Review Summary: switching up superpositions for u
Let’s make like every amateur YouTube video essayist for a second and talk about parasocial relationships. The oft-discussed termed coined for the one-way dynamic between artist and fan has been done to death and resurrected and done to death and resurrected over and over again ever since John Hinckley Jr tried to assassinate Reagan in Jodie Foster’s name (citation needed?), and has – rightfully – been the subject of many a scrupulous takedown. Idolatry and worship of the fallible celebrity is at best a little spooky and at worst injurious to the physical and mental safety of both the worshipper and worshipee. And yet – and yet – what isn’t touched upon enough is the inevitability of it all. It is inevitable that we treat these artists as deities. They are, (let us make no bones about it) deities who *** and piss and catfight and say cancellable *** on twitterdotcom, but they are deities, nonetheless. They are also, crucially, not that at all.
Honestly I have never been Kendrick Lamar’s most stalwart fan, and further to that point: Mr Morale and the Big Steppers hasn’t made me the umpteenth convert to his convent. What I will concede (hold your applause) is that – like many others before, during, and after me – I respect him immensely for this record. Much has been said about the candour of MM&tBS already, and although I’ll skirt across this point multiple times over the course of the next few paragraphs, I’d much rather we focus on the mesmerizing psychological instability that this focus on emotional honesty results in.
The album, now that I’ve finally gotten around to plumbing its depths, is simultaneously some of worst and most impressive *** I could imagine being produced by a Grammy and Pulitzer Prize winning avatar emissary of all things socially conscious and lyrically mind-opening.
Listen, okay, deep breaths
I was watching one of my favourite YouTube channels discuss this album before I’d even listened to it and they brought up the line “They gon’ judge your life for a couple of likes on the double tap” and the initial ‘What the ***?’ response that elicited from me was not diminished by the munificence of context when I heard it for a second time on Purple Hearts
. It is the most basic observation that – even when deftly woven into the dense thematic tapestry that is presented on the zoom-out moments of the record – refuses to sit still in the pantheon of Kendrick lyrics that make an effort to point towards significance. It points towards the obvious and no further beyond it. Social media bad.
But then he goes and ends the album on something like “sorry I didn’t save the world, my friend/I was too busy building mine again” and then you’re like, okay, the pitfalls of We Cry Together
and Mother I Sober
and Auntie Diaries
, the grime and the dirt and the controversy, is crystallised: the flaws inherent in these songs, the open wounds, aren’t imperfections that went unnoticed in the editing process, but were noticed, noted, and deliberately presented because
they were gross. In this, Kendrick is held in an undulating superposition between occupying the deity status his audience has foisted upon him and renouncing it for his humanhood in the same breath. The use of the ‘f’ slur is both a mistake and not a mistake; the inclusion of Kodak Black on the album both something Kendrick stands behind as meta-commentary on how cycles of abuse create trauma, and a real, flawed human that he can lambast during the course of the very album that begs his inclusion.
It’s a pretty neat trick, bringing deliberate attention to how your questionable decisions are *pushes glasses up nose* actually fine because they get the people thinking, but also I’m “not your Saviour” but also God is “speaking through me” but also “I can’t please everybody” but also I’m a “spirit medium” but also…
I’m not quite sold on this technique. On one hand, this back-and-forth absolutely does a fantastic job of highlighting the fallibility of people, the heightened contradiction of being an artist heralded as the voice of a generation but at the same time being a person who has ***ed up and who is
***ed up. It’s thought-provoking and the storm of discourse kicked up in the wake of tracks like Auntie Diaries
is – as far as I’m concerned – an important cultural shift towards a more humanistic look at social and ostensibly political issues. What I’m not quite sure of is how deliberate some of the minutia is. The constant flip-flopping between deity-status and idiot-just-like-the-rest-of-you person status does not ring as intentional much of the time. The misgendering of Kendrick’s trans cousin does not transmute as deliberate, or in service of the theme (which is not to say that I think – overall – the song is a major step forward), but rather a slip-up in how Kendrick presents his sympathetic position. There are gaps in his self-reflection that, sure, serve to humanise him, but they also leave a bitter aftertaste. It’s as though he’s recognised the harm these decisions may incur on communities he wishes to give a voice to, but has acted with misguided certainty that it serves a hazy, nebulous greater good. Part of me is led to the conclusion that these sacrifices were not his to make. For all the proselytizing Kendrick does about not being a God or a saviour, certain moments here illustrate that there is a psychological shadow following him around doggedly which wholeheartedly accepts this divine alter-ego, and uh
Maybe (read: maybe
) he plays with it a little fast and loose.
I recognise there are two other beasts to contend with here: posting this on sputnik of all places, and dealing with the fact my inability to come to a clean conclusion about what I think may just mean that this album has succeeded in what it set out to do. This whole deal is messy as hell and my going around in thought-circles mirrors the very depiction of cycles dotted across both discs of this album. Earlier today I was talking to Rowan about Mr Morale and the Big Steppers and came to a very reductive conclusion. But it’s potentially the only clean one I will ever be able to come to: “it made me think a lot though, and i guess that’s important. i might write about it. shock horor.”
There’s something to that, though. There’s a big focus on communication across this record, and to that end there’s a necessity for clarity. Which I think this album gets right, especially in its musical ideas. The switch up in delivery on Mother I Sober
at around its midpoint perfectly and profoundly telegraphs the transition from heartrending personal confessional to wider analysis of intergenerational traumas. There’s moments like in Father Time
where the palette is like a more streamlined version of To Pimp A Butterfly’s
labyrinthine jazz opera. I love the warmth and clarity of the bass and I love how the vocal hooks are abounding with simplicity. But then, regarding the aesthetic of emotional turmoil, the discordant pianos in We Cry Together
underpin the broken dialogue between Kendrick and actress Taylour Paige in a way that makes it hard to imagine any other musical backdrop to the hate*** stageplay going on.
This is where I’m glad that my relationship with Kendrick isn’t as developed as some of you. I appreciate this stuff, can tie it back on the hooks of some of his previous works, but I can recognise there is no objective standard to live up to. Kendrick is talented and good and even if I don’t think this is a perfect album, it is emblematic of the man continuing to be talented and good. The “yeah baby” hook in Purple Hearts
sucks to me but it’s funny and I’m not going to begrudge its inclusion here. The pacing is weird (the placement of the second disk’s title track throws things off imo), but I’m sure it’s there for a reason and so I can’t – in good faith – level a decent critique against how these puzzles pieces are positioned in relation to one another. The point is that music, especially popular music, exists in this space where it is equally for the musician and for the audience, and as a result it’s a disservice to this record to appraise its themes based solely on how it makes me feel. By virtue of existing it is an impossibly complex piece of work, layered with meaning both accidental and intentional, and I can’t even begin to work out whether it succeeded in its goals or not, because I’ll never be entirely sure of what all its goals were.
It’s like what Rowan said earlier, and he was talking about The Auntie Diaries
, but I think it’s pertinent to the album as a whole: “…i disagree that there's a simple "he succeeded/he failed" dichotomy, the song itself is so painfully personal and so are everyone's reactions to it”. And sometimes, those two things cannot be reconciled in a concise manner, which is the bane of any parasocial relationship. But that doesn’t mean there is no value in talking about it, and if getting people talking was one of this album’s goals, then I’m confident in its success. I guess, in conclusion, my closing statement would be, last but not least, in short, all else I can really say in certainty is:
album is pretty good, i don’t mind it. i like some of the sounds