I’ve talked about it at length elsewhere on the internet, but Kendrick Lamar genuinely changed my life when he made To Pimp a Butterfly. There are several aspects of my personality and worldview that wouldn’t exist, or at least exist in the same way, if I didn’t listen to that album during my earliest years of adulthood. So, of course, I loved DAMN a few years later, and of course, I loved the Black Panther album a little bit after that. In the final track of To Pimp a Butterfly, Mortal Man, when Kendrick asked “If shit hits the fan, are you still a fan?” I knew what my answer would be by the end of my first listen of that track.

But DAMN came out way back in 2017, over five years ago. Not only have I changed so very much in those years, but the world has, too. In that time we’ve seen the most exhausting presidential term of most of our lifetimes, monthly controversies and political campaigns out to discriminate and erase damn near every minority group under the sun, dozens of black bodies making headlines without any political action to stop them from piling up,  multiple conflicts outside of the US with horrible atrocities being committed openly, and on top of all of that, a plage struck the planet and took a percentage of us with it.

This entire time, Kendricks’ silence had been deafening, so upon his reappearance, I, and millions of others, were reenergized. It has been so long since music made me feel the way that Kendrick’s music does, so I couldn’t wait to feel that feeling again. Well, upon my first listen anyway, I did not feel that feeling. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is an impressive piece of work, but it is not at all what anyone expected, and for many, it won’t be what they wanted either. It sometimes feels like this is an album from a completely different artist with a completely different mindset, but after sitting with the album long enough, I was able to see just how authentically Kendrick this album is.

Instrumental Delight

Let’s start with the opening track, United in Grief, which opens with Sam Dew’s beautiful vocals hoping the listener “finds some peace of mind in this lifetime”. It’s an ironically kind start to an album that is full of so many messily expressed ideas and ugly traumas, though it does loop nicely when coming back to it after the final track. Next, Kendrick lists the exact number of days since DAMN came out before telling us listeners to “be afraid”, and well, I was. This was the first time we’ve heard this man’s voice in nearly half a decade. I had no idea what he was about to say, and he was about to say a Goddamn lot. The energy of this intro is incredibly high, thanks to Kendrick’s trademark, frenzied vocal delivery. Even when the beat transitions from sparse pianos and bizarre rewinds to aggressive drums reminiscent of Yelawolf’s Outer Space, he keeps the energy consistent. It ends with a calm piano melody that drifts away as we’re brought into the rest of the album, which gave me a bit of time to catch my breath after that explosive opening. And outside of the sound, Kendrick is opening up for the first time, at least directly and explicitly, about his infidelity. Whenever Kendrick spoke about sleeping with other women on previous albums, there was a bit of plausible deniability that these flings could have been before he met his high school sweetheart Whitney Alford, who we also hear from at the beginning of this track. But mentioning that this is during a North American tour makes the timeline much more obvious, and later tracks will future clarify that they were not on a Will-and-Jada-like break either. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the uncomfortable ways in which Kendrick exposes himself in this album.

N95 is clearly the massive radio hit of the album and the fact it was the first to receive a music video backs that up greatly. Its instrumental has a playfully epic feel reminiscent of the obscure Kanye West cut that Gucci Mane hopped on shortly after leaving prison, Champions. Plus, the “YOU UGLY AS FUCK” in the chorus is so easily memeable and exciting to sing along to that I’m sure this track will have the longest life on the charts of any cut on this project. But lyrically, while there is substance here, it’s not the strongest on the album. It’s a song about taking off the “masks” we put on to assimilate to our surroundings, and if there’s anyone worth knowing behind that facade. And to his credit, he does speak a bit about the Current Climate™ in his second and third verses, where he describes our sense of feeling lost in all of the continuing chaos. But the “What community feels like they the only ones relevant” line also hit me hard upon relistens as I feel like it most directly reflects the themes of this album. Kendrick, as I’ll talk about more in this review, cares a lot, but he is often questioning the listener if they can stretch their own empathy to the same extremes. This is a bit of foreshadowing to that question, which will get tackled more directly in tracks like Auntie Diaries. And finally, the “This Shit Hard” adlib has a bit of deeper meaning as well, as not only is the song itself sonically pleasing, but the topics and themes he’ll be tackling are actually hard to talk about, which is another decent bit of foreshadowing.

Worldwide Steppers is where Kendrick throws us his first big curveball: the inclusion of, of all people, Kodak Black as both a feature and a brief narrator throughout the project. Trust me, I have much to say about him later on, but on this track, he mentions not only his own name and Kendrick’s production company, Oklama, but also self-help writing and spiritual leader Eckhart Tolle. Now, I’ll be honest, I only vaguely know the guy from Oprah’s cosigning of him, so I won’t focus on his teachings and concepts much throughout this review. But Tolle has undeniably left a massive impact on Kendrick’s thought process in the last few years and, therefore, is certainly responsible for many of the concepts on this album as well. But once the song does start propper, it introduces a banging, yet sinister beat that feels almost like the kind of music you’d play as Jaws swims up to a clueless victim. The doo-wap vocals in the background help make the sound a bit less sinister, however, and the brief 9th Wonder–esque beat switch also keeps the track from droning on, alongside Kendrick’s vocals. Besides that “what the fuck!” soundbite I instantly recognized, the line “If your opinion fuck round and leak, might as well send your will” is an interesting one. I feel like Kendrick might be commenting on how dangerous it is nowadays for a nonstandard opinion to be presented in many circles, especially with little or no context around it, as is often done on sites like Twitter. Your intent often doesn’t matter if anyone can infer or create their own for you instead. Perhaps it’s a reach, but considering how often Kendrick negatively references “PC culture” (a term that just instinctively scares me whenever I hear it used unironically) throughout the album, I think this read is pretty valid. As for his delivery, while not as frantic as he was on the last two songs, he spits confidently and directly. It feels less like a stream of consciousness and more like a straightforward listing of different aspects of himself and his worldview. And honestly, this track is the first track that makes me feel that this entire album is framed as therapy sessions or at least personal breakthroughs that came about as a result of them.

