After five years of silence from Kendrick Lamar, it was difficult to know what to expect from his new project. Five years — 1,855 days, to be exact — is an eternity in the world of hip-hop. For reference, within that time, BROCKHAMPTON experienced both their rise to fame and their breakup, Playboi Carti turned from SoundCloud rapper to vamp king and Kanye West dropped three albums and a presidential bid. It’s been a wild five years, and if nothing else, I expected Lamar to provide some perspective on it all. Instead, Lamar turns his focus to the subject that may be the most difficult to pin down: himself.
A central theme of the album is the pitfalls of sudden fame that Lamar has found. On the album’s opener, “United in Grief”, he describes his rampant spending habits and tries to uncover why he was so drawn to materialism. He asks, “What is a rapper with jewelry? / A way that I show my maturity.” Lamar accredits his conspicuous consumption to the fact that he wanted to show the world — and more importantly, himself — that he was finally on top. The Rolexes, Porsches and infinity pools could not heal the wounds that his troubled past left him, as he raps, “Poverty was the case / But the money wiping the tears away.”
Lamar also delves deeply into his past and present relational issues in a way that is unprecedentedly vulnerable, even for Kendrick Lamar. In “Father Time”, Lamar examines the toxic masculinity and relational issues that his difficult relationship with his father ingrained in him. In “Worldwide Steppers”, Lamar opens up about sex addiction and unfaithfulness through two stories of sexual intercourse with white women, motivated by a desire for a sort of generational vengeance. He concludes with the striking line, “I might be racist / Ancestors watchin’ me f*** was like retaliation.”
This album also marks a sharp shift in production choices for Lamar. While his previous albums were each somewhat stylistically uniform, “Mr. Morale” takes a much more eclectic approach. Tracks like “United in Grief”, “Crown” and “Mother I Sober” are stripped-back, piano-centered tracks that allow Lamar’s songwriting to shine through, while tracks like “N95”, “Count Me Out” and “Silent Hill” are more classic trap-inspired, heavy-hitting bangers. The diverse production does not feel as jarring as you’d expect; Lamar has always been a master at sounding at home on various flows and styles.
Overall, Lamar’s self-reflective project can get messy and imperfect, but Lamar seems perfectly aware of that. In fact, Lamar seems to take pride in prioritizing himself over his audience in the creation of this project, particularly in the closing track “Mirror”. The repeated one-line chorus of “I choose me, I’m sorry” becomes a powerful incantation after the preceding hour of Lamar purging himself of his past traumas and tribulations.
If nothing else, “Mr. Morale” is the most enjoyable therapy session you’ll ever experience.