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Complex Savior: Kendrick Lamar and the Religion of Self

On ‘Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers,’ the Compton rapper is still a man of faith, but he’s also chosen himself

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Two days before his fourth major release, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, Kendrick Lamar unveiled the album’s cover art across his seldom-used but recently-stirred social media accounts. The image was an arresting one: Kendrick bearing a crown of thorns with the hilt of a revolver jutting out from his pants as he holds his daughter, while his longtime partner, Whitney Alford, breastfeeds their infant son on a nearby bed. It’s an image that begs attention, though it’s not exactly a cipher.

The approximate root, owing to the Gospel: “And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him.” That’s Matthew 27:29, describing the moment before the crucifixion, a space in time often referred to as the mocking of Christ. Dare we blaspheme and question why K-Dot’s so caught up in whether or not he’s getting cooked?

Give the new joint a couple of spins and you might also notice that Kendrick’s first message after five years of relative silence isn’t an edict from on high but an eye-level excuse for disappearing in the first place. “I’ve been goin’ through somethin’,” Lamar laments on the opener, a shape-shifting vision called “United in Grief.” Here, again, the implication leaps forth, as if to warn listeners outright, It’s not just you who’s been trying to figure this life shit out.

Taken together with the cover—the preemptive prophecizing of his own downfall, plus the abdication of authority in the present—might it show that Lamar spots the incongruity in coming down from the mountaintop with a message that fails to placate the masses? At minimum, it plays like Kung Fu Kenny used the time off to take a couple courses in deflection and self-defense.

As does the album. With Mr. Morale, K-Dot’s crafted the kind of anti-pop generally reserved for purple-clad iconoclasts: a record that exists solely in service to its creator. (A record that moonlights as a defense of artistic imperative.) It’s music as much for him as it is by him. The hook is that it manages to be without ever having to fully show its hand as to why.

Consider where he was the last time around. The year is 2017; Damn. has just been released to fifty-leven thinkpieces and reviews, most of which fawn over the album in eerily similar ways. One response via the website DJ Booth grapples with the record as a crisis in (and ultimately, treatise on) faith. “I didn’t expect anyone to catch it,” Kendrick replies directly in a letter to the publication. “Our God is a loving God. Yes. He’s a merciful God. Yes. But he’s even more so a God of DISCIPLE. OBEDIENCE. A JEALOUS God. … I wanna spread this truth to my listeners. It’s a journey, but it will be my key to the Kingdom. And theirs as well.”

At 29, he’d reached creative equilibrium; he’d synthesized his artistic and spiritual ideals. Damn. was the final evolution of Kendrick Lamar as pseudo-evangelist, less a cultural seer than a redeemer. The tenets of his art were there in fragments from the beginning: remain grounded. Tell your truth. Plot the good path. Ride melodies and rhythm and do it all within the confines of mainstream rap domination. Damn. topped off a run that started with mixtapes churned out of Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith’s house, grew under the influence of arguably the greatest producer in the genre’s history, and burst when Lamar pimped a butterfly to seven Grammy nominations and universal acclaim.

It had all worked out. Damn. went triple-platinum. “Humble” became Lamar’s best-selling single. He did the soundtrack for Black Panther. He won a Pulitzer and five more Grammys. He bridged high- and lowbrow, the sinners and the saints. But then a year passed, and another, and another, and new music never arrived. He had two kids. He rarely spoke publicly. He’d show up occasionally, at community events or in brief TV cameos (and more recently on Baby Keem records), then disappear again. Doing what, few were exactly sure.

It’s from this space that Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers opens. The contextual vacuum is filled almost immediately. Kenny’s been in therapy. The artistic silence was not by choice but rather the product of a multiyear creative block, a condition exacerbated by his own mental state. Pride had curdled to shame; he realized he isn’t what he believed himself to be.

At least that’s the script. It’s not clear where the autobiography begins and ends. In early listens, Mr. Morale emits serious unending-therapy-session energy, but around replay no. 7 it starts to present more like a journal brought to life. Memories are fragmented. Different voices appear, but only in slivers. Alford has the biggest supporting role on the project, followed by his cousin Baby Keem, and after that angelic vocalist Sam Dew, Florida rapper Kodak Black, and perhaps most stunningly, the German self-help guru Eckhart Tolle. In spite of the extensive roll call, the album is overwhelmingly solitary, both sonically and in consciousness.

Structurally Mr. Morale is interspersed with three sets of songs: ones with more distance, ones with less distance, and ones with absolutely no distance at all. In Camp A are tracks like “Die Hard,” a glossy ditty with a hook about God; “Rich Spirit,” where Kendrick is metronomic in cadence on a tip-toe bass; and the conflictingly dulcet Kodak link-up “Silent Hill.” Camp B includes, among others, an all-time stop-faking-the-funk anthem called “N95” and “Purple Hearts,” a silky, R&B-infused earworm featuring Ghostface Killah and Summer Walker. Then there are the ones that might make you feel icky listening to, and are definitely more intimate than any fan should expect to be privy to. These include the shuffling overdisclosure ode “Worldwide Steppers,” in which he admits to interracial affairs; the best and most haunting track on the record, “Mother I Sober”; and the controversial “Auntie Diaries,” a tale about two trans family members, from the perspective of a cisgendered relative with a crude vocabulary on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Despite running just 73 minutes—short enough to fit on one CD—Mr. Morale has been billed as a double album. Disc 1 is spent unpacking the lifetime of trauma Lamar has accumulated; Disc 2 begins the process of treatment. The themes of the album unfold at a leisurely pace, with the impetus for his growth shifting from Lamar’s children, to Whitney, to his wider family, and then, finally, himself. Though it may present as more direct on Mr. Morale, this sort of intimacy isn’t entirely foreign for the rapper. Lamar has never had any problem bearing a portion of his scars: depression on “U” from To Pimp a Butterfly, alcoholism in his first crossover hit, “Swimming Pools”; existential dread on Damn.’s “Fear.” The key difference up and down Mr. Morale is the frequency of these admissions. It’s tempting to frame the record as devoid of artifice, but doing so assumes that Kendrick is a wholly reliable narrator and that ritualized confession can’t be a maneuver in and of itself.

