Review: The Limits of Kendrick Lamar’s Modernism

The Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers Artist Will Come to Seattle and Portland on Aug 26 & 27
August 18, 2022
He’s made some of the best music you’ve ever heard or ever will hear. Catch him live in the Northwest on Aug 26 & 27. (PHOTO BY SER BAFFO/GETTY IMAGES FOR BET)

Originally published on our sister site, The Stranger.

It is this critic’s opinion that Kendrick Lamar is the 21st century’s great 20th-century modernist. His collaborative musical structures harken back to Faulkner more than Fabolous: Radical and innovative, they almost teach you how to process them as you listen. With Good Kid, M.A.A.D City; To Pimp A Butterfly; and DAMN., he took the gorgeous atmospherics of early-’90s hiphop and replaced most of the samples with instrumentation, alchemized Marvin Gaye’s dueling voices/tone poetics into complex and compelling stories about processing the project-industrial complex in Compton, and made some of the best music I’ve ever heard or ever will hear.

The problem with Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers—the problem in comparison to Lamar’s best work—is that, like almost every great modernist, Kendrick has a habit of valuing his experimental technical structures a little more than human beings. In other words, he says “bitch” a lot. In this album’s case, the human being he needs to value a little more is Whitney Alford, his fiancée and the Leonard Woolf figure in Lamar’s effort to unearth his biases in his slow climb to the light on gender issues. Too often, Lamar mistakes his pain for artistic elbow grease, reducing his usual number of contrasting voices and presenting his pathologies (habitual, perpetual philandering and verbal cruelty) in a narrative arc thematically similar to the way Virginia Woolf would often present the anti-Semitism toward her husband she was trying to shed.

Yet it doesn’t escape me that Woolf—by the time of Three Guineas—had evolved to make eloquent, intersectional arguments about anti-Semitism, sexism, and fascist oppression. With one haunting, horrible exception, Lamar fights through his flaws on Big Steppers, lets Alford have her say in his growth, and takes the album to powerful, revelatory, and emotionally moving places. Big Steppers is not A Moveable Hip Hop Feast, when that could have been more commercially sensible. There’s no generically sad bar story of dumping Alford, leaving her voice out of the room, and finding a new best girl while lathering his story with romantic clichés about machismo. Lamar fights to win Alford back, admits some tremendous demons, and almost annihilates his charismatic pop star persona in doing so.

Over an exquisitely gorgeous looped sample on “Father Time,” Lamar spits some of his most exquisitely written and performed bars calling on himself and other men to work through their “daddy issues” and “give women a break.” “The Heart Part 5,” the album’s hidden-track payoff, is Lamar at the peak of his powers. All his gifts are here: the chorus of voices, the perfect narrative distance, and the gorgeously structured music that melds numerous different voices and stories about Black masculinity into one profound singularity.

Among the most tender of his apologetics toward Alford, “Die Hard” shows Lamar understands Gaye’s gift for wrapping a melody around a gorgeously light juxtaposition of percussive sounds. In “Mr. Morale,” a title track of sorts, Lamar aligns with his better angels and repudiates the exhibitionist piggishness he showed in “Silent Hill,” “Count Me Out,” and “Rich Spirit,” leading into the almost devastating “Mother I Sober,” a meditation on his and his family’s sexual traumas that ends with an almost shamanic declaration of deliverance. It’s almost one of the most moving music tracks I have ever heard.

Emphasis on almost. For here is the album’s haunting, horrible flaw: Lamar’s preacher-like call for the sexually abused and sexual abusers to be released from their demons raises this question: What about the delivery from abuse of the 15-year-old girl Kodak Black, Lamar’s most frequent collaborator, pled guilty to raping? And what the hell does Kendrick’s “Like it when they pro-Black, but I’m more Kodak Black” verse on “Silent Hill” mean in light of said plea? Kendrick’s passive-yet-still-aggro-bro New Testament Christianity with Kodak Black has driven many fans away, and deservedly so. Lamar may want to set free abused and abuser in “Mother I Sober,” but the woman Black abused isn't getting paid and a career boost on Big Steppers. Kodak is. As disgusted as I am with the blue-check-bred cruelties of the social justice critics Lamar indirectly mentions on “Savior” (“I rubbed elbows with people that was for the people. They all greedy, I don't care for no public speaking”), they can’t make me forget the voice in my head that tells me maybe Lamar would be less forgiving of his sex crimes if Black didn’t have platinum plaques on his wall.

Writing this review in several restaurants and coffee shops, I couldn’t help but be moved by the interruptions of people responding to Lizzo’s Special and Beyoncé’s Renaissance: albums aiming more toward the gender-amorphous place of revival than the TRL Beyoncé contorted her art to fit into 20 years ago. Hearing Lizzo and Beyoncé and masses of people online respond to them in such an enthusiastic, communal manner not only crystallized the triumph of both albums; it also showed a continuance of a tradition of the best of Black music as a vessel that everyone has a stake in. 

The problem with Big Steppers is that the only thing it gives the listener is a demand that they recognize Kendrick as a completely good and healed man, which is tough to take given his defense of Black. In a summer where Lizzo and Beyoncé have intellectually and physically fed people in a deteriorating nation, many don’t have the time to entertain a troubled man admitting he treats his fiancée like garbage and gives slimy reasons for supporting a slimy monster of a friend. That doesn’t mean Mr. Morale & Big Steppers is devoid of brilliance, and its best moments make me hope for Lamar to truly process the issues he deals with on the record. Being a critic and being a fan, however, are two different things. And I just don’t have time for the latter.

Kendrick Lamar will come to Portland's Moda Center Add to a List on Friday, August 26, and Seattle's Climate Pledge Arena Add to a List on Saturday, August 27. 

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