It's far from my M.O. anymore, I kept this profile up for a while after I dropped the "professional" stuff but it was mostly dormant post-2017. Granted because it's a RateYourMusic post it opens a bit relevant to that subculture in general but here's a white guy working through some stuff with Kendrick:
(I open the way I did because if you used to read me back in the day, you'd know I was denied writing about Overly Dedicated for PopMatters; for even more context, this was the Section.80 review I wrote: https://www.popmatters.com/kendrick-lamar-section-80-2495978575.html)
(Yes, there are typos. Nah, I won't edit them. That's what editors are for.)
I feel an obligation here. An obligation so abstract as to barely make sense; not only has RateYourMusic continued to thrive whether I indulge or not, but I've tried to make it as clear as I can in sparse missives that I find the idea any one critic's voice means much anymore is foolish. I suppose Fantano has that, and good on him. But I get why any given musician might feel swept up in a tide of unknown origin. I wouldn't ever argue that I personally feel that way, but facts are facts - more artists are releasing more music in more formats than ever before. More critics in more formats. It's an absolute deluge, and I guess I wouldn't ever argue I feel that way personally because I very aggressively bowed out as soon as I did.
The ultimate trickle down of this creative assembly is that the pursuit of being an "expert" in nearly any genre, unless it's the only genre you care about, is absurd on its face. I don't think it ends there - I think an artist ought to realize this, too. Rap has seen the death of the New York crown, the dissolution of the King of the South label, and arguably never paid due to whatever we might've called the Bay Area Top Bopper or Minnesota Nice Guy Supreme. I've lost a step and a half since I last wrote regular, but somehow I doubt we could've done much better as a culture to establish other crowns if we'd tried.
It was all professional wrestling, anyway. Attempts to generate crowd pops and create relatable subcultures anyway. This is pre true social media, I'm talking hip-hop message boards of the late '90s and early '00s, in which a Jim Jones vs. Tony Yayo thread could feel like life or death and it really mattered if you knew what a Fondle 'Em Records LP was because the raps were good or because the raps were good over a Sade sample that couldn't possibly have been cleared. I want to make that point because , for better or worse, the rap game of 2022 to me feels even more like professional wrestling than the heyday, and I think it mostly feels that way because the middle men have been so thoroughly cut out of the picture. In other words, both artist and listener have less inventive than ever before to meet each other in the middle - the marks know what they want before they've seen the product, and the artists can't help but feel squeezed between embracing the niche they could lord over and the mass culture they could (or have) take the reigns of.
Hear me out, because I hear you - when major label artists felt comfortable doing their best work under the banners of DJ Drama, Don Cannon, Trap-a-Holics, Mick Boogie and others, not to mention the countless middle middle men who facilitated imfamous studio leaks like The Empire - you could distinguish quite succinctly what was for the fans and what was for the masses. We used to spend a ridiculous amount of time talking about whether the mixtape was better than the album, in part because it often was but also because it became harder and harder to tell what an artist - particularly a rapper - wanted to rap about, or on top of. It would constantly feel like the best rappers in the world were contriving records out of depleted cash advances while the most charismatic were fighting this endless war against rap as a raw nostalgia mine.
In retrospect, it almost feels funny because the style could never wholeheartedly reject either notion. At it's very foundation is a reverence for the past that belied so much of modern meme culture, while that dependence on both recent and distant pasts demands a pursuit of more expansive, expensive, theoretically more interesting music.
Which leads to Mr. Morale. I'd hesitate to call this a review, partially because I'm out of practice and partially because I don't think this album deserves a review. Let me go back to something I wrote a decade ago, regarding an album simultaneously marketed as both final mixtape and debut album: "Assuming he can reign in some of his stranger, more obtuse qualities and continue to grow as a man, it wouldn't be a surprise at all to see Lamar become one of the decade's most important hip-hop artists."
I'd say, as of 2017's DAMN., Kendrick had done that. Could I explain how it felt to hear "LOVE" at multiple wedding I bartended in the following five years? Weddings that otherwise featured all the usual, bland stalwarts I'm just slightly too high to remember or/and care to mention?
Here's where I'll skip ahead a bit in my argument and ask, does it really matter that Kendrick is so open about his love for early 2000s Eminem, late 90s DJ Quik or mid 2010s Kodak Black? In the sense that a huge portion of our egos wanted to presume Kendrick always had our best interests at heart, maybe. But even a cursory listen of Mr. Morale makes it clear the writer's block, the ghostwriting for cousin Baby Keem and others, the overexposure of Kodak Black on this very album is a rejection of that expectation. You listen to enough conversations about the making of To Pimp a Butterfly and you become acutely aware of how big a mistake that was, happily but not without increasingly acute anxiety. In an industry that had become practically allergic to that kind of release...simply, why?