Consider the arc of someone who might be considering therapy for the first time. Perhaps they recently experienced a traumatic event that lead them to finally seek help, so their first session will be an energetic expression of their most obvious issues, hence the lyrical content of United in Grief. Then eventually you begin to shed the mask you’ve worn to obscure your true self, and then once it’s off, you can be much more straightforward with your therapist, hence N95 and Worldwide Steppers. I think this reading is pretty sound, as Kendrick has previously framed his albums as short films (Good Kidd, Maad City), poems (To Pimp a Butterfly), magazines (DAMN), and books (Section.80). Feel free to interpret this project in your own way, because any good art invites that, but I’ll just be running with this idea for the rest of the review.

Die Hard has truly beautiful instrumentation, and is one of my favorite tracks on the album for how smooth it sounds. It feels like the kind of music I’d want to listen to if I ever learned how to fly like Superman, and I can feel the clouds slide through my fingers as the angelic vocals of Amanda Reifer and Blxst carry me away. But the song is elevated as the groovy bounce of the track complements Kendricks’s verses as well. This feels like another instance of Kendrick opening up, but he’s being much more bashful about it and therefore invites a more tender approach to getting those demons out of him. Kendrick seems so much less abrasive here, asking meekly if it’s “safe or not” for him to open up and if he can be honest with who he is without it being used against him. This works with the therapy session frame I mentioned earlier, but also is a bit of a meta call to the listener. As we dig deeper into the album, Kendrick will show sides of him that he never has before, and as I’ll talk about, they are not all becoming of the proclaimed king of hip-hop. It gives the entire track the vibe of a parent coaxing a confession out of a child that’s certain they’re getting their ass whooped as soon as they admit to breaking the new vase. That comparison implies this vibe comes off as childish, but instead it comes off as warm and understanding, a tone that is inviting to the kinds of recovery and transformation this album talks about throughout.

Father Time starts with a brief conversation where Kendrick dismisses therapy after it’s recommended to him, which clashes with the song that follows it, as it seems to be the first real breakthrough Kendrick makes in fighting his internal issues. Sonically, it’s excellent, with a mesmerizing piano rift and rewinding sample that has similar vibes to Eminem’s The Kids. Sampha does well on the hook, and while he comes off as a bit underutilized, the song is really here to highlight the theme of how masculinity is taught to future generations, and how it can perpetuate toxic behaviors. Kendrick speaks at length about how he felt pressured to suppress his genuine emotions to please his father and how he was taught to harden himself outside of the house thanks to the example his dad set. Now, this isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to Kendrick or even just black boys. Toxic masculinity has been a hot topic for many years, and all you have to do to be a victim of it is be raised in American, or American adjacent, culture. But black boys do have a specific slant on it. Not only are we not expected, or often even allowed, to be sensitive or “soft” as men, but we also are so often seen as aggressors as black men that trying to be perceived as anything else either fails or leads to our sexuality or identities being questioned. 

This theme and this song hit especially hard for me personally. My dad is a fraternity brother turned 25-year high school football coach, so the fact that his first son was some dweeb who would rather play Bayonetta and watch 3-hour video essays about internet culture than play any sport had to have come to him as a bit of a shock. Now my dad loves me, and he tells me that more and more often as we both get older, but when Kendrick says “everything he didn’t want was everything I was” I recognized that feeling with perfect clarity. Plus, my dad also didn’t have the best childhood, and this song got me thinking about how the past struggles of both Kendrick’s father and my own have affected how they parent us. The tone of the song makes it come off as more condemnatory of the culture of toxic masculinity and the generational racial injustices that lead men like our fathers to treat their kids like this rather than an indictment of these men individually. But even while focusing on men’s issues, Kendrick makes sure to use his last line to show some grace to the women who have to put up with us men and often are tasked with healing us. It ties back to the great depths of empathy that Kendrick is showing on the album, and it’s certainly necessary, as broken men in need of women to fix them is a well-known cliche by now. It’s a song that I’m sure many men, and especially black men can deeply relate to, and it’s one of the most impactful tracks on the entire album.

Kodak Moment

Rich – Interlude is a bit more complicated, though. Now, speaking on the track exclusively, it is a pretty powerful piece. Kodak Black returns to deliver powerful spoken word over an increasingly chaotic and scattered piano melody that eventually softly fades away into the more lo-key tone of the next track. Plus, I think Kodak’s voice contrasts nicely with the more traditional classic instruments used. The actual lyrics move back and forth from surprisingly detached views of the street lifestyle to direct first-person accounts of certain debaucherous or desperate activities. It begins with Kodak describing the struggles of poverty and ends with him, faster than he may have realized, ascending to a point in life where he owns property and has effectively made it. It’s an effective track with an effective message, although it is from the mouth of an…imperfect messenger. And well, I think it’s time to talk about the rapist in the room.

