Today we are all orphans. Dazed, feeling like Father Christmas has just made a final appearance. Witnesses of a shift that marks the end of a happy era, as the great myth of childhood dissolves and we are dangerously close to the doors of all too serious adulthood. And yet we're happy to find, under the Christmas tree, the gift we've been waiting for, fantasizing about, dreaming of for weeks: Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, Kendrick Lamar's latest album, announced on his website on 18th April 2022, and his ultimate masterpiece released by Top Dawg Entertainment, his label for the past seventeen years.
The double LP containing eighteen tracks, released five years after the fiery Damn, opens like a message to those he left behind, he says, precisely one thousand eight hundred and fifty five days ago. The rapper also felt like it had been ages, watching Trump elected and then driven out of the White House and witnessing the ultra-violent assault on the Capitol by the outgoing president's supporters... From the very first lines, he hopes that we've found peace in our souls, whether we've been united in mourning (a supposedly more pacifist era) or whether, like him, we've found a single answer to all our questions.
Because in addition to being called the king of hip-hop, since the release of Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City (2012), Kendrick Lamar has crafted an image of wisdom. He has been in a relationship with the same woman since he was a kid, poses with a toddler in his arms on the cover of his latest album and won the very serious Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for his eminently committed lyrics, anti-racist denouncements and (all too) clear-sighted manifestos of an ultra-dark, fascist and reactionary era.
So we've come to wonder, at times, whether Kendrick Lamar was real. Did he really grow up on the wide streets of Compton, record five albums in American studios, fiddling with all the buttons on the mixing deck and phoning his sound engineer late at night to rush in and arrange the track he'd just written, scribbled on a whiteboard? Did he really pose for hours in front of the American photographer Renell Medrano's lens for a cover in which he appears, a crown of diamond thorns on his head, half-Jesus and half-head of the family? With Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, he goes against the grain of an era in which opulence is the only thing that matters, an era that has elevated the Bible into the sole school of thought, of a world where people only believe in one unique story and, like Kanye West when he made up with Drake, are not shy of changing sides. A tempered storyline, a sharp and uncensored testimony, the Californian's album is the B-side of opulent Southern hip-hop – more specifically Pusha T's blockbuster released at the end of April comes to mind. It's a work that tells the truth, evokes the personal and the intimate, an honest album that speaks of cowardice and moves forward, full-bodied, lurking like a Komodo dragon.
Fantasized about and idolized, Kendrick Lamar is a collective hallucination, the spiritual father of those who don't have one, as well as of those who are desperately waiting to hear their own dad say "I love you". This artist is capable of bringing Beth Gibbons, the Portishead singer with the voice of an angel, out of her silence and of featuring her on the LP alongside the very controversial Kodak Black, released from prison after three years for illegal possession of firearms and recently prosecuted for rape. This singer has the audacity to stage an ultra-violent domestic scene by quoting his own wife, Whitney Alford (credited as the narrator on the track We Cry Together) that borders on the unbearable, with its outpour of insults and rage. He goes so far as to champion consent while accusing the opposite sex of "playing innocent", calling them "fake feminists" and stepping onto the minefield of the Weinstein and R. Kelly cases. He delves into his childhood memories, his first frustrated sexual emotions, his addiction to sex, his experiences with white women and the racism of their fathers... These patriarchs, unable to express their love, raise sons who suffer from daddy issues, children, like Kendrick Lamar, who have no choice but to be sober to attain clarity and who, when they themselves become fathers, rely on gurus – such as Eckhart Tolle here, a writer credited several times as narrator. He painfully recalls unresolved family rifts, such as those brought on by claims his cousin sexually abused him as a child. The rapper has always denied this, while his family never believed him...
Is this then the beginning of a new era, a turning point in his career, or a break from music that will last even longer than five years? Is it the beginning of a film career – the rapper has announced the production, via his company pgLang, of a film with the creators of South Park? Whatever the case, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is less a blockbuster than a peplum in which Lamar kills his father. Released on Friday the 13th – the day Jesus was crucified, while the day before he had invited thirteen guests, including Judas, to his final meal – the album reenacts the Last Supper, a testamentary banquet to which Mr. Morale invites the Steppers: the young (his cousin Baby Keem, Summer Walker) and the old (Beth Gibbons, Ghostface Killah), memory (his long-standing collaboration with Thundercat) and the afterlife. A stripped-down Greek tragedy, in which there are few poetic flourishes worthy of To Pimp a Butterfly (except on the track Crown) and in front of which the audience – the listeners as well as the producers, including Pharrell and Duval Timothy, a virtuoso British pianist who has released impeccable, almost exclusively instrumental albums – sit back to watch Kendrick Lamar whimper, bleed and die. Before coming back to life.
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers (2022) by Kendrick Lamar, available from Top Dawg Entertainment.