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Kendrick Lamar looks inward on 'Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers'


This is FRESH AIR. Kendrick Lamar has a new album called "Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers." It's his first album in five years. His previous album, "DAMN.," won a Pulitzer Prize, and he performed at this year's Super Bowl in February. The new collection is a large one - 18 songs. And rock critic Ken Tucker says Lamar clearly has a lot to get off his chest about the effects widespread acclaim have had on him.


KENDRICK LAMAR: (Rapping) Do you love me? Do you trust me? Can I trust you? Don't judge me. I'm a diehard. It gets ugly. Too passionate - it gets ugly. I wonder where I lost my way. Been waiting on your call all day. Tell me you in my corner right now. When I fall short, I'm leaning on you to cry out. We all got enough to lie about. My truth too complicated to hide now. Can I open up? Is it safe or not? I'm afraid a little. You relate or not? Have faith a little. I might take my time. Ain't no saving face this time.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: For a man who can rap and rhyme with great subtlety, Kendrick Lamar isn't taking any chances on being misunderstood with this new album. On its cover, he wears a crown of thorns. The first words he speaks are, I've been going through something. Lamar really wants us to know that becoming the most esteemed hip-hop artist alive has come with no small burden and that his efforts to turn the pressures he feels into art have been mightily difficult.


LAMAR: (Rapping) I come from a generation of home invasions and I got daddy issues. That's on me. Everything them four walls that taught me made habits buried deep. That man knew a lot but not enough to keep me past them streets. My life is a plot, twisted from directions that I can't see. Daddy issues ball across my head, told me, [expletive] a foul. I'm teary-eyed, want to throw my hands. I won't think out loud. A foolish pride - if I lose again, won't go in the house. I stayed outside, laughing with my friends. They don't know my life. Daddy issues made me learn losses - I don't take those well. Momma said, that boy is exhausted. He said, go fuck yourself. If he give up now, that's gon' cost him. Life's a [expletive]. You could be a [expletive] or step out the margin. I got up quick. I'm charging baskets and falling backwards, trying to keep balance. Oh, this the part where mental stability meets talent. Oh, this the part he breaks my humility just for practice. Tactics we learned together...

TUCKER: Kendrick Lamar's response to the huge success of his 2017 album, "DAMN.", has been to turn inward, to start re-examining much of what he knows about himself. The song I just played is "Father Time," on which Lamar addresses what he calls his daddy issues. It's the first of a number of songs that speak of his childhood in Compton. It's comfort, yes, but even more so, it's pain. One of the standout tracks grappling with all this is called "Mother I Sober." Over soft piano chords, he talks in a subdued voice about death, secrets, faith, guilt and what he calls his transformation.


LAMAR: (Rapping) I'm sensitive. I feel everything. I feel everybody. One man standing on two words, heal everybody. Transformation then reciprocation - karma must return. Heal myself - secrets that I hide buried in these words. Death threats - ego must die, but I let it purge. Pacify broken pieces of me, it was all a blur. Mother cried, put they hands on her. It was family ties. I heard it all. I should've grabbed a gun, but I was only 5. I still feel it weighing on my heart, my first tough decision. In the shadows clinging to my soul, that's my only critic. Where's my faith? Told you I was Christian, but just not today. I transformed, praying to the trees, God is taking shape. My mother's mother followed me for years in her afterlife, staring at me on back of some buses. I wake up at night. Loved her dearly. Traded in my tears for a Range Rover - transformation. You ain't felt grief 'til you felt it sober.

BETH GIBBONS: (Singing) I wish I was somebody, anybody but myself. I wish I was somebody, anybody but myself.

TUCKER: The chorus of that song is sung by Beth Gibbons of Portishead, who seems to be murmuring Lamar's own thought - I wish I was somebody, anybody but myself. As "Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers" proceeds, it becomes clear that this is not going to be the polished, smoothly crafted work that "DAMN." was. The new album's form is dictated by its content, which means its rougher, messier, more conversational and raw. There are lines here about having had writer's block. Another song is about his loving but complex relationship with two transgender family members. He mentions cancel culture more than once, as if fearing its sting, and then becomes angry at his fear of it. Much of the time, the instrumentation is spare, frequently just a beat and a keyboard delineating a melody. He tends to rap quietly, as well, as though he's always looking over his shoulder to see who's listening to his confessions.


LAMAR: (Rapping) Frat brother, real brother, rat brother. We just upped the score, give me dap, brother. Spirit medium, I don't rap, brother. We headed there now, are you strapped, brother? Ay, peace maker, but I'm not naive, brother. Ay, got to watch your homies and police, brother. Ay, clout chasing hell of a disease, brother. I'm fasting four days out the week, brother. I pray to God that you realize the entourage is dead. I pray to God that you not lacking when you off the meds. I pray to God she know them Cabo trips don't last forever. She argue with her momma, go and get them kids. I pray to God you actually pray when somebody dies. Thoughts and prayers way better off timelines. False claiming not cute, I'm mortified. The new Earth in hot pursuit, 200 lives.

TUCKER: "Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers" is drenched in deep melancholy. And the challenge when venturing into this territory is to avoid superstar-level self-pity. By summoning up so many specific memories and articulating their impact so precisely, Kendrick Lamar works through his issues with uncommon grace.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Kendrick Lamar's new album, "Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, New York Times correspondent David Gelles will talk about his new book, "The Man Who Broke Capitalism." That man is the late Jack Welch. Welch was praised as a managerial genius when he ran. GE. Gelles says Welch's ruthless cost cutting and focus on short-term profits harmed workers, ruined GE and warped the American economy. I hope you'll join us.

Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. I'm Terry Gross.


LAMAR: (Singing) Hello, new world, all the boys and girls. I got some true stories to tell. You're back outside, but they still lied. Whoa. Yeah. (Rapping) Take off the fufu (ph). Take off the clout chase. Take off the Wi-Fi. Take off the money phone. Take off the car loan. Take off the flex and the white lies. Take off the weird-ass jewelry. I'ma take 10 steps, then I'm taking off Top 5. Take off them fabricated streams and them microwave memes, it's a real world outside. Take that [expletive] off. Take off your idols. Take off the runway, I take off to Cairo. Take that [expletive] off. Take off to Saint-Tropez, five-day stay. Take a quarter mill', hell if I know. Take that [expletive] off. Take off the front flag. Take off perception. Take off the cop with the eye patch. Take that [expletive] off. Take off the unloyal. Take off the unsure. Take off decisions I lack. Take it off. Take off the fake deep. Take off the fake woke. Take off the, I'm broke, I care. Take it off. Take off the gossip...


Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.