Kodak Black is an insanely popular artist. He’s not squarely in the range of rappers I typically listen to, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had one or two songs of his on rotation back in the day. But he’s been a controversial figure throughout his career. He’s said some truly out-of-pocket things on social media, like claiming he’ll wait a little bit before trying to sleep with Lauren London, who had just been made a widow after Nipsey Hustle’s sudden murder. He’s also talked about how he isn’t into dark-skinned women because he wouldn’t want his own child to be that dark as he already hates his own complexion. And worst than that are his legal troubles. At 24 years old, he has almost spent more time in his life behind bars than free from them. He’s been arrested multiple times for everything from battery, robbery, false imprisonment of a child (of which he is a father of at least one), possession of a weapon by a convicted felon, and a handful of cannabis-related charges. But worst of all, he apparently raped a young girl in South Carolina while she screamed repeatedly for help. And the “apparently” in that sentence can only carry so much weight, as he’s flagrantly talked about getting away with this and other various crimes on his social media accounts.

I am not here to excuse any of that behavior, with maybe an exception to the drug charges because as we all know, those really only exist to criminalize black men. But all of the more heinous stuff is frankly unforgivable, especially for those who are survivors of sexual assault themselves and considering how he has yet to sincerely apologize to that woman or the public for any of it. And additionally, the wider hip-hop community hasn’t properly damned him for at least that sexual assault, as Jay Z himself just added him to his most recent playlist on Tidal the day I’m writing this. But when I try to sit down and figure out why Kendrick would not only give him his own track and a feature later in the album but also get him to provide sparse narration throughout, I have to go back to the themes of this project. Again I ask, what are the limits of my empathy, and can I stretch them any further? Well, when I try to, I see what Kendrick seems to be saying by working with Kodak Black. Despite Kendrick being from Compton and Kodak being from Flordia, they both came from similarly rough neighborhoods and likely experienced similarly traumatizing events in their lives. I’m sure Kendrick sees himself in Kodak a bit, and therefore may be using him to reflect a side of himself that will continue to be deconstructed throughout the rest of the album. But also, when considering why someone like Kodak Black is like that, we obviously know that men like him aren’t born monsters. As a black man in America, and especially one in poverty, you bear witness, or are sometimes even victim to, some gnarly shit, and those experiences sometimes fester in a person’s heart long enough for them to do those same evil acts to others. As Kendrick mentioned in The Heart Part 5, “hurt people hurt more people”, and breaking down the culture and structural systems that cause that hurt is the ultimate goal. But what the fuck do we do with the people who are already victims of those systems and cultures? 

This all makes me think about that one video where Kodak Black excitedly tells a room full of college football players that he’s trying to attend their school someday, only for them all to laugh it off like it was a joke. How much must that hurt, to be so far gone in everyone’s eyes that the idea you’d want to better yourself now is some joke? I think of that tweet where he talked about not liking dark-skinned women. How much-internalized hatred must you have to hate your skin so much that you’d deprive yourself of an entire section of women? If he hates himself that much, then can you imagine the self-annihilation he must be engaging in.  Folks like Kodak clearly need to be better, but are we to expect them to do so by themselves? I think that is the question Kendrick is proposing here. As for my answer, I don’t think I need to, nor really want to, be the person to have Kodak Black’s back. But a few of my relatives are like Kodak Black, and I’m sure many with impoverished family members know some, too. They’re the cousins you try to keep tabs on every now and then to make sure they stay out of trouble or the uncles you try to talk to whenever they are about to do some wild shit. For folks that know better in these rough environments, they feel compelled to put in that work to keep the worst of the worst from spiraling into internal and external destruction. Interacting with a murderer just so you can one day influence them to stop murdering or keeping in contact with a rapist just so you can one day get them to stop raping, are not concepts that so-called “PC culture” is friendly to, and that’s more than understandable. If that opinion was to fuck around a leak, you really might as well send out your will. But as someone who claims to care about humanity, I was able to meet Kendrick where he seems to be coming from, and hear him out, even if I find it hard to agree with him on this completely.

Now, to lighten the mood again. Rich Spirit follows that interlude with an incredibly low-fi vibe that I didn’t expect from Kendrick, especially since I feel like this vibe is so rare in most mainstream hip hop. In fact, this is only a few degrees of separation from sounding like the kind of music they play in a vampire club in Blade 2. It’s a self-confidence ballad on night mode, the kind of song you play in the car with the homies on the way to a late-night house party. It just, makes you feel cool, but in the “I don’t care what others think” way rather than “everyone loves me” kinda way. As a self-proclaimed introvert, I love this song, and it really does uplift my spirit. In the same way that listening to Beyonce will make me feel pretty, listening to this song makes me feel certain that what’s behind my looks is just as worth engaging with. Lyrically the song is pretty great as well, with a few nice lines like “I pray to God you actually pray when somebody dies, Thoughts and prayers, way better off timelines”. But the subdued delivery of these lines alongside the relaxed beat really makes this song a hit for me.

