The Riff
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The Riff

On Kendrick Lamar And His Gilded Crossroads.

Review: Mr. Morale And The Big Steppers.

Photo: Renell Medrano

The artistic race man, an archetype whose fate Kendrick Lamar tries to escape in Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers, could make an atheist ponder the Devil (or at least the idea of pacts with him).

The artists who have assumed — or had hoisted on them — the mantle have many things in common: they tell a coming of age story, they tell it eloquently, they process violence in counterproductive and contradictory ways, and they rise to fame via a network of men who claim them as the “voice of their generation.” They also have two others in common: they are only allowed to tell their story once, and when they stray from it, their endings are painful and messy.

A cursory look at their stories is haunting. Richard Wright shunned by his artistic sons and compatriots in the Bandung conference for advocating feminism — and looked askance by a generation of black and white women too tired of his prior reveries for their death.

Etheridge Knight poignantly breaking from his prison poet archetype in his verses while relapsing and abusing Sonia Sanchez in real life.

Gil Scott Heron, begging his audience to see how frail and vulnerable he was before he escaped their demands for constant revolutionary performance via the pipe.

The 2pac Shakur of “Never Call U Bytch Again” ( right before his death) wondered what he won by rising to the top of the pop charts as a PCP-soaked ghoul.

This critic believes that Kendrick is as good as any artist who could be classified in such a label. This includes the great Ralph Ellison, who spent his last years traumatized by the racial cruelty of black nationalists yet unwilling to see his literary daughters, who could have taught him about third-person narration.

With Good Kid M.A.A.D city, To Pimp A Butterfly, and Damn, he took the gorgeous atmospherics of early 90’s hip hop, replaced most of the samples with instrumentation, alchemized Marvin Gaye’s use of dueling voices and tone poetics into raw, complex, and compelling stories about processing the project industrial complex in LA, and made some of the best music I’ve ever heard or will hear.

Their structures harkened a musical William Faulkner more than they did Fabolous, radical, new, almost teaching you how to digest them, and the complexity of their narration combined with the eloquence of his very best canonized him faster than any American artist I can think of since Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.

Emphasis on at his best, however. Specifically, “Bitch” bedeviled Lamar like “n****r” bedeviled Faulkner. The contexts in which they use the words don’t redeem them as much as their defenders say they do and sound startling compared to the remarkably visionary aesthetics of their most enlightened work.

It was also tough not to notice how the figure of Lamar as a pop star, a market digestible hype-macho sex symbol who embraced some of the more repugnant aesthetics of modern hip hop bro culture, differed from the figure who produced such innovation and complexity in his albums.

I want to say that his attempted escape of that persona, the theme of Mr. Morale And The Big steppers, is a clean and successful one, but I can’t. Lamar is the 21’s century’s great early 20th-century modernist, and like the members of his long-gone tribe, he has a habit of valuing his experimental technical structures a little more than he does the human being.

In this case, that human being is Whitney Alford, his fiance, and the Leonard Woolf figure in Lamar’s unearthing of his biases in his slow climb to the light on gender issues. Too often in the album, Lamar mistakes his pain for artistic elbow grease, reducing his usual number of contrasting voices and presenting his pathologies( habitual, perpetual philandering, and verbal cruelty) in a narrative arc in a contextually similar way Virginia Woolf would often present the Anti Semitism toward her husband she was trying to shed.

Yet just as the Woolf of Three Guineas became eloquent enough to make intersectional arguments about antisemitism, sexism, and fascist oppression, the Lamar who does process his traumas — and lets Whitney have her say in his growth — takes hip hop to new, powerful, revelatory, and emotionally moving places in regards to gender.

Listening to the best parts of Big Steppers, I started to give genuine credit to Kendrick for not doing what Hemingway did in “A Movable Feast.” He does not take the easy, critically comfortable route: dump Whitney, leave her voice out of the room, find a new best girl and lather his story with romantic cliches.

In fighting to win her back and admitting he’s working through tremendous demons, the album earns a formidable amount of grace.

Over an exquisitely gorgeous sounding looped sample on Father Time, Kendrick spits some of his most exquisitely written and performed bars calling on himself and men to work through their “daddy issues” and “give women a break.” The Heart Part 5, the hidden track payoff of the album, is Kendrick at the peak of his powers. All his gifts are here, the chorus of voices, the perfect narrative distance, and the gorgeously structured music that takes numerous different voices and stories about black masculinity into one profound one.

As well as the most tender of his Apologetics toward Whitney, “Die Hard” shows he understands Gaye’s gift for wrapping a melody around a gorgeously light juxtaposition of percussive sounds. In Mr. Morale (a title track of sorts), he aligns his better angels and repudiates the exhibitionist piggishness he showed in Silent Hill, Count Me Out, and Rich Spirit, and leads to the almost devastating Mother I Sober, a mediation on his and his families sexual trauma’s that ends with an almost shamanic like declaration of deliverance. It was almost one of the most moving music tracks I have ever heard.

