I remember when Damn came out and it was heralded as the next big moment in hip hop, and potentially in music history. Many people even arguing that it was Kendrick at his peak. Some years later, that sentiment is seen as laughable, as most people have fell in with the melon's opinion that it's a good album, but far from the greatness that Kendrick has consistently put out before. Fast forward five years, and we get his follow-up, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, to mixed opinions. Some people are out here saying that it's somewhere between the highs of TPAB and GKMC and the lows of Damn, while others claim that this is by far the worst album in his discography and quite possibly the only bad release from him. Where they get this idea, I have no idea; maybe it's because it doesn't have a re-recording of Wesley's Theory and u, a live performance of i, and another interview with 2Pac's ghost (or possibly a new and exciting idea - an interview with Biggie's ghost!), to which I say - yeah, if I were expecting that, I'd be pretty damn disappointed too.
Why do I mention this? Simple: people seem to speedrun their opinions with media these days instead of letting these artworks that the makers have tirelessly worked on, trying to get them as perfect as they can be, for seemingly no other reason than to get some clout from having the first opinion out there. The reason why Damn was so quickly praised was because (possible hot take incoming) it was a quick cash-in on the instant classic status of TPAB. Damn's a good album, but its relatively quick release after such a high as TPAB paired with its poppier sound, making it easier digested for the masses, resulted in instant success that hasn't stuck around for the long run. Meanwhile, Mr. Morale, an album five years in the making, hasn't yet achieved unanimous praise and is instead very controversial within his discography less than a week upon release. I can already tell you that that is a good sign that will result in this album settling in as well as GKMC and even TPAB in the years to come. So I'll end this little side rant with this; if you've bothered getting this far into the review and you're feeling like it's you that I'm talking about, please consider actually sitting with an album before speedrunning your disappointment and/or overwhelming positivity towards any artform - whether it's a hyped album from a popular artist or a Hollywood blockbuster, let it sit for a few days, give it multiple listens (or viewings for movies if possible) and then decide if it's really as bad/good as you originally thought.
To me, it seems like Mr. Morale is Kendrick at his most human - at his most vulnerable. In the cover art, we can already see so much. Now, this cover art all on its own is somewhat controversial, with many calling it "boring" or "simple", but it's that simplicity that, to me, makes it so damn great. It shows us the exact themes explored throughout the album. Kendrick, chilling with his family, wearing his crown of thorns that has been passed to him through his fans. If you ask me, Kendrick has never missed with his artworks tying into the records, and this no different. Throughout the album, Kendrick is struggling between his personal life and beliefs and his status as one of the biggest celebrities out there. To quote one of the biggest celebrities of his time, John Lennon said way back in the '60s "We're bigger than Jesus now." That was decades before the rise of the internet made widespread success more easily accessed for literally anyone. So now that these celebrities have hundreds of millions of eyes on them at all times, I think it's safe to say that people like Kendrick can make the same claim with little argument. And that has resulted in a dangerous sentiment within Kendrick, in which he sees himself as a saviour figure, parallel to Jesus himself, who feels the need to save those who need it by using his status. Something that is perhaps best shown with the excellent non-album single, The Heart Part 5 - an incredible precursor to this wonderful album. It showed in spades Kendrick's fatal flaw as a person, and this album explores that flaw, showing us that it is not lost on him.
I think this is perhaps best shown on the first disc, through two great, thematically intertwined songs. Rich Spirit shows him giving a vulnerable vocal performance while rapping of his critics and haters. And, to quote the chorus,
"Stop playin' with me 'fore I turn you to a song
Ayy, bitch, I'm attractive
Can't Fuck with you no more, I'm fastin'"
He sees himself as above everyone else. He needs not give these people his time, because he's so far above them that they don't even matter anymore - in fact, they matter so little that he warns them within a song that he's willing to turn them into a song.
And this is instantly juxtaposed with We Cry Together. A marital argument revealing so many insecurities within Kendrick that it becomes damn near uncomfortable. It seems that even our self-proclaimed saviour, our rich spirit adorning his crown of thorns, can't get through life without an argument with the wife every now and then. And some of the lyrics in this thing show so many human insecurities - the size of his dick, whether others near him (his cousin) may be better than him, and whether he himself is good enough for his loved ones - that it shows clearly that this Jesus-like image he's given himself and that his audience holds him to is one that even Kendrick himself can see is just a façade, hiding the real, human, personal life of the guy behind the words and voice and music.