And now for one of the most initially shocking and baffling tracks on the album, We Cry Together. For as offputting as this song is at first, would it be weird of me to admit how sonically pleasant this track is? The Alchemist has quickly become one of my favorite producers thanks to his work with Grizelda, but he works his magic here just as perfectly. The verses sound great, but the addition of a dizzying buzz over the choruses makes the song feel like an endless stream of pain that neither of these characters can ever leave. But Kendrick and Zola’s own Taylour Paige deliver their lines so rhythmically that, despite being fully immersed in their argument, it feels like they’re arguing in song, like a more grounded musical. The sound design does a lot to immerse the listener as well, as you can hear items being thrown and furniture being hit in frustration as they go at each other. And as for the argument itself, I think it’s a lot more than just meaningless screaming. Where a track like Kim from Eminem, a song that this is clearly inspired by, doesn’t seem to serve much of a purpose outside of showing the troubled psyche of Slim Shady, the details of the argument here matter. We don’t hear what the argument is actually about, but it seems obvious that they’re actually mad about something deeper. Listening to Taylour’s accusation of Kendrick being the reason women at large are “overlooked, underpaid, under-booked, under shame” portrays her hurt as much more serious than some petty disagreement. She’s mad about the bullshit women, and especially black women,  go through on a daily basis in America, and Taylour’s raspy and voice-crack-laden vocal delivery makes that pain feel real. Conversely, Kendrick sounds embarrassingly stupid in his rebuttals as he fails to list proper anecdotal evidence to contradict her issues. This song kinda portrays Kendrick as the “loser” of the argument, especially once he resorts to stealing her keys as a childish form of revenge. Similar to his last line on Father Time, it’s another example of Kendrick giving grace to women on this album, or at least portraying their hurt as just as valid as his own. But then, the unimportance of the argument itself shows itself plainly at the end of the song when Taylour is back to desiring Kendrick and Kendrick is back to being calmer himself. I see this song as a reflection of one of the biggest truths of being black in America, you are mad a lot. There’s, understandably, a lot to be mad about, but so often we let that anger out on the same people we come to for comfort. It’s not the trait of a healthy relationship, but it’s a trait I’ve not only seen portrayed often in classic black movies like Baby Boy and Poetic Justice but also have seen acted out firsthand. We just have so much justifiable rage that it’s often hard to find a healthy place to let that steam off. Perhaps that’s why, after writing this song off as something everyone would see as offputting, I was surprised to see so many of my female friends tell me they enjoyed the track. Perhaps they are way too comfortable with toxic relationships, but when you are raised in an inherently unfair environment, perhaps that is just the natural outcome.

The final song on the first of two albums (yes this is a double album, I would have said so sooner but there are a lot of words here so try to keep up) is Purple Hearts, which also features Summer Walker and Ghostface Killah of Wu-Tang Clan. Now, sonically, this song reminds me of Bliss, the Teyana Taylor and John Legend collaboration from Kanye’s Cruel Summer project, but a little less theatrical. In fact, the whole song feels like a love ballad but is a bit subdued for some reason. Summer Walker sounds great and fits well on this track, though her saying “it ain’t love if you ain’t never eat my ass” does take me out of the song for a second every time, even if the statement is true. And Ghostface Killah feels like he’s meant to be the climax of the song, which is fitting for a voice as iconic as his. His contribution feels like a last chance at salvation from Kendrick before fading away, which is not the kind of vibe I think about when I think about my favorite Ghostface tracks, but he doesn’t sound at all out of place. Kendrick seems to outright state this is some kind of love song, as he says that if God is the source of love then” I am the plug talkin”. But overall the track feels less romantic than it does loving in a more general sense, even with Summer Walker’s lyrics being more directly sexual. The track is solid enough, but thankfully, the full album ends on a much more impressive note.

It’s a Double Album

Disk 2 starts with Count Me Out, a track that feels like another introductory song despite being in the middle of the album. It does begin with Kendrick’s wife Whitney Alford saying “Session 10: Breakthrough” which both further supports my therapy session frame and foreshadows that his second disk is going to be a lot more personal. The song does properly start off with a very minimalist guitar that is soon joined by a swelling choir. This opening sounds so much like a Chance the Rapper song that I almost instinctively expected Kendrick to rap about loving his wife. But instead, he recaps many of the themes he talks about on disk one, such as infidelity and wearing metaphorical masks. He concludes that the way to overcome these issues is to forgive himself and love himself truly, finally. And therefore, this new challenge seems to energize him, as he loves to be counted out and rise as an underdog. But when he makes that switch, the beat has a very The-Life-of-Pablo-ish switch as well and leads into a beat that is merely fine. I feel like this track is trying to have a hype back half, but sonically its vibe feels too muted to hype me up. But I do like how the track fades away as Kendrick raises his voice as if the true battle is only about to begin.

Crown follows that up with a song that is even more polarizing to me than Count Me Out. The production is the most obvious flaw with the track. It’s just piano, that’s it, for nearly 4 and a half minutes straight. By the time some very pleasant and welcome background vocals come in right before the 3-minute mark, the song has already been going on too long to finally shift into a slightly more energetic gear. Kendrick is slipping lyrically here as well. He talks about how much he sacrifices to please others, and how much he tries to uphold the reputation of his status in hip hop and black culture as a whole. But ultimately, he concludes that he can’t please everyone, and it seems he finds that a bit freeing. Now while I find this message relatable and well portrayed, he delivers it so slowly that by the back half of the song I really have to work to pull the thematic threads through all the way to the end. However, upon several relistens, the song has grown on me a bit. While the opening of the song does bring back those initially sour emotions, by the end I see the song less as a failure to be a banger and more like an interpretive performance on a live stage. The repeated “you can’t please everybody!” lines at the end of the track make the song sound a little silly in the way stage musicals often sound, and therefore I give it a little more grace when viewed through that lens. Plus, it makes the song much easier to visualize, and I can easily see Kendrick alone on a stage with a single spotlight on him as he recites the lyrics exaggeratedly. Ultimately I like the song fine enough, but I can understand why this song won’t be on many playlists anytime soon.

