“Take all that designer bullshit off and what do you have?”
If you’ve been following Kendrick Lamar Duckworth for the last decade and change, the through line for his career has been evolution. You might think given the heights he’s achieved from critically acclaimed albums to performing at halftime of a Super Bowl that complacency would set in. It would be easy to rest on your laurels and coast on your achievements. In fact some of our own team has expressed skepticism about every Lamar album being treated “like the second coming of Christ,” perhaps thinking he’s overrated and placed on a pedestal he doesn’t deserve. From my own perspective no one is quicker to knock Lamar off that pedestal than he is.
“I come from a generation of home invasions/and I got daddy issues, that’s on me!/Everything them four walls had taught me, they had to bury deep/That man knew a lot, but not enough to keep me past them streets/My life is a plot, twisted from directions that I can’t see.” On songs like “Father Time” featuring Sampha, what I see is an artist laying his soul bare. Lamar admits he grew up being taught “men should never show feelings, being sensitive never helped.” Who does therapy on wax? Kendrick Lamar. “Everything he didn’t want was everything I was/And to my partners that figured it out without a father/I salute you, may your blessings be neutral to your toddlers.” I get chills down my spine on that. He’s trying to break the generational cycle of toxic masculinity with a rap song.
“But that’s the culture, crack a bottle
Hard to deal with the pain when you’re sober
By tomorrow, we forget the remains, we start over
That’s the problem
Our foundation was trained to accept whatever follows
Scrutinize the way we live for you and I
Enemies shook my hand, I can promise I’ll meet you
In the land where no equal is your equal
Never say I ain’t told ya… nah
In the land where hurt people hurt more people
fuck callin it culture”
“The Heart Part 5” was a surprise. It wasn’t a surprise that he made a sequel to “Part 4,” it was a surprise that it came over four years after the last time he dropped a single solo. It wasn’t a surprise that he came back so strong, it was a surprise that he lambasted the very notion of “the culture.” I don’t think there are many currently active rap artists with the authority to say that not everything that gets labelled the culture is good for said same or worthy of upholding and preserving. I’m not saying a Robert Hall couldn’t make the same points, but for me this is Lamar’s own “every brother ain’t a brother” moment. Some things have to be said by the people who have the most at stake.
I don’t think “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” is always an easy listen. The Alchemist produced “We Cry Together” featuring Taylour Paige could make people uncomfortable, but if hearing a man and a woman argue this violently and passionately hits you that way that was exactly the point. There’s a big twist though if you get through the song all the way to the end. “Stop tap dancing around the conversation.” Through over 70 minutes of Lamar’s latest, every facet of life for the young Compton rapper is held up to the light. Love, pain, hope, despair, triumph, defeat, it’s all there. He even talks about homophobia on “Auntie Diaries,” and I was quite surprised.
“The day I chose humanity over religion” is as powerful and provocative a line as has ever been spit in a song. I’ve already seen this described as the “conscious” Kendrick Lamar album, but that would imply he wasn’t thoughtful or conscious just because he once made a song about swimming pools full of liquor. That’s the key to Mr. Duckworth’s music — whatever you think he is, he’s not that easily pigeonholed or quantified. He’s a man that contains multitudes. He can be positive and negative on the same album, on the same song for that matter, because he has chosen to not limit what his self-expression can be.
On an album where Kendrick Lamar makes some very salient points about the culture, “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” is for the culture including the people who will either reject it as “woke” or love it as “speaking truth to power.” Again though we can’t simplify Kendrick Lamar Duckworth that way. The only thing I’m prepared to quantify is that Lamar has some brass cajones knowing he’ll catch it from all angles. He’s prepared to walk through hell with gasoline drawers on and makes no apologies for it to anyone. I’d respect that even if the music wasn’t the bomb, but guess what? He’s a rapper who understands rapping is more than just a good beat, a good punchline, or a good vocal tone. He’s blessed to have all of that but he takes the platform he got from it and makes art that will last a lifetime.