These people that so many feel the need to put on a pedestal far above the rest of us are really no different from anybody else. No one person was made to be waited on by millions of people, scrutinizing their every move, waiting for the next message. There is no Jesus out there to answer your questions through a collection of songs about hood life. There is no Jesus out there to flex his wealth and success. There is only people. People that live their own life. People with their own relationships. People with their own struggles. People that make mistakes. And perhaps that's best shown in the highly controversial Auntie Diaries.
Auntie Diaries details his experience with his Aunt's transition into a man (I honestly don't know if it's a true story or hyperbole to go along with the overall message, but I'll go along with it). This song, I feel, shows exactly the problems with this widespread idea that people with more eyes on them need to be meticulously scrutinized. In a personal song in which Kendrick reveals his growth from ignorance to understanding, everybody focuses on whether or not he should have said "that word" and whether the utterance of "that word" has resulted in bad execution. If you ask me, the fact that so many are using that as a criticism means that it was executed flawlessly. The song isn't supposed to be a comfortable breeze through ignorance to understanding - it's a brutal look at how someone goes from confusion to understanding. He's a kid, he doesn't understand that words have weight, and that him and his friends joking around with a word that directly disrespects his family member may actually be causing more harm than good. And it's only at the end, when he realizes that him flaunting a word so carelessly as if it has no meaning is no different than letting a random nobody use another derogatory term that affects he himself. I don't think this whole message would have worked as well if he censored himself or ignored its existence or simply referred to it as "that word". It's a very real word that he very really used and that he has grown to resent. And it's that mistake that everybody feels the need to hyper fixate on instead of the overall meaning of the song itself.
Kendrick's human, and he made a human mistake, and like a human, he has grown past that and is willing to acknowledge that he was once more ignorant than he now is. He is giving us a cautionary moral, that if we are so quick to beat down the use of one word, then the other word that holds just as much weight shouldn't be given a lighter pass. Yet, the brutally blatant messaging has resulted in many refusing to understand, and that kinda brings me onto the main message. We're living in a world where we are seeing those more famous than us as something next to a god, and mistakes that would be ignored if done by anyone else is almost considered a national crisis if done by someone of Kendrick's status. But that's not fair. He's human. He's a man with 34 years of life experience on him. He's made his mistakes, and he's understanding those mistakes and overcoming them. But he's being held back by this need to be seen as a clean being, who has done no bad in his life and instead is making the lives of everyone else better. But he understands; it's him he needs to make better. The world will always listen and criticize and scrutinize any further mistakes. But he shouldn't focus on that anymore. He still has that fatal flaw of his ego growing because the world's viewing him as bigger than he is, but he's acknowledged it and is working on it.
And it resulted in some of the realest music he's made - which is no small feat considering what he has made before.
This album is giving me Atrocity Exhibition vibes. No, not because it's weird and wacky and experimental, but because it's unrelenting in its beautiful ugliness. He's showing us the realities of success. A man doesn't suddenly becoming holier than thou just because he has more eyes on him and more money than the masses. His problems aren't instantly solved. He's still a human. He is no Jesus. He is no all-knowing being ready to fix your life for you. He hasn't even fixed his own life yet. But the stress of everyone else putting their standards on him is making things more difficult, raising his ego and blinding him to what really matters.
"I choose me, I'm sorry"
|1||United In Grief / 95|
|2||N95 / 95|
|3||Worldwide Steppers / 85|
|4||Die Hard / 85|
|5||Father Time / 90|
|7||Rich Spirit / 85|
|8||We Cry Together / 100|
|9||Purple Hearts / 90|
|1||Count Me Out / 85|
|2||Crown / 90|
|3||Silent Hill / 75|
|5||Savior / 85|
|6||Auntie Diaries / 99|
|7||Mr. Morale / 100|
|8||Mother I Sober / 100|
|9||Mirror / 100|