Silent Hill is an appropriately named track, as it does seem to play off of the vibe of that iconic game series. The track is hard, but also it definitely sounds foggy and haunted in a way that’s hard to describe. It’s still very much so a traditional hit song, as that “Push these niggas off me like, ‘Huh’” line seems genetically engineered to go viral on TikTok. And Kodak appearing again as a full-fledged feature ensures that many of the youths who would never have listened to an album about generational trauma will at least sample it with this track. I like this track a lot, though I would have liked it if Kendrick’s verses took up more of the song. I don’t just mean that I wish he rapped more, but that I wish Kodak’s verse didn’t take up a good 60% of the track’s energy. Like, I’m not at all impressed with Kodak as a musician or a person, but I can not deny how nice he sounds on this track. The low-fi energy of the instrumental, once again, contrasts with his grimy voice and the strings near the end of his verse seal the deal to make this track a certified banger. But I talked at length earlier about Kodak’s sins, so having to enjoy him on a track again does make me uncomfortable.

Savior – Interlude arrives to act as the mirror image of Kodak’s Rich – Interlude earlier in the tracklist. Baby Keem hops in the booth this time to tell a similar story to the one told in the last interlude but told with less bite and grit. Keem also talks about many of the unsavory sights seen when having a rough upbringing, but unlike the other interlude, he talks about it from a more distant perspective, as if these things are happening to him more than he is acting them out. Plus, this piece here lingers less on the times of poverty and more on the times of prosperity, as Keem highlights more how life changes once you make money and how someone like he, or Kendrick, would have to move in the current day. The instrumental is different as well, as it relies much more on strings over purely piano like previously. I see this as portraying this side of Kendrick as being cleaner and less grimy, so this track sounds more traditionally like an orchestra where all Kodak’s interlude got was the piano. Ultimately, both tracks were able to sound great, but the Savior – Interlude sounds notably more cinematic and expensive by comparison, and I think this discrepancy is purposeful. Especially considering this track ends with the pure piano once again, as if to speak back directly to the humble beginnings of the Rich – Interlude. I see this track as showing the other side of the same coin that is Kendrick Lamar. And as many have already theorized, this track is a hint that the entire track list is meant to mirror itself across both disks. I honestly don’t have time to get into all that since we’ve all been here long enough but trust me, I’ll use these words elsewhere soon.

Savior is the next track and it, metaphorically of course, threw me back on my ass when I first heard it. Now, look, I have a To Pimp A Butterfly vinyl on my wall, a signed DAMN CD on my shelf, and at least 3 pieces of Kendrick Lamar apparel, one of which I bought during his DAMN tour. I clearly look up to Kendrick to a borderline unhealthy degree. So, to hear Kendrick directly say “I am not your savior” threw me the fuck off. Deep down, I know he’s not actually the savior of hip hop that he’s often meme’d and hyped up to be, and I’ve really always known that. But to have him reject that position like this was a bit of a shock. But that shock was softened by some of the best production on the album. Once the beat drops about 43 seconds in, I can’t help but get hype and vibe out to the track. The song sonically skates between the free-flying vibes of Die Hard and the hard-hitting vibes of more rappity rap songs of Kendrick’s back catalog, like Backseat Freestyle. But the track is still lyrically dense, as Kendrick briefly touches on everything from the hilarious hypocrisy of COVID vaccine deniers to the war going on in Ukraine. But despite the many topics that come up, the subject of his savior complex is still the one in the sharpest focus. Even the chorus has Baby Keem saying “are you happy for me? Smile in my face, but are you happy for me? I’m out the way, are you happy for me?” which feels like a direct question to the listener and really just me specifically. As someone who did more than their fair share to put Kendrick on this impossibly high pedestal, am I a real enough fan to accept his rejection of that status and his promise to live as a complex human being, with all of his flaws on full display? Well, if I’m being honest, I was not happy for him, at least not after my first listen. Of course, I’ve changed my view of that, but that’s a discussion best saved for the last track of the album.

K.Dot Said Trans Rights

Then we have the single most surprising track on the entire album, and potentially the most powerful and the most controversial, Auntie Diaries. This song is, thematically at least, a hot ass mess, but sonically it is even more subdued than tracks like Silent Hill and Rich Spirit. Unlike Crown, it doesn’t rely solely on a piano to hold its somber mood, but utilizes a more traditional, though stripped down, boom-bap rap beat, with grander orchestration easing in as the climax of the track approaches. It makes for a soundscape that puts as much attention as possible on Kendrick’s words. And…well…about those words. So, this track is the Kendrick Lamar equivalent of Macklemore’s gay allyship ballad, Same Love, just swap gay rights with trans rights. But it’s nowhere near as corny as that sounds on paper. Instead of rapping about a very distant experience of gay people, Kendrick raps about a very personal relationship he had with one of his aunts who he and his family understood to be a man. (Oh, and just to keep things proper, I’ll be referring to his aunt as his uncle from now on, so try to keep up.) He shares tender details about how excited he would be to hang out with him, and how many of his learned masculine behaviors were learned from this trans icon in his life. In fact, Kendrick shares that the first time he ever saw someone write a rap was when he saw his uncle do it. It’s honestly quite a revelation to hear all this as Kendrick has never even hinted at something like this, but perhaps that is what makes it hit so hard. Also, I can very easily picture the kind of person Kendrick is talking about, which is basically my one single uncle, Uncle Cornell, but in the body of an aged-up Young MA. And I also relate to that feeling of having favorite aunts and uncles and the wonder I’d feel getting to go on adventures with them. 

