A recurring motif anchors rapper Kendrick Lamar’s long-awaited fifth album – one that feels packed with meaning. The sound of tap dancing anchors this troubled and occasionally troubling double album, delayed by writer’s block and the pandemic. It is one that wrestles with the trauma of the Black experience as refracted through the lives of Lamar and his wider family: his partner and two children (who grace the cover cover), his mother, uncles, aunties and cousins.
The staccato rhythms of the tap interludes are writ larger, too. This electrifying, uneasy record stops, starts and turns, often within the confines of one track. The beats are restless; few comforting grooves are allowed to build for very long. Lead single N95 feels like a conventional hip-hop banger, but launches itself headlong into a hornet’s nest of touchy subjects: mask-wearing, hypocrisy and “designer bullshit”. Conceived as a side one and a side two, Mr Morale & the Big Steppers exudes musical and lyrical bravura; it makes room for intimate, orchestral tender spots such as Crown – a title that encompasses the Nazarene crown of thorns Lamar wears on the album art, the knitted crown of the dreadlocked Bob Marley, and the kind of crown that makes the wearer’s head “heavy”. At the opposite end of the spectrum is a squelchy summer jam, Purple Hearts, which tackles the hard work of love in the company of a Ghostface Killah feature.
Although there are humorous touches – Lamar’s new nickname appears to be OK Lama – no tune here could be accused of being superficial or unmemorable. Auntie Diaries foregrounds the experience of Lamar’s trans family members, a track whose matter-of-factness (“Demetrius is Mary-Ann now”) is offset by its insensitive use of Caitlyn Jenner’s dead-name and the repeated chanting of a hate speech playground taunt. Lamar clarifies at the end: “We can say it together, but only if you let a white girl say n****.”
Tap dancing, of course, has long had its place in light entertainment, but as Lamar makes clear on Crown, he is no jester. “I’m not in the music business,” he sighs. He is “in the human business”. And humans – as we discover throughout these 18 tracks – are flawed, often unwittingly caught up in a remorseless grind in which people who have been damaged go on to hurt other people, a cycle of violence that the African American community bears disproportionately, thanks to the epigenetic echoes of slavery, poverty and ongoing racism.
With dazzling wordplay and caustic candour, Lamar tries to unpick the harm done to him and by him, his “daddy issues” (Father Time, which features Sampha on the hook), and his discomfort with saviour status. Despite being the only rapper ever to win a Pulitzer, Lamar directs his work staunchly towards his community, demanding healing, demanding change. He has had therapy and embraced the work of Eckhart Tolle, a writer whose emphasis on personal responsibility and creating a compassionate new world makes a notable change from hip-hop’s usual obsession with Machiavelli, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene.
The UK rapper Dave released his own psychotherapy-themed album in 2019, and Stormzy had a whole album about heavy crowns, but Lamar’s deep dive (“session 10, breakthrough”) remains vital and spectacular. Mother I Sober calls on the pained voice of Portishead’s Beth Gibbons in the chorus, as Lamar processes a vast amount of familial violence, berating himself for not being able to protect his mother, then masking his pain with materialism, intoxicants and compulsive infidelity. He takes to task the white enslavers who abused “our mothers and our sisters”.
Being in the human business, Lamar knows that people find it hard to be honest – another major theme in his work, here and previously. “Stop tap dancing around the conversation!” yells actor Taylour Paige, playing half of a rowing couple during We Cry Together. The character played by Paige has not just her partner, but all of toxic masculinity in her sights. “You the reason why strong women fucked up,” she screams, “you the reason for Trump, you the reason Harvey Weinstein had to see his conclusion, you the reason R Kelly can’t recognise that he’s abusive.”
For all the insight and nuance on Mr Morale & the Big Steppers, Lamar’s work does suffer from blind spots. Top Dawg Entertainment, his record label (this is his last album for them), supported Kelly, a convicted serial sexual abuser, when Spotify threatened to pull his work. The album features rapper Kodak Black, who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a schoolgirl. Many online drew the conclusion that Lamar hates so-called cancel culture more than he hates abuse.
So his journey towards some state of grace is clearly a work in progress. But wisdom is a patchwork: you only get bits of it at a time. And perhaps the most breathtaking moment on the album finds Lamar self-flagellating on Crown as some loose jazz piano chords fall around him. “But the time it’ll come, to not be there when somebody needs you,” he aches, the burden of that failure in inverse proportion to the tenderness of his voice.