“Heavy is the head that chose to wear the crown.”
This is a repeated adage in the track “Crown” from the double-length album “Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers” released on May 13. In the five year period since the release of “DAMN.,” rapper Kendrick Lamar reverted back to sequestration as is usual for the massively popular artist. Seeking honesty with one’s mental health was a topical reason for his hiatus, as he mentions outreach for therapy in his opener song.
Thus this new album is an accumulation of his self-discovery since we last heard from him. Surrounding the theme of the “Crown,” the album cover shows Lamar posing with his family, holding one of his children while wearing a silver crown of thorns. He’s comparing himself to Christ — but not in self-proclamation.
One of Lamar’s earliest teases on the album was revealed on his Oklahoma-based fanpage, Oklama. A statement on the page reads, “As I continue to pursue my life’s calling. There’s beauty in completion. And always faith in the unknown.” He also mentions this being his final project under Top Dawg Entertainment, a label that for so long coincided with his name.
Hence we must pay particular attention to “completion;” this being his final contribution to Top Dawg before the unforeseeable future, Lamar decides to present a complete self-impression that leaves no stone unturned.
Kendrick opens up about his history of cheating, hypocrisies in his personal values and times when ignorance got the better of him. But as we applaud his choice of honest revelation, we must also be sensitive about these parts of him that are unfashionable — and take care not to immediately defend his faults, as in actuality that ruins that point of the album.
However, there was controversy with the song “Auntie Diaries,” in which he talks about his experience in learning of his uncle’s identity as a transgender man. While making an important demonstration on the difference between genuine ignorance and aggressive ignorance, he pontificates about school children’s homophobic and transphobic humor by dropping the f-slur multiple times.
In the song, Lamar later recounts a concert where he invited a white girl on stage to rap “M.A.A.D. City,” but cut her off when she verbally stated the n-word. Lamar laments his hypocrisy for basking in the use of the f-slur while scrutinizing white people’s use of the n-word.
Kodak Black’s feature on the album also brought controversy, as he faced assault charges from an incident in 2016 involving a then-teen girl. People believe his presence leaves a sour taste on the album, especially since Lamar discusses being affected by domestic assault and his desire to end generational abuse. Particular fans of Lamar propose that this was done purposefully to accentuate his point of abusers given a platform and such. It’s a lacking theory, and in turn reveals fans’ tendency to turn anything condemnable into claims of Kendrick’s artistic genius.
Therefore, this album is a reflection on ourselves as much as it is on him. It is not the point that we admire Kendrick for his forthcomings, but that he lays facts about him before us and we determine, and allow others to determine, what we find tasteful or not about him. As evident in “cancel culture,” we strive to separate ourselves from questionable personalities and we do so by swearing one person is all bad, or swearing they are all good.
The ending of the track “Count Me Out” goes, “Some things I must confess / Spoke my truth, paid my debt / Can’t you see I’m a wreck? / Let me loose, I digress / This is me, I am blessed.” Lamar is not only revealing himself, but pleading that we see him as the way he is.
So he in turn criticizes us. We stubbornly hold on to a holy version of an artist, unintentionally designating a role that they are not always prepared to uphold. When we criticize the music industry, it is shrouded in corporate condemnation, and rarely do we understand when we are that demanding side of the industry.
This album is an invitation to look at ourselves. The track “We Cry Together” also garnered attention as it depicts a couple’s argument. Fittingly introduced as “This is what the world sounds like,” it is sprinkled with modern day terms of accusation — the woman accuses the man of using “reverse psychology” while he calls her a “fake feminist.” Listeners joke that they’ve heard this song all their life, from the random couple in public or their own parents during their childhood.
Sadistic jokes aside, there are signs that this album’s reflective purposes are working. Fittingly, the album ends with the song “Mirror,” in which the lyrics go, “Sorry I didn’t save the world, my friend / I was too busy building mine / I choose me, I’m sorry.”
Verdict: The new Kendrick album steps away from the usual narrative around Compton and deemphasizes “replay value,” instead giving us an opportunity to reflect on how we see artistry, while Kendrick reflects on himself.