Later on in the track, when that grander orchestration creeps in, Kendrick talks about one of his trans cousins and how their coming out was a surprise to everyone in the family but Kendrick, who saw the signs early on. He then describes a scenario in which his cousin was directly pointed out by their pastor during church service and called an abomination. I’ll admit, I’ve felt a similar feeling that Mary-Ann, his trans cousin, felt. Pastors, like most public speakers, play to their audience, which leads them to often not really challenge any of the congregation’s most deeply held assumptions. In my case, as a teenager, I’d often sit through sermons where my pastor would site something as insignificant as “kids running around with their hair uncombed” or “crazy rap lyrics” as signs of godlessness in the world. Meanwhile, I’d be in the pew with the latest Eminem album paused on my phone and my hair, which I had just started to grow out, completely uncombed. I remember the guilt and shame I’d feel when my younger siblings would look at me down the pew, so I can only imagine how much worse it would feel to have your entire identity called into question and to be specifically called out for it on such a public stage. Moments like these, among other things, lead to me drifting away further from organized religion despite me still believing that being like Christ is still a noble goal, even if I don’t feel like being a Christian is anymore. Kendrick then hops up to defend his cousin mid sermon, to the disdain of the pastor and the rest of the congregation. This moment is admittedly a bit corny and, dare I say, cringe. But the feeling I know his cousin must have felt is so familiar that I come around on that moment of allyship being more appreciated than hokey.

But then the song ends with the conclusion to the most obvious concept that’s been talked about throughout the entire song, one that I haven’t discussed until now since it’s the most controversial element. Throughout the song Kendrick says a slur often used against gay and queer folk; it begins with an F. He uses this slur to reflect on how he and his friends would use it carelessly growing up, often jokingly. Once Mary-Ann began to transition, those jokes stopped being so funny to her, so she and Kendrick fell out with one another. Well, after the incident at church, they reunite and discuss the use of that word. Effectively, Mary-Ann gives him a pretty clear ultimatum: he can use the slur as much as he wants if he lets a white girl, like the one he brought onstage rap at a show a few years back, say nigga. I’m not new to this kinda thing, so this comparison comes off as a bit elementary, but I think this is an effective parallel for the kinds of people who really need this song.

Now, I’ve already seen a handful of Kendrick fans on Twitter, TikTok, and Reddit who have expressed just how overjoyed they were to have their favorite artist see their gender identity as valid, and I love that so very much for all of them. But Kendrick did not make this song at all for the LGBTQ+ community, he made it for the Black community. Let’s keep it real, in the same way that toxic masculine behavior is often considered ingrained within black culture, homophobia is as well. I had very early exposure to gay people as punchlines to jokes or as community/family members I should pity. it wasn’t until I was nearly in middle school that my friend group entirely shut down a forced gay joke I made, and from then on I more or less knew better. But, while outright bigotry has long left my head space, I don’t think I could call myself anything close to an ally until maybe a handful of years ago. It wasn’t until I made a few gay and trans friends, watched a few shows and movies with prominent queer characters, became fans of many trans YouTubers, and listened to all their perspectives for a while, did I come around and understand them in any small way I can.

I say all of that to say this: the fact that the biggest rap artist in the world, or at least the biggest one whose lyrics we’d care about, dedicated an entire song to respecting transgender individuals is absolutely insane, in the best way! There are so many black boys whose first introduction to the idea of trans folks is going to be this song, and while it is not the best start, it’s far better than any of the starting points I would have had as a kid who consumed black art and culture in the early 2000s. This potential impact is just so huge, that the use of slurs, and also the inconsistent deadnaming throughout the track, feels irrelevant compared to what this track is actually doing. If this track was addressed to the communities that would be personally hurt by the use of this slur, the deadnaming, and the misgendering, then I would fully understand that community being upset about it, and hell, I even understand it now. But let’s not act like Kendrick could have made this same song without any of those offending terms on the same album with multiple Kodak Black features without giving listeners so much tonal whiplash that we’d all need neck braces.

Kendrick is taking an, albeit modest, risk by making this song right now, at a time when trans folks specifically are being targeted with bogus and discriminatory laws and when some of the most prominent members of black culture, like Dave Chappelle, have vilified trans folks in the very recent past. And really, this just goes back to that question of “how far does your empathy go?” Except for this time, Kendrick is speaking to a completely different audience than he was with that Kodak feature. There, black folks can see the humanity in Kodak Black more easily because people like him, for better or worse, are often found in our communities. But when the tables are turned and we are asked to empathize with minority groups with that we may not have strong ties, it becomes impossible, or we become outright hostile. I’ll admit, with maybe an exception for Native Americans, no minority group in this country has been done dirtier, over a longer amount of time, than African Americans. That will likely always be true, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t make room in our hearts to understand others who have also been done dirty by the same systems and people that hold us down. This track feels like another test, not just for folks outside of the black community to understand the intent behind Kendrick’s words before demonizing him for it, but also a test for the black community as well to see if we are capable of extending that empathy we give to similarly disrespected minority groups, like Hispanics, to the queer community as well. And, well, clearly I believe we can, but we’ll have to prove it as Kendrick does at the end of that track by being a good ally and unlearning his bigotry.

