Kendrick Lamar is one of the most popular high-brow artists. He is one of very few people in history whose work during their lifetime has been at once widely listened to (nearly 20 million hits already for the top tracks of this album on Spotify) and deeply scrutinised: every lyric, every note and harmony is unravelled, put together, unravelled, put together again.
How does someone become that person? Musicality. This cannot be reduced to craft, the manipulation of melodies and harmonies, just as painting cannot seriously be made a matter of oils and sketches, nor writing vocabulary and punctuation.
To an ordinary unversed person, Lamar’s tools would just seem like melodies and harmonies, but for him they are a language, an expressive medium: a way of reaching other people’s subjective interiority.
What unites his albums, for all their differences, is that the music is for earphones, for walking around with, eating dinner to, listening to: alone, again and again.
They are made for experience, that pre-interpretive affective field that we make around us in our ordinary lives; whose shape has been theorised by many but is obscure to all; which some people have misnamed the unconscious, and which others have – more understandably, although not coherently – called presence.
Kendrick Lamar makes people feel something. Not just pleasure – most of the music is hard listening, demanding attention but chipping away , sometimes excruciatingly: songs like ‘We Cry Together’.
In Lamar’s music there is an echo, however faint, of the good.
Listeners are willing to suffer for this music because there is more than just sensation to it: listening to it is not like drunkenness. Audible , making meaning of its essence, is a sense of theme, the serenity of an idea. In Lamar’s music there is an echo, however faint, of the good.
When people wonder what truth artists can express or if there is a connection between art and morality, they miss the point completely if they do not see two things:
(1) The echo of the good is the whole source of art’s power and its one true mission on earth; (2) When people misunderstand this they try and take more from art than is there, and it becomes corrupt – this nearly always happens.
The first of these is rich and profound. The second explains why our understanding of artists is split: we tend to think of them as either prophets or pleasure-spinners while also forcing them to be both which cheapens them. Like power, when it is twisted from a means into an end, art corrupts.
It is one of the myths of our time that taste in art is subjective and arbitrary, like the consumer’s favourite foods and the citizen’s contrived support for a foreign soccer team.
Any reasonably deep thinker would tell you that people’s favourite foods and soccer teams are not arbitrary at all but a projection of where they are from, and who they would like to be (i.e., of their social class and place in history) – art too.
But it is also not arbitrary because it comes from a need which is not arbitrary: the need for things to make sense.
Like the Andromeda Galaxy, the best art in the world does not need us. But we need its inferiors
Like the Andromeda Galaxy, the best art in the world does not need us. But we need its inferiors – false images, shaky edifices of bad sense – like the lies people tell themselves: for example, that society develops, that we are a Western liberal democracy, that bad things either happen for a certain type of ‘reason’ or will not happen as much eventually, or that we somehow stand with the people who suffer them.
In ‘Mr Morale and the Big Steppers’ we hear the voice of a brilliant musician who at once asks too little and too much of his own art.
The album is full of snippets, flourishes, hieroglyphs, loose references, subtle indicators – they lead nowhere. You could walk them around the entire earth and end up where you started. The point of each hidden reference is overwhelmingly the reference itself; the allusion always alludes first to its own allusion. Near the beginning of ‘Father Time’ for example we are told to ‘reach out to Eckhart’. Thomas Pynchon for music lovers.
With such things there is an obvious kitschiness (and the lyrics sometimes too. From ‘Worldwide Steppers:’ ‘Photoshoppin’ lies and motives. Hide your eyes, then pose for the pic’.’ From ‘Purple Hearts:’ ‘I’m not in the music business, I been in the human business/Whole life been social distant’).
But what these references, and more generally all the songs, keep coming back to is the Christian God. This is not exactly the God of James Baldwin, the sheer overwhelming joy of life together in song – nor the sublimely Christian one of Marvin Gaye – because it is delayed, deferred, like the ‘happiness’ of the ‘pursuit of happiness’.
‘God’ here means ‘Paradise’, the fulfilment of a desire; the album honestly and vividly makes you feel America’s most devastating delusion: that you can ‘pursue’ happiness any more successfully or less destructively than you can chase a dragon.
All the best of ‘Mr Morale and the Big Steppers’ is about pain: feeling pain, admitting to it, being afraid of it, working out where it comes from, understanding it will not disappear. ‘Mother I Sober’, the best song on the album, strips everything back to this – a story about something that happened to his mother when he was young, and what it meant and means, its place in history.
The worst is when a song leans complacently on its thought, such as the gimmicky and Macklemore-ish ‘Auntie Diaries’ – whose narrator describes his two trans relatives, mixing vulgar discomfort and misgendering with supportive indignance against transphobes and homophobes.
The song’s acceptance trajectory does not challenge the origins of the speaker’s own sense of self; it does not drink from the cup of truth. Instead we are told that ‘Heart plays in ways the mind can’t figure out’.
It makes you think of that 19th Century ‘anti-slavery’ play by Dion Boucicault (The Octoroon) whose readaptation by Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins graced the Abbey Theatre recently.
Back to James Baldwin. All the themes on this album are his. If someone wants to know how an artist can take on such things as race, gender, exploitation, the fear and delusions of the oppressor, the shame and indignation of the oppressed, without fantasy or overpromising, with an unforgiving ruthlessness, and yet with a vital resonance of the good, they should read his books.
Mr Morale and the Big Steppers can be streamed on Spotify, YouTube, or else downloaded via Pirating software.