Emphasis on almost, however. For his preacher-like call for sexually abused and sexually abused to be released from their demons calls this question “ But what about the delivery from abuse of the 15-year-old girl Kodak Black was convicted of raping? Kodak’s black’s and popularity highlight mainstream rap’s popularity in an America in decline: A space where white and black men can watch and perform sexual sadism and get away with it. Kendrick’s soulless embrace of Black (under the “even the untenable need forgiving” banner) makes up the album’s worst moments. They are not only the reason he lost a great deal of his audience and his position as the co-titular figure in black music, but also one of the reasons people have embraced Lizzo and Beyonce’s great new albums so fervently.

Yet as Kendrick descends into a figure of our toxic discourse( Kendrick Vs. the internet is the second big theme of Big Steppers), I am left with a different question; Will any of Kendrick’s Most fervent critics, if you take a close look at them, deliver that girl either? I have had too many conversations with too many non-twitter verified black people in the last few years to pretend that critics of Lamar’s responses to internet culture in this album have a lot of merits.

Where they see a reflexive rich future right winger in the “ Who’s the biggest hypocrite? Who’s the only one out there who think they are relevant?” lines, I thought of the tear-inducing vigils poets had for Paul Celan at the outbreak of the Ukrainian juxtaposed with a Twitter culture filled with so many poets who refuse to read anyone white. The critiques Lamar had of black lives matter grifters in Savior didn’t fall anywhere near as flat as they did with the BLM workers I met in the midwest who could have direly used the money its higherups were raising or the black women I know who work at nonprofits disillusioned out of their head and fearful they will have to answer for the group’s fiduciary negligence for the rest of their days.

However, nothing is as much a Rorschach test as Lamar’s response to the Rapper Noname’s fervent call for him to be more performative in his politics in Mirror. It’s not the song that’s polarizing perse: In Beatle-like violins and genteel yet slightly claustrophobic synths, he explains to her that he has just found the better aspects of his soul and equilibrium and has to work on rebuilding the family he almost messed up.

No, it’s that if this is the terms of the work of art and the dialogue around it, one has to bring up that Noname is much more fervent in her critique of Lamar THAN SHE IS OF JOSEPH FUCKING STALIN. Every nightmare archetype of young people in social justice- belligerently stupid, toxic, taking up so much space, unwilling to endure a whiff of critique against them-exists in Noname; and one doesn’t have to be a member of the Dark web to find some of Lamar’s social justice foils among the most wretched liberals to walk the face of the earth.

Yet it doesn’t take away the malaise of a man whose demons put him in a dark cultural moment. Writing this review in several restaurants and coffee shops, I couldn’t help but be moved by the interruptions of people responding to Lizzo’s “Better” and Beyonce’s “Break My Soul” and “Virgo”; dance songs aiming toward the gender amorphous place of revival than the TRL Knowles contorted her art to be the queen of 20 years ago. Seeing them and masses of people online respond to them in such an enthusiastic, communal matter not only crystalized the triumph of both albums.

It also showed a continuance of a tradition of the best of black music as a channel that everyone had a stake in. The problem with Big Steppers, as brilliant as it can be, is that the only thing it gives the listener is a demand that Kendrick is a completely good and healed man.

Seeing Lamar at the Glastonbury festival pilloried for his public performance art in favor of the right to choose, I couldn’t help but think of Wright at his 11th hour. Like the author of Native Son was haunted by Franco’s treatment of sex workers and young women in the catholic church, Kendrick was shaken enough by a post-civil rights court taking of fundamental human rights to make a performative statement: Also, like Wright, Kendrick was pilloried by compatriots and former fans for it; especially the Simone De Beauvoir who wrote letters to his estranged wife and the Lorraine Hansberry who pilloried Wright’s overwritten artless horrorcore in Freedom magazine. They had invested so much into him only to see him flatten his art into something ugly and didn’t have time to center him as he processed his demons.

Many people who had invested in the brilliance of Kendrick Lamar do not have time to center him right now. In a summer where Lizzo and Beyonce have intellectually and physically fed people in a deteriorating nation, so many people don’t have the time to entertain a troubled man who wants a medal for admitting he treats his fiance like garbage and has slimy reasons for supporting a slimy monster of a friend.

That doesn’t mean Mr. Morale and Big Steppers is devoid of brilliance. That also doesn’t mean that the disdain of the closet Trump-supporting audience of men who pilloried him in Glastonbury leaves me with a small lump in my throat; it leaves him a place very similar to the Bandung bros who wanted Wright to give them more dead women, the black nationalists who could care less about Knight’s addictions or abuse, and the death row crew around Shakur, antsy when their charge wanted to know why, if he was on top of a mountain, the label wouldn’t give him a Kingdom or a key of his own.

Kendrick is young and independent enough, and the high moments of desperation he shows are that he knows he still has some work to do to get out of his situation. He has to do that work, however. The Devil is hard to beat, especially when he has that paper on you.

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