Clearly, I’ve thought about this topic a lot, even before hearing Auntie Diaries for the first time. So, yes, this track was the only track that made me cry upon my first listen. It’s not only a fantastic song, but it’s a remarkable gesture that was absolutely unnecessary and unexpected. But that’s the thing about doing the right thing, it means a lot more when you do it without anyone asking. And I’m so glad he did. I just hope it makes the impact that I expect it to make.

Mr. Morale is the next track and it most directly illustrates a quirk that I have with this entire album. The track is a similarly straightforward banger to N95, though Pharell is on production so  it sounds less like the diet Baby Keem cut of that song and more like a simplified blend of 32.22 from Childish Gambino’s offputtingly experimental 3.15.20 and Black Skinhead from Kanye’s Yeezus. The track feels epic and grandiose, like the type of track that would play as two city-sized Titans were brawling. Yet at the same time, it has a thumping bounce to it that I can’t help but imagine being played at high school football games as the home team runs out onto the field. But despite the easy to love instrumental, the lyrics don’t match the tone of the song at all. I like the dichotomy, as the serious topics being spoken about match the seriousness of the beat in my mind. But as an accessible Pharell-produced banger, it is definitely jarring to hear Kendrick talk about black trauma and his mother’s abuse. Plus, the stray R. Kelly mention, which does tie into the themes evoked with the Kodak Black feature, does stick out like a sore thumb as well. Even Tanna Leone’s fun bridge clashes a bit with Sam Dew’s haunting interlude that precedes it in the song. I like the track, but the lyrical content is definitely going to keep this one from some people’s playlists. And honestly, that’s a quirk of much of this album, the lyrical subject matter and content are either so dense or offputting that I can’t imagine it would invite many repeat listens from casual audiences. Like, outside of N95, I couldn’t imagine hearing many of these songs during the NBA Playoffs. This isn’t really a problem per se, but at times it does lead me to feel like the more welcoming production on some of the songs here serve as the sugar to help the medicine that is the lyrics go down much more easily. Again, not really a critique, but an interesting observation that I don’t think would apply to most mainstream rap artists.

Save the Trauma for ya Mamma

The penultimate track is possibly the most vulnerable track of Kendrick’s career since DAMN’s FEAR, Mother I Sober. Instrumentally, this is a lot like Crown, relying mainly on piano with a faint drum pattern and some soft vocals as backup, followed by some swooning strings at the climax of the track. This song might have gotten similarly stale, but Beth Gibbons of Portishead really grounds the entire track in such a tender and nonjudgmental energy that let’s the long, softspoken verses from Kendrick curl up into the surrounding sonic landscape like a child sinking into the comforting arms of their mother. And, in part, the song is about mothers; Kendrick’s mother, his baby mother in the form of his wife Whitney Alford, and how Kendrick’s past traumas have affected him as an adult. He talks with shocking frankness about his childhood regrets, the trauma he’s witnessed, and the pain he himself has caused through his unhealthy relationship with sex alluded to on United In Grief and Worldwide Steppers. Different but similar to how We Cry Together was difficult to listen to due to how personal it felt, this song initially is hard to listen to. It feels like Kendrick is bearing his soul here, and his bashful and near tearful delivery makes that feel even more true. It’s a serious look at not only how these traumas affect Kendrick himself, but also how heinous acts like this affect black families everywhere in the country. As I said, there are a bunch of Kodak Blacks out there, and their actions are only going to create more. But when you get right down to it, those traumatic acts were introduced to us when we were brought over to this county by force and freely abused in all kinds of ways for centuries. And even now, you don’t have to search too far to see that much of that abuse is not only still going on, but is legally regulated or otherwise allowed to continue without consequence. This is how the hurt people who hurt people are created, but no one walks around with that pain nakedly displayed. That’s where the line “I see ’em daily buryin’ they pain in chains and tattoos, So listen close before you start to pass judgment on how he moves, learn how he cope” comes in. The Culture™, or just black culture, is often conflated with the gangsta imagery of hip hop, and we have largely come to accept that. But Kendrick wants to analyze the culture deeper, as he hinted at doing in The Heart Part 5. So much of what we consider black culture seems to stem from coping mechanisms we’ve created to deal with these generational traumas and psychological barriers we’ve built to keep our pain from defining us.. It’s not enough to say that behaviors and images like these are bad, but you gotta know the reason for these behaviors and address it at the root. This is Kendrick doing just that, as much as he can as just a rap artist at least. And once again, that theme of empathy comes back around both here and especially in the final words of the song.

“So I set free myself from all the guilt that I thought I made

So I set free my mother all the hurt that she titled shame

So I set free my cousin, chaotic for my mother’s pain

I hope Hykeem made you proud, ’cause you ain’t die in vain

So I set free the power of Whitney, may she heal us all

So I set free our children, may good karma keep them with God

So I set free the hearts filled with hatred, keep our bodies sacred

As I set free all you abusers, this is transformation”

This is where Kendrick finds the power to remove the shackles that these traumas have put on him and those close to him. No longer will his growth, be stunted by witnessing the atrocities done to his mother. No longer will his mother be stunted from her abuses nor will Whitney be stunted from Kendrick’s infidelity. And, in a move that’s rather bold, no longer will the sins of the past need to define the very abuser that caused so much pain to Kendrick and his mother. Much like the conundrum of Kodak Black, this proclamation feels wrong. My soul just instantly rejects giving any kind of grace or understanding to any abuser. But ultimately, I do believe that forgiveness is the ultimate end goal whenever I’m done wrong by someone I just hope in Kendrick’s case atonement preceded it in some way.

