflicted mistakes and dead ends, and some crystalline moments of insight that make the whole venture worthwhile.
With regards to the material about family life and childhood – well, the results are mixed. An early contender for most-discussed track, “We Cry Together”, takes the form of a couple’s vicious – and I mean vicious – spat, with the couple played by Kendrick and actress Taylour Paige (very good as the lead role in last year’s Twitter-thread-based film Zola). And though at first it compels, sounding like nothing else on the album, for having Kendrick’s most deliberately nasty lyrics and performance, and for allowing Taylour Paige equal airtime, on later listens its length and repetitiveness work against it. Plus, starting off with the pretentious “This is what the world sounds like” (umm, no, people are only that consistently vicious on Twitter threads) makes the whole thing sound a serious stretch, and ending it with her pleading him for sex is either a bad joke or a dumb misogynist fantasy. Either way, the thing’s a miss for Kendrick – and quite an ugly and glaring one at that.
Elsewhere, though, he does score hits on the theme of family rifts. The parental twins “Father Time” and “Mother I Sober” hit hard musically first, with choruses from Sampha and Beth Gibbons (of Portishead) comprising the most nakedly emotional, sweetly melodic music on the album. And then Kendrick lives up to the quality challenge laid down by dropping thoughtful and often moving bars all around them, about his “daddy issues” and, far more insightful, the sexual abuse that was rife in his community growing up and even within his own family. The story he reveals about being challenged by his family on whether his cousin sexually abused him is as grippingly told as DAMN.’s “DUCKWORTH.” – so that when Beth Gibbons comes to comfort him later on, with her voice, it’s a soothing, cathartic release.
A song that creates an emotional and musical crescendo in much the same way as “Mother I Sober”, “Auntie Diaries” is another standout. Kendrick adds musical elements subtly throughout, so that you barely notice it’s building up to something. But it becomes clear in the last minute, as the strings gradually whirl to the front of the mix, that the track is constructed to mirror the rising of an important realization to the surface of a consciousness. The realization: that the use of the hate speech regarding the LGBTQ+ community is as inexcusable coming from the mouths of straight rappers as the use of the n-word is from the mouths of white people. The consciousness: Kendrick’s, and, he hopes, the rap community’s at large.
It’s a commendable move, and much more so because Kendrick elevates his consciousness by defending two relatives who came out as trans. The trans community right now are facing increasingly frightful persecution and ignorant abuse from all quarters. So standing up for said community so openly and vividly is a necessary step, and really to be celebrated, especially as the artist comes from a genre of music that has historically caused so many problems for LGBTQ+ people.
Internet commentary has highlighted conflicting points of view about the song being expressed from within the trans community. There’s been criticism of the deadnaming and f-slurs used throughout, though these are counterbalanced by the observation that these offensive occurrences take place within the framework of Kendrick playing the part of his younger, less enlightened self. He doesn’t deadname or use f-slurs when performing as how he is, or how he’d like to be seen as, now. Either way, his last verse on the song, which builds in intensity along with the string backing, is his most convincing performance on the album. The way he constructs words, loading them in great rhythmically sequenced piles on top of each other, in order to show the power of words, in order to demonstrate the importance and effectiveness of using words correctly, is genuinely euphoric.
If only he’d shown such alert understanding of how current society operates elsewhere. His seemingly random complaints about “cancel culture” that occur throughout are eye-rollingly unnecessary. His confusion is demonstrated in that he can only come up with a question, not the answer – “What the fuck is cancel culture, dawg?” To which the only possible response can be: “Something is happening here and you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Morale?”
It might seem peculiar that Kendrick so keenly understands the power of words and deeds to cause terrible damage to entire communities in certain moments on the album, and so very unkeenly doesn’t in others. But it’s only peculiar if you consider all of his past work as unimpeachable; if you managed to ignore, for instance, that on the supposedly flawless To Pimp a Butterfly he slipped in the regrettable “That n**** gave us “Billie Jean,” you say he touched those kids?”
Clearly a fast thinker whose mind goes off in millions of contradictory directions, it’s inevitable that some of those directions his mind wanders in will end up producing failed conclusions and misunderstandings. We should never expect perfection from our geniuses – not only is it an impossibility, the very expectation itself lands a burden on their shoulders that can creatively stifle and frighten them. This explains Dylan’s Self-Portrait, the famously self-destructive dud of an album made at the end of his glory reign. It also explains Kendrick’s Mr. Morale, with his incessant need on it to get out in front of any accusations and let everybody know he’s not perfect, that he’s fallible, that he’s not our savior, and that he can’t please everybody.
It might also explain the sullen, slightly standoffish musical atmosphere evoked by Mr. Morale. Kendrick seems less eager to be loved this time around, less eager to please. The hooks don’t come as thick and fast as they did on DAMN., so that there are no obvious hits tailored for the pop market (although “N95” has a certain growly addictiveness). That’s less concerning than the fact that quite a few songs saunter by on a half-assed beat and meagre instrumental backing. “Crown”, for instance, uses a rather annoying two-note piano repetition for almost its entire duration, and doesn’t care to embellish that with much else of note. Indeed, the piano is used merely to generate a sombre atmosphere, and as the most basic of percussive backing, throughout the entire album, and because it’s used a lot it starts to get tiresome (it’s another reason why “We Cry Together” doesn’t work).
Whilst there’s no need for melody in rap, there is need for musical interest – words alone have never been enough for any musician. In this reviewer’s opinion, not enough is generated on Mr. Morale, for the first time in Kendrick’s career. Take away the rapping from Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and you’d still have a haunting and poignant soundscape; take away the rapping on To Pimp a Butterfly and you’d still have an extraordinary fusion of black musical modes from jazz to funk to instrumental hip-hop; take away the rapping from DAMN. and you’d still have plenty of hits-in-waiting.
But take away the rapping from Mr. Morale and you’d have very little left to celebrate, a couple of guest choruses and the string arrangements on “Auntie Diaries” and “Mirror” aside (the latter thanks to Bēkon). Which is a problem that most reviews of this album have skirted, tending largely to focus on the lyrics. The lyrics have many complications and problems worth addressing, as all of Kendrick’s projects have. But this could quickly have been forgiven with stronger, more memorable musical backing. Really the trap beat mode has worn a bit thin with Kendrick – it’s hard not to wish that he would focus on deepening his music, rather than minimalizing it and pushing it to the background in order to highlight how “personal” his rapping has become.
But maybe that’s just me. And you can’t please everybody.