Mr. Morale seems to attempt to apologize for DAMN. in the most minor key: I can speak to you ("N95", "Savior", "Mother | Sober", "Mirror", "We Cry Together" for better or worse), and I can write a fucking catchy hook ("Die Hard", which borrows smartly from Dua Lipa, "Rich Spirit", "Silent Hill", "Crown") but neither of those traits demand that you relate to me or I to you. I've seen some takes that Mr. Morale is intense or unapproachable, which I find a bit naive: I see a Kanye that hadn't gone so maximal after Late Registration in this album, or (to allow myself just a bit of datedness) an Ice Cube who'd been less concerned with remaining contemporary musically or a box office draw thematically. There's probably a lost Andre 3000 comparison in here as well.
All that being said, if you haven't felt estranged from your father, awkwardly paranoid about your financial and spiritual debt to your mother, regret about the friends you made along the way and influences you internalized while also recognizing you'd seen that soon enough to overcome those hurdles, and maybe considering the ultimate skeleton of this album self aware enough to recognize as much as the world sees you as LeBron James you might (little conjecture here) see yourself as more of a Rasheed Wallace...this is quite a blank slate of an album.
Kendrick makes terrible choices in terms of beats, guest artists, thematic conceits and plain delivery here. It's the first time since just before Overly Dedicated I could confidently say so, and so it feels easy to declare this if not a regression at least a stall. And I have to emphasize that I mean what I said just now - the stark pivot to morality via religion and masculinity via a worry the world has completely turned on his understanding of manhood are to be criticized, heavily.
Catch me ten years ago in a more academic mood and this entire review is about "We Cry Together", but for now I'll just say this - Taylour Paige turns in the most explosive performance of the album and it's not by coincidence. It's both a classic trope of Los Angeles albums for a woman to sneak in and steal the show from all the men in the foreground and a tacit admission from an artist aggressively rejecting his ordainment as the voice of a generation to embrace the villainy he engages in seemingly uncharitable ways throughout an album with such a seemingly unmovable title. Paige's verse acts as both white flag and self-flagellation.
Mr. Morale sounds like a promise of positivity, yet the Big Steppers are undoubtedly rolling stones. "I love when you count me out," goes the open to a second disc that all but the biggest fans will never know exists; in practice, it's just a thematic transition in a Spotify or Apple Music playlist. Maybe someday these new publishers will figure out how to let listeners experience what it once meant to swap from Nelly's Sweat to Nelly's Suit.
Mid jokes aside, and accepting this is where it gets a bit personal, Mr. Morale feels like Kendrick's most universal release yet, to me, in large part because it is so unabashedly his own experience with being a successful, hetero man in a world he so desperately wants to engage in yet just as often clearly feels beaten down by the pressures of that engagement. I can't, obviously, cop to feeling anywhere near the depth of his pressure experience, but I do know that I find the modern media world both infinitely inviting to artistic expression and yet endlessly pursuing a kind of morale middle ground that demands we either all experience and interpret this world within some pretty harsh parameters or just shut the fuck up. Luckily, I don't have to try and make commercial art in that environment, nor am I expected to make art that reflects the times rather than my personal experience.
To that end, it only makes sense that "Auntie Diaries" is where I end this commentary, because I think it takes a pretty supreme sense of self and artistry to write a song that's so enigmatically empathetic and disgusting as that song. Even "We Cry Together" had to resolve in revenge sex and pivot on a pair of Twitter memes. "Auntie Diaries" is a true original in rap, if not this level of mainstream audience at least, and it's got something for everyone. If you've ever sat up nights dissecting your relationship to a friend who's changed their gender and/or sexual presentation, if you've ever seen family or friends reject/embrace a member of the circle due to that choice, if you've ever - in the incredibly niche experience of a hetero male - attempted to juggle your memories of this person as they raised you against the person that you engage with and continue to learn from a an adult...the song's got all of that. But it can also be reduced, quite deservedly, to an explicit act of deadnaming a loved one in order to both sides your way through the current climate of so-called cancellation.
Even more succinctly than before, all I can say to that effect is I felt Dave Chappelle's "The Closer" special was not especially entertaining but elaborated on his various positions in quite thoughtful, moving ways. His actions following that special have proven be, perhaps, those of a venerated fool. I wouldn't be surprised if this section of this commentary eventually winds up in the same dumpster of embarrassment, but particularly following "Savior" it seems clear to me Kendrick wanted to make a very bold faced point to his audience that he is just as fallible as anyone that didn't get "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst" was a cry for help, not a method acting exercise or, even worse, merely a song too intense to listen to more than once.
They used to tell me what you'd call the final paragraph of a review; summary feels too simple to be right, and why would I try to summarize what I'd tried to get at above? My last thought is this: something that I loved when I read about pop and folk music from the '60s and '70s is that critics could explicitly decry an album as one an artist's least accomplished works and yet unequivocally declare that flawed work their favorite work by that artist. Do I see myself there? I don't think it's likely - the most buried of critiques this commentary will offer is that the production seems, to be succinct, layman - but I will say that it hasn't taken long for me to not worry so much about the flaws Kendrick displays on this album, personally, politically or otherwise.
After all, I'm prone to be a piece of shit, too.
"This is the streets, and I am the trap." � Jay Bilas
Hip Hop Handbook: http://tinyurl.com/ll4kzz