The final track, Mirror, was initially the most emotionally devastating track on the entire project. The song, which has a similar vibe to Childish Gambino’s Summer Pack project, is about how Kendrick is choosing to work on himself and his family instead of trying to save the world with his music. Now, another interpretation I subscribe to is the idea that this song is actually about the rapper Noname. Back in 2020, she tweeted comments that indirectly threw shade on Kendrick and other of the most high-profile hip-hop artists for not hitting the streets and protesting when the Black Lives Matter movement was at a fever pitch. And honestly, it’s a fair point: if you want to be seen as one of the best in our community, you have to be willing to stand up for them as well. But that thinking is rather flawed, because at the end of the day, Kendrick is one person, and when we really get down to it, is no more special than anyone else, and he makes that perfectly clear throughout this entire album and this final song. During this insanely long hiatus of his, he was busy trying to be a better man. Trying to be a better husband to his wife, trying to be a better father to his kids, and trying to be kinder to himself. While all of these world events were happening, he was off trying to work on himself, because the stakes were getting higher as his family grew. Yet, Noname and I both were so short-sided to think that we owed the time and attention of Kendrick to, in her case, perform activism when pressured and, in my case, speak to our collective anxieties for my own catharsis.

That’s why, upon my first listen, this track hit me so hard. When Kendrick said in the chorus “I choose me I’m sorry” and at the end of his final verse, “run away from the culture to follow my heart”, I took those lines personally. Since this man changed my life with To Pimp a Butterfly, I’ve always looked to him for guidance, or at least some kind of influence, during confusing or hard times. But all the while, I failed to truly understand that he was just as flawed as anyone else, including me. He had daddy issues just like me. He had a mildly homophobic past, just like me. He struggled with trying to be who he needed to be for his family, just like me. You know how girls will claim they get the “ick” when guys do something they don’t like, but it’s really just them getting a flash of that guy as a normal human and not an idealized image? Well, Kendrick gave me the biggest ick of all time when I first processed what he was saying on Mirror, and it bummed me the fuck out. That’s when all of the rejection of the messiah complex stuff hit me hardest too, as I thought this was no longer the bold visionary who could stand strong by the statement that was To Pimp a Butterfly. I kept listening to the album, but the more I did the sadder I got, the more upset I got, and the more I began to build a small puddle of resentment. So, I had to take a break from the project after listening to it compulsively for almost the entire first weekend it was out.

But I’m glad I took those few days away from it, because, with that distance, I was about to see what was always there. This is the same Kendrick that made To Pimp a Butterfly, one of the boldest pieces of art I’ve ever connected with because the core reason he made that album still lingers: empathy. Kendrick just wants his people to be…well…alright. Relistening to his entire discography leading up to Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers helped bring that into focus. Tracks like Kesha’s Song show how he’s always been thinking about the women in his life, and that is still here on this album. Tracks like The Art of Peer Pressure show the more ignorant, hedonistic side of Kendrick, and that’s still on here. Tracks like Complexion (A Zulu Love) show Kendrick’s compassion for humanity, and that’s so vividly shown in this project. He hasn’t changed a bit, if anything he has simply refined his outlook and decided to tackle it in a much more intimate way, and in a world where sincerity is the one thing lacking most from our timelines, it’s incredibly effective.

This is the second draft of this review. I initially ended my first draft much more cynically. I felt that Kendrick had abandoned the idea that his music could have any real impact on the world anymore. With him saying “sorry I couldn’t save the world, my friend” I initially took it as him throwing in his towel and instead deciding to just trauma dump on his eager fanbase instead of trying to inspire them at all. But I conceded that Kendrick had, albeit inadvertently, managed to inspire people anyway. I know this album will get some folks to sign up for therapy, or to finally open up to a loved one about past traumas, or stop their homophobic peer who’s about to say or do something fucked up. I felt that Kendrick didn’t care, but folks like me would manage to be inspired anyway, even if that was no longer Kendrick’s stated goal. Well, I clearly no longer feel that way.

Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is one of the most challenging albums I’ve listened to, which admittedly isn’t saying too much considering my relatively standard pallet, but is saying a lot considering this is from one of the most well-known artists in the world. While I’m sorry for all of the non-Kendrick fans who saw the hype and decided to check this album out only to be hit with something this offputting, those imperfections make the album something I find fascinating. Despite some stumbles instrumentally, nearly every song sounds great and will be on repeat for years to come. But more importantly, the core theme of empathy really resonated with me. While I might not do so all the time, I try hard to care about other people and mean it, but after really taking in what Kendrick Lamar is trying to say on this album, I can see that he cares, too. He never stopped caring, he still does want to help the world, even if he now recognizes he can’t fully save it as one man. But with enough empathy, he very well could start the chain reaction of healing and unity that could one day save us all. And if things don’t end up so picturesque, he’ll still at least try, and that’s definitely still something I find worth aspiring to.

Final Score:

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