On Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, Kendrick Lamar begs you to put your phone down

The Compton rapper’s fifth album is a rumination on technology and trauma.

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Last summer, Kendrick Lamar published a brief, typically cryptic message on his personal website. Under the headline “nu thoughts,” he wrote that he was working on a new album; that he was collecting beach cruisers; that “glimmers of God speak through” his music, through his family. The post was widely aggregated by music publications because of the news that this record would be Kendrick’s final one on Top Dawg Entertainment, the independent label he signed with as a precocious teenager in 2005. In the past, Kendrick’s writing and recording processes had been thoroughly documented, and wielded as legend — a trip to Nelson Mandela’s prison cell famously catalyzed To Pimp a Butterfly. The tease of this new album did not appear, at a glance, to include an equivalently grand origin. But one was there, in plain sight as a single-sentence paragraph: “I go months without a phone.”

Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, Kendrick’s sprawling, omnivorous double album, is loosely structured as a series of therapy sessions in which he laments the banality of wealth and burrows into his childhood to find the roots of a sex addiction. It’s concerned with masculinity, the efficacy of protest, and the weight of hip-hop fans’ expectations. But it’s mostly about phones and the internet. Kendrick — who early on recounts “text messaging bitches until [his] thumbs hurt” — is obsessed not only with how those things enable our basest, most lustful selves, but the ways they commodify what should be uncommodifiable and render virtually all communication insincere. His complaints about online life are sometimes incoherent, other times too obvious; that lack of calibration mimics the music itself, which is in places preening and overwrought. But Kendrick remains a superlatively talented vocalist and frequently surprising writer whose thorniest verses are among his most compelling.

The closest analogs for Mr. Morale are Aceyalone’s A Book of Human Language and RZA’s Bobby Digital In Stereo, and not only because Kendrick’s album includes a nearly 1:1 recreation of the latter’s signature song. It lurches from style to style, stitching disparate parts together with an involved organizing concept. Aceyalone in particular looms over this record. While most of Kendrick’s principal influences are from slightly later — Lil Wayne, Andre 3000 — his style occasionally seems descended from Freestyle Fellowship and the Good Life/Project Blowed axis at large, especially when his archest, most athletic raps are dropped onto jazz beats, or digital ones that mimic their unorthodoxy. It’s amusing to hear someone at the center of pop culture evoke genuine outsiders: When he interrupts his own hook on “Worldwide Steppers” with that song’s knotty, robotic opening verse (“my genetic build can build multi-universes”), Kendrick sounds like a Kool Keith character who only ingests airport self-help books.

That might not be too far from reality. Early on the album, Whitney Alford, Kendrick’s longtime romantic partner and mother of his two children, tells him he “really needs some therapy,” then encourages him to reach out to the German pop philosopher Eckhart Tolle. Kendrick inserts Tolle’s voice at a couple of points — he talks about victimhood and “pain bodies” — but Tolle serves primarily as the unseen therapist who guides Kendrick through sessions that examine his infidelities, his complexes, his relationship with his dad (the endearingly earnest “Father Time”). Yet these things are pushed aside over and over again so that Kendrick can shift his focus to technology. “Many find their life in a phone,” he grumbles on “Count Me Out,” just after scrolling through his in the middle of the night, looking for missed calls from absent friends. The entire first verse of “N95” is him imploring listeners to leave social media and the fronting and gossip that festers there.

And still, it can seem like Kendrick lives online. The Alchemist-produced “We Cry Together” is the song that recalls RZA’s “Domestic Violence,” though the new track lacks the original’s ingenious structure and most of its humor. Kendrick and the actress Taylour Paige play the two sides of a lover’s quarrel, arguing about the circumstances of their own lives and relationship — but also about the supposedly fundamental differences between men and women, about Harvey Weinstein, about “why R&B bitches don't feature on each other songs.” Kendrick and Paige’s has the shape of a real couple’s blowup and hits many of the predictable beats; that it’s infected with vague therapy speak is probably accurate to the moment. But the way it uses its characters as mouthpieces for topics of the day is reminiscent of the worst modern television writing, its tritest exchanges all lifted from a very special episode of something or other.