Truth is, it’s nearly impossible to delineate the motivations that hold Mr. Morale upright from one another. Kendrick’s still a man of faith. How that manifests itself is what’s changed. Admittedly, he’s less in thrall to the confines of organized religion. On “Mother I Sober” he has a line about “prayin’ to the trees” that you could see Cousin Carl from Damn. branding sinful idolatry. And yet more times than not, repentance and vulnerability seem like the end goal here. I don’t know how else to interpret the choice to place a song with Kodak Black—who received a first-degree criminal sexual conduct indictment for an incident involving a teenage girl before accepting a plea deal on lesser battery and assault charges—directly after another song that ends with the words “let’s give the women a break,” if not as an attempt by the dude who made both tracks to show that in Kodak’s quest for redemption, he’s seen proof of his own.

From this light, the well-intended but at times discomforting “Auntie Diaries,” is best seen as a kind of affected transparency. The language on the track appears to be fully deliberate. In the wake of its release, folks have latched onto Lamar’s argument and said, rightfully, that the execution (f-slurs, some in the form of quotes; inconsistent use of present-tense pronouns) negates the intent. Less often asked are the questions: What if the rapper had an idea of the reaction the track would provoke but chose to make it anyway? What if he believed that being relentlessly truthful, unfurling the odious and tattered remains of himself to the masses, outweighed the bad? It’s dense thinking—it ain’t for him to make that argument that way, and queer people don’t exist to set him free—but it’s not exactly impetuous.

It’d fit with how he treats other knots on the record: infidelities and a “lust” addiction that make his “thumbs hurt” from all the texts, how the sexual assault his mother experienced added to a cycle of trauma that visited him. On Mr. Morale, even when the topic is his own pain, disclosure has a distinctly spiritual tone to it. On at least two tracks, Lamar vows that he’s still a vessel for the Lord. (Likewise, it simply cannot be a coincidence that the final choral refrain from Sam Dew, after the purging “Mother I Sober,” is the quasi-exaltation, “I bare my soul and now we’re free.”) Even the sounds of the album—spare piano riffs, brooding percussion patterns, hushed deliveries—are structured to emphasize clarity of message above all.

Mr. Morale’s ultimate bogeyman, the generational curse, occupies a similarly convoluted position. The treatment of the concept begets more questions: Is a curse spiritual, ordained by a fitful higher power, or the result of cyclical earthly behavior? Is Kendrick pulling all them skeletons out his closet because he wants to do better or because he believes that in bringing them to light he’ll be more godly (and thus saved)? Can’t it be both? The ideology of a guy like Eckhart Tolle, the self-help theorist who serves as the album’s spiritual guide, does little to diffuse the conflicts. On the idea of the ego, Tolle, who’s given scant public comments, writes: “There is always a hidden agenda, always a sense of ‘not enough yet,’ of insufficiency and lack that needs to be filled.” Is that sentiment so different from the thought of the Devil whispering over K-Dot’s shoulder?

There is, too, the possibility that Mr. Morale is an exercise in desire. Kendrick could have other priorities. It’s hard to listen to all of those cancel culture points on “Savior” or “Worldwide Steppers” and interpret them as anything other than a celebrity, an especially rich and isolated one at that, not wanting to be subjected to even a veneer of public responsibility. It’s one of the few spots on the album where Lamar slips back into preacher mode. Here, again, these aren’t new sentiments. (See: “Mortal Man” on TPAB, wherein the rapper so eloquently states of Michael Jackson, “that n***a gave us ‘Billie Jean,’ you say he touched those kids?”)

A liberation arc sure is neater; there’s nothing that folks love more than a comeback story, even if the return is a begrudging one. A few tracks on the record give a wink or nod to this kind of salesmanship (“More life to give on demand, are you ready?” from “Mr. Morale”), but just as many rebut it outright (via “Purple Hearts”: “I’m not in the music business, I been in the human business”). Perhaps Mr. Morale might simply be the product of artistic stagnation. Two years of writer’s block will make any album feel like a win. To pin down a primal source and state definitively the record’s thesis statement is ultimately a bit like punching a cloud. Which is probably the point. If Mr. Morale has an abiding vibe, it’s that it simultaneously shows us who Kendrick is and reminds us that even with all that, we really don’t know shit about him.

Try plotting where he goes from here. It’s harder than you’d think, until you come to peace with the fact that it’s really all just guesswork. The known knowns: His contract with Top Dawg Entertainment is done. He has his own label and creative agency, pgLang, to tend, and artists like Keem to help coach through the first phase of their careers. Life at home isn’t going to stop calling. Parenthood and stardom aren’t an easy mix. Disappearance is always an option. He’s not dodging the topic on Mr. Morale (“I choose me”) but that doesn’t stop the project from feeling like a rebirth of sorts. There’s enough ambiguity for King Kendrick to descend from on high again in some form. It’s not entirely clear what kind of reception would await him: glory or wails. He’s lost a few followers; others doubled down. For now, there’s little else to do but heed the white horse. They’ve got a name for that in the Gospel.