Kendrick Lamar – “United In Grief”

Yes, I too have thoughts about the new Kendrick Lamar album.

Honestly, it’s been 10 years since I last wrote about Kendrick, so let me have this one!

Anyway, you know who Kendrick Lamar is, one of the most popular and acclaimed rappers of the past decade. A good kid from the mad city of Compton, California who idolized 2Pac and Jeezy, and started making noise in the late ’00s for his incredible flow and ambitious goals. Hearing him in 2009 I was impressed by his Kendrick Lamar EP tape; he won my ear with a nasty freestyle over The Foreign Exchange‘s “Daykeeper,” but for every shining moment, there was plenty of jank.

That being said, the rapper formerly known as K.Dot showed promise, and boyyyy did he ever realize it, soon making generational leaps in his music on 2011’s Section.80 and 2012’s good kid, M.A.A.D city, honing in on expressive and incisive reflections on his upbringing, success, and being Black in America. This really came to the fore on 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly, one of the most monumental albums of the 2010s (to put it succinctly) and an incredible career apex.

Anyway, long story short: In the years since that album, Kendrick has retreated and recalibrated, taking time out to be present with his family and work on himself. 2017’s DAMN showed elements of this transition, a scaled-back record that found the rapper grappling with his faith, his internal struggles, and how he’s viewed as a rapper, artist, and a Black man. In 2022 he returned with Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, the culmination of that journey.

I’ve been listening to Mr. Morale nonstop for the last week. The first listen left me feeling mixed, but in repeat listens I began to really appreciate it. There’s so many layers to this album that it’s hard to know where to even begin. Mr. Morale is by far the most personal and revealing work Kendrick has released yet, offering a disarming level of truth and vulnerability from the artist about his life, his mistakes, his contradictions, and his efforts to grow. He’s upfront about therapy, his savior complex, his complex feelings about his family, his addictions. He thoroughly details his past traumas and his struggles of trying to break the grip of them for himself and his children. He champions the lessons of spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle. He’s critical and almost dour about his success and his prior actions, and lets the audience know constantly that he’s not to be idolized or followed. It’s a messy, complex, and harrowing deconstruction of his ego and celebrity.

At the same time, the record feels incredibly liberating. It’s as if Kendrick has reached an epiphany about himself, shedding his former ideas and modes and asking listeners to recognize and hopefully accept his changes. And on this record he’s able to deftly articulate every bit of that personal transformation in a thorough and vivid way. It’s astonishing how Kendrick has iterated on ideas he’s expressed on past works, but now it feels like he’s able to perfectly convey them.

Mr. Morale is a challenging album. It takes courage to be this candid and reflective, pushing aside your image and status to achieve something more personally fulfilling. It’s a large and deliberate departure for one of the world’s biggest music stars.

I feel like I’m barely scratching the surface of Mr. Morale. There’s a lot to digest here, and while not all of the album lands, it’s still a fascinating piece of work. This trickles down to picking a track to feature, since very few songs on here feel like they work on their own outside of the album’s concept. So, I elected on “United In Grief,” the album’s opener. Racing like thoughts in a panic attack, this listen is unpredictable and unsteady as Kendrick lays out his vices and turmoil, getting into some of the destructive ways he used to cope with his traumas. It’s a rollercoaster of an introduction.

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