That cloying theatricality is the common element in Mr. Morale’s worst sections, which are uniformly dragged down by overproduction. The bridges, sung by Sam Dew, that open each of the album’s two discs are brief but feels interminable; the first one gives way to “United in Grief,” which initially sounds like a late-period Eminem record staged off-Broadway. Fortunately, this is only intermittent. The bulk of the beats (almost every song has a handful of credited producers, though all but a few are touched by Kendrick’s longtime collaborators) are inspired, especially when they’re allowed to breathe. The slinking “Silent Hill” and the linen suit two-step of “Die Hard” are particularly excellent; “Worldwide Steppers”’ steady pulse could cause panic attacks.

But Mr. Morale is at its best when it’s at its loosest, its most apparently instinctive. On “Rich Spirit,” Kendrick’s technophobia does not seem loaded or too considered — when he drawls “I would never live my life on a computer,” it sounds as if it’s coming from his gut. He goes on. In the song’s final verse, Kendrick raps, “I pray to God you actually pray when somebody dies,” before turning his nose up at Instagram tributes to the dead. This becomes exponentially sadder with the realization that “Rich Spirit” is patterned closely after the late Drakeo the Ruler’s “Impatient Freestyle.” Drakeo’s slang pops up again two tracks later, on the similarly superb “Purple Hearts.” That song —complete with more dismissals of those who would disparage you “for a couple likes on the double-tap” — is exultant, and finds Kendrick letting negative space into every bar. Like Aceyalone, Kendrick has wrung meaning from technique, his failing voice on “The Heart, Pt. 2” betraying desperation, the monotone precision of “The Art of Peer Pressure” evoking the mundanity that breeds adolescent crime. This album fully realizes what DAMN. only hinted at: that Kendrick had figured out how to do the same thing with his airy singing voice that he’s long done through hypertechnical rapping. (The final verse on “Purple Hearts” is a beautiful counterpoint to this approach: Ghostface Killah, perhaps the most stylish rapper to ever live, more or less abandons technique in the pursuit of pure catharsis.)

Some of Kendrick’s other vocal approaches continue the blurring of his style and that of his 21-year-old cousin, the burgeoning star Baby Keem. Keem, who is invoked as a character on Mr. Morale almost as often as he appears, has been one of his key collaborators for at least five years, dating back to the DAMN. sessions. (Kendrick’s final verse for “N95” first surfaced on one of his demos.) As the younger rapper’s Animaniac verve osmoses into Kendrick’s raps, the older artist’s thematic concerns bleed into Keem’s — as evidenced on “Savior - Interlude,” where Keem raps, “My uncle would tell me the shit in the movies could only be magic/This year, I did 43 shows, and took it all home to buy him a casket.” Just minutes later, on “Savior” proper, Kendrick uses his cousin’s exuberance to subtly underline the album’s themes: Keem’s repeated cries of “Are you happy for me?” in that song’s hook are at deliberate odds with the album’s grim view on fame and wealth.

Kendrick’s musical development is not limited to the annexing of Keem’s vocal tics, or the expansion of DAMN.’s more syrupy cuts. “N95,” with its stonefaced first verse and triumphant hook, is one of the most dynamic songs he’s ever recorded in much the same way that “Count Me Out,” with its overlapping qualifiers, is one of his most emotive. “Auntie Diaries,” where Kendrick documents his relationships with transgender relatives and his own homophobia, creates enough intimacy in its quiet first three-quarters to sell the telegraphed climax. Even one of the album’s missteps, the Duval Thomas-produced “Crown,” justifies its inclusion with a hypnotic outro that consists of a single phrase repeated for almost a full minute: “I can’t please everybody.”

