The Impossible Ambition of Kendrick Lamar’s New Album

Despite what the artist says on Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, he’s still trying to save you.

Illustration of Kendrick Lamar
Oliver Munday / The Atlantic

“Sorry I didn’t save the world,” Kendrick Lamar says in the final moments of Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, his new double album. The apology is not sarcastic. Lamar really has spent nearly two decades of rapping trying to open minds, save souls, and bring peace … and yet, still, all of this (gestures wildly) is going on. Lamar sings his album-closing track, “Mirror,” in a lighthearted voice as syrupy violins drizzle behind him. You might imagine him exiting the UN General Assembly with a shimmy and a middle finger. He’s unburdened. He’s over it. We’re going to have to save ourselves.

Up until those final moments, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, Lamar’s astonishing if flawed fifth album, has a scalding intensity that never relents—the force of a cleansing inferno, or at least a tough massage. He first rose to near-universal acclaim with two masterpieces, 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city and 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, that were like sprawling, endlessly rereadable novels. Then his 2017 album, Damn, earned a historic Pulitzer by conveying mastery: Lamar’s voice was at its squeaky-sharpest, his musings were entirely mind-melting, and his songs achieved catchy complexity. Touching on race, responsibility, and sin, these albums had messianic aspirations—the desire to tell truth and bring change.

In some ways, Lamar’s rise to superstardom fit with the 2010s boom in pop stars being treated as prophets. Social media’s intensification of fandom, streaming music’s shareability, and a general cultural turn to the politicization of everything—these factors freighted figures such as Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and J. Cole with an aura of significance that purported to go far beyond entertainment. Movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo both fed into, and fed off of, celebrity art-slash-activism, but so did the media’s merchants of backlash and division. Lamar now seems sick of the hype and the dissection that surrounds his every utterance—yet Mr. Morale also aches for the impact that would merit just that kind of reaction. He is stuck in a familiar feedback loop, though his struggle with it is more fascinating than most.

Until this album, Lamar apparently hasn’t even been able to save himself. The curtain opens with him (or at least a character extremely like him) reporting that in the past 1,855 days—the time between this album’s release and Damn’s—he’s been “going through something.” That something includes admitting to a “lust addiction,” attending therapy, and reckoning with terrible childhood traumas. He compares this story line with the Black experience in America more broadly, illustrating how racism instills a sense of loss that festers dangerously within the communities it wounds. Expressed in curling, vivid rhymes—“I fought like a pitbull terrier, blood I shed could fill up aquariums,” goes one line from the monumental “Count Me Out”—this is the sort of virtuosic analysis that Lamar is known for.

But now his treatise comes with a prickle, an asterisk. “The cat is out the bag, I am not your savior / I find it just as difficult to love thy neighbors,” he raps on “Savior,” a track that also tries to unwind the expectations placed on other Black celebrities, including LeBron James and Future. No doubt biblical anti-idolatry underlies some of this rhetoric (though Lamar does label himself “the aloof Buddha” and “Christ with a shooter” on “Rich Spirit,” a head-nodding track that stands out for its lack of inhibition). And Lamar has explored human wickedness many times in the past (the narrator of 2015’s “The Blacker the Berry” confesses to murder). Yet his edge has never felt as self-protective as it does here.

You hear that edge in the music first. Though a few tracks make solid attempts at radio friendliness, this is Lamar’s least addictive album yet. Of course, Lamar’s production isn’t known for easy listening—a 2017 satire imagined him pestering his engineer for incessant beat switches and samples of giraffe noises. But the Mr. Morale opener, “United in Grief,” pushes that fun-house sensibility further as it careens between luminous chants, tart piano stabs, and jackhammering drum solos. The effect is hair-raising—and palate cleansing. Adding to the jazz, funk, and Southern California gangsta rap of his past albums, Lamar borrows from modern classical and choral music to achieve a stark sort of majesty.

The album’s astringent sound suits its astringent message. “Take off the fake deep, take off the fake woke,” Lamar raps on “N95,” a catalog of things people use to cover up the truths about themselves. The track is inarguably excellent—fierce, hilarious, memorable—until the beat drops out and Lamar asks, “What the fuck is cancel culture, dawg?” Here is the asterisk, the prickle. To speak his mind across the album, Lamar throws in disclaimers and anti-disclaimers to anticipate critics. This tendency deadens some of the music. Given how effectively he always exercises his First Amendment rights, a eulogy for “freedom of speech” on “Worldwide Steppers” feels unconvincing. A verse in “Die Hard” that asks, “Can I open up?”—a question implicitly pitched both to a lover and to the listening public—is a lot less interesting than the moments when Lamar simply opens up.

The vulnerability he’s so nervous about showing cuts through, regardless. Lamar’s harrowing personal narratives—including about his mother being attacked when he was a child, and about his fiancée’s attempts to get him to face up to his dysfunctions—demand attention in subject matter and delivery. The beat on “Father Time” is simultaneously dreamy and abrasive, an appropriate complement to recollections of a dad pushing his son to be tougher than any kid should need to be. Lamar photorealistically captures not only his memories, but also the deeper effects they’ve had. “This made relationships seem cloudy, never attached to none,” he raps. “So if you took some likings around me, I might reject the love.”

Some of the album’s best moments do initially play like trolling—but quickly reveal their substance. When Lamar delves into his sexual history with white women on “Worldwide Steppers,” it is one of a few passages that will have audiences asking, What the hell am I listening to? and then leaning closer to their speakers. Ultimately, the song gets across the way that prejudice and history shape even our most intimate moments. An even better conversation piece is “We Cry Together,” a brutal bit of theater in which Lamar and the brilliant actor Taylour Paige play lovers at war. The track is a document of emotional violence, yet it also bristles with insight, humor, and strange musicality. In other words, it sees Lamar doing what he does best, for which there never needs to be an apology.

The sole moment on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers that actually might get Lamar canceled is “Auntie Diaries,” which tells of him moving from misunderstanding to acceptance and love for two transgender relatives. If I were Lamar, I would simply have found a way to write a pro-queer song without repeating the word faggot, deadnaming people, and playing fast and loose with pronouns. Many trans listeners are understandably disturbed by his amplification of the very language regularly used to demonize them. (Which is to say nothing of Lamar’s Macklemore-ian crime of humblebragging about his own tolerance over maudlin strings.)

Discussing a song like “Auntie Diaries” involves trying to make impossible cost-benefit calculations. Perhaps the number of listeners who will have their mind changed for the better outweighs the number of people who will feel emboldened to rap along with slurs (or worse). But remember, this is Lamar’s “I am not your savior” album. He has supposedly stripped off the mantle of social responsibility to humbly share his truth, in the language that feels natural to him. Whether listeners get it, or agree with him, is not his business. This approach creates a bothersome paradox. How can an album of so much honesty, vigor, and empathy also be delivered with a shrug?

“See, I was taught words was nothing more than a sound,” Lamar says late on “Auntie Diaries,” by way of explaining what he came to figure out: that words, in fact, do have power. The question of how far that power extends, and how far it doesn’t, is the key tension of Mr. Morale—as it is across society in our era of vicious arguments over rhetoric. Lamar can’t resolve that tension, but he clearly does retain a lot of hope about what art can accomplish. When the album culminates in a chronicle of traumas on the trembling “Mother I Sober,” Lamar seems convinced that speaking the unspeakable can heal. He then makes a plea—really, casts a spell—for the relief of all “hearts filled with hatred.” If it doesn’t work, that’s on us, not him.