Conclusions like that — tidily mantric — rattle around the album, delaying the drive toward an essential, animating trauma. (This structure has become predictable, but mirrors many patients’ experiences in talk therapy; for once, a commercial art object’s fixation on neo-Freudian storytelling eases, rather than heightens, the sense of artifice.) He finally arrives at one on “Mother I Sober,” a nearly seven-minute piano number anchored by Portishead’s Beth Gibbons. Until this point on Mr. Morale, Kendrick’s writing about sex — which had in years past been awkward and unappealing — is like a parable, his mistresses memorable only for their eye color, the white women he sleeps with the daughters of cops who locked up his family members. Here he raps plainly, revealing a long ordeal where his relatives became convinced a cousin had molested Kendrick, then refused to hear Kendrick’s denials. That refusal is found, in turn, to be the product of another native wound, the abuse suffered by his mother. Gibbons’ chorus is a simple couplet, repeated: “I wish I was somebody/Anybody but myself.”

On that song, Kendrick also raps that nature is the only thing to bring him any relief, even admitting that worship of the natural world sometimes blots out his Christianity. This is significant for an artist whose work has been nearly Calvinist in its fixation on predestiny and the complete corruption of man through sin: The narrative arc of good kid, m.A.A.d. city effectively ends with a group of young men embracing the church. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers has a different kind of salvation in mind. Tonally “Mirror” shimmers, a fitting final note for an album whose cover shows the artist with his partner and young children. But it would not be a stretch to read the song as a response to the Noname tweet, and others like it, from the summer of 2020 which called into question Kendrick’s commitment to social causes he did not post about online. “I can’t live in the Matrix,” he writes in its first verse. Its hook is a non-apology: “I choose me, I’m sorry.”

Throughout Mr. Morale, Kendrick evinces a desire to shock, or at least discomfit liberal listeners. On “Savior,” he hones in on the activist class: “I rubbed elbows with people that was for the people,” he says, “They was all greedy.” (A line from earlier in the same verse — “Tupac dead, gotta think for yourself” — sounds at first like sincere advice, but is a slyly scathing critique.) There’s also a passage about Covid, where he shifts the focus from a hypothetical Christian who “prayed to Pfizer” in a moment of desperation to himself and his own bout with the virus. “Will I stay organic, or hurt in this bed for two weeks?” Kendrick asks, seemingly mulling whether or not to get vaccinated. The real question for his listeners comes immediately after that line, voiced by Dew: “You really wanna know?”

But no element of Mr. Morale has proven as controversial as the inclusion of Kodak Black, the 24-year-old rapper from Pompano Beach, Florida, who is wildly popular among certain swaths of rap fans, supremely talented, and last year plead a sexual assault charge down to first-degree assault and battery after a high school student accused him of raping her in South Carolina in 2016. Like Keem, Kodak is given an interlude to himself, plus a brief spoken section at the beginning of another song, and a guest verse on “Silent Hill.” Those appearances taken alone could be natural collaborations, no different than the songs with Keem or Gibbons. But he is most tellingly deployed when he opens “Mirror” by echoing Kendrick’s hook, saying “I choose me,” the briefest possible cameo that could confirm his presence as metatextual stunt casting.

This comes immediately after “Mother I Sober”’s climactic verse, when the hush gives way to Kendrick’s emotional eruption. He traces sexual assault back to the slave trade, claims he can see the pain buried in other rappers who have been abused, and finally says he sets “free all you abusers,” breaking “a generational curse.” You can take issue with the morality or logic of such a stance — just as you can with the question, raised twice on the album, of whether R. Kelly’s serial abuse can be explained by his own molestation, and by the socialization of young men to be sexual aggressors — but it’s an undeniably provocative one, evidently grounded in some amount of personal introspection.

It’s disserved, however, by Kendrick collapsing this conversation into the one about the internet and the censorious reflexes that he sees mounting on it. Each topic is a worthy one, but conflating the two trivializes both. A person fresh from the spaceship or newly awoken from a coma would not naturally connect squabbles over heterodox ideas on a glorified message board with the difficult reparative work someone convicted of sexual abuse — or even someone who cheats on tour — has to do. The only place that happens is online. So maybe the most revealing stylistic decisions are the tiniest: the abrupt cuts between vocal tracks early in the album, which hear Kendrick interrupting Whitney, and then himself, or the way the celebratory end of “Auntie Diaries” is cut off a couple of seconds too soon, plunging the listener into “Mr. Morale”’s abyss before he has a chance to breathe.