Kendrick Lamar has been going through something—or so he announces in the opening lines of his latest album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers. In the 1,855 days after the release of his previous album, DAMN., which he refers to in the song “United in Grief,” he won seven Grammys and a Pulitzer, went on a four-year musical hiatus, had two children, and, if Mr. Morale is any indication, did a whole lot of soul-searching. Maybe it was the subdued satisfaction of reaching new pinnacles, or the revelatory transition into fatherhood, that sent him on a quest to find and attempt to mend what was broken inside him and then document the journey through some of his most experimental and emotionally complex music to date. Whatever the case, when Lamar appears in the private back room of a hotel restaurant in Toronto, where he’s performing two sold-out shows, he is disarmingly down-to-earth. He has an almost zen-like calm; coming off the heaviest album of his career, the man seems pretty light. Part of that, no doubt, has to do with being back on the road performing and connecting with his fans in the flesh, a feeling that he says is second nature to him. It’s also possible that his unburdening has worked.
The seeds of Mr. Morale had been growing inside Lamar for a long time, he says. “It’s stuff that I’ve written that’s just now seeing daylight, because I wasn’t secure with myself in order to do it.... It was really about not being insecure [or] tormented by opinions,” he says. “When I did this, it was kind of the marker and the growth of everything I’ve always wanted to say. I think that was really my purpose of writing my way out of things that I was feeling, from the time I was 9 years old, all the way up to 35.”
Much of Lamar’s decade-plus career has been about recounting his own experiences. When his striking major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, was released in 2012, Lamar brought listeners into his Compton, California, hometown via a day-in-the-life account that animated the kinds of people who often exist as abstractions in more privileged minds. His brain-melting command of cadence and language, coupled with a savvy ability to generate levity from even the weightiest topics, instantly earned him “voice of a generation”–style superlatives among critics and listeners who welcomed a rapper steeped in tradition but whose sound was decidedly modern. The music was visual and vivid, spare on compromises yet fit for mass consumption. Listeners ate it up, and those stories—face-offs between wisdom and hubris, ambition and destruction—became the bedrock of his narrative in the public eye. In the background, however, his own relationship to those memories was constantly being reconfigured.
“A lot of times, I’m doing interviews and speaking on the general basis of my childhood, and years later, I see them questions reoccur—maybe on social media, and they pop up and me answering the questions—and I’m like, Damn, the answer was true, but it’s not how I think about it [anymore],” Lamar says. He points to “Cartoon & Cereal,” the now iconic song that leaked before good kid was released, as an example of how his read of his own music can shift over time; what once felt like joy and freedom now looks like escape and suppression. Mr. Morale is this kind of retroactive analysis turned inward. “I had to damn near repattern my thoughts to see things that I didn’t necessarily see in those interviews, or just in life in general.”
In his music, there have always been secrets just out of reach, always a hotheaded shadow self threatening to break out and destroy everything at any moment. This is the version of Lamar that Dave Free, his creative collaborator and a close friend since high school, knows well. “Those moments when we were getting pressed, or me seeing that side of Kendrick which people don’t know,” says Free. “I done seen that side of him where just—he’d be a poet in one moment, but then he’d be protecting himself or his family. There was a time period when we was taking chances to make music. We were driving in neighborhoods late, really risking our lives. All type of shit we done been in, all over the pursuit of something bigger than us.”
Free and Lamar became friends as teenagers, when Lamar was rapping under the moniker K.Dot. Free remembers being impressed with Lamar’s skills, even back then. “Very simply, I compared him to rappers that I thought were elite rappers at the time,” Free says. “I breathed, slept, and just lived rap music. I was a DJ, and I lived super lyricism, and I was big on East Coast hip-hop. And Kendrick...really the first bars I ever heard from him, I was like, Damn, this dude’s really special with his words.” When Lamar released his first mix tape, Free played it for anyone who would listen, including Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, who signed Lamar to his independent label, TDE, in 2007. A few years later, another mix tape Free sent to the website 2DOPEBOYZ caught the attention of Dr. Dre, who brought Lamar to Aftermath/Interscope, setting him on the path to mainstream stardom.
For Lamar, no part of his life has been wasted, because it took all of it—the good, the bad, the ugly and shameful—to bring him to this moment. “I’m not even the same person I was yesterday,” he says. “That’s what keeps me creative. I have so much discipline as far as repetition—I don’t give a fuck if it’s a thousand push-ups or pull-ups or whatever, but it’s always that extra 5 percent I’m like, What am I on today? What’s going to be the evolution for myself today?”
His development—both creatively and personally—has taken place in public, and has been detailed in his albums as well as in the press. The trajectory of his career has coincided with an increasingly tumultuous period of social and political dysfunction. In the three years between good kid and its follow-up, To Pimp a Butterfly, an entire generation was called to take to the streets and speak out, sparked by the deaths of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Eric Garner and Mike Brown in 2014, as well as the subsequent lack of consequences for their killers. The Black Lives Matter movement, as it’s come to be known, has defined the cultural and political landscape over the past decade, with Lamar as its de facto hip-hop avatar. His music has functioned as both a response to the moment and a soundtrack for it.
DAMN., released in 2017, contained some of the most radio-friendly songs of his career—“Humble.” earned him his first Hot 100 spot as a lead artist—but it also amplified the tension between who the world was seeing and who he was and wanted to be. In it, he railed not just against racism and the conservative figureheads who consider oppression legitimate policy, but against humanity’s sins—and his own. That effort earned him the Pulitzer Prize in Music the following year, a first for any rapper or any work outside of the jazz and classical genres. Despite the external acclaim, there was much that remained unsettled internally. Lamar all but stopped releasing music as he worked through what would eventually become Mr. Morale. “I’ve had rewards for my other albums in different ways, whether it was accolades, whether it was the Pulitzer, whether it was the Grammys,” he says. “This one is the reward for humanity for me.”
Throughout Mr. Morale, Lamar refers to his experiences in therapy, and the album’s contents are the result of an examined life. In sharing such personal journeys, Lamar goes against a tradition that dictates that family business stays that way—“kept in the house,” as the saying goes. Now his music is bridging the gap between those with whom he feels kinship and those far removed. Mr. Morale’s “Mother I Sober” is a meditation on the way trauma is transmitted across generations. “Auntie Diaries” details his experience watching his aunt, and later his cousin, transition as he confronts his own intolerance and that of the church. On “We Cry Together,” which features the actor Taylour Paige, he illustrates the toxic tension that exists between lovers who can’t stop blaming each other for their issues.
“I’m a private person; it was tough for me,” Lamar says of Mr. Morale’s uncompromising honesty, pointing out that some members of his family heard about his take on experiences with them at the same time the world did. “The reason why I had to make that decision, whether they was for or against it, I just didn’t want the influence. I could have cut corners and got flashy with it and worded my words a certain way—nah, I had to be in the rawest, truest form I could possibly be in order for it to be freeing for me, in order for me to have a different outlook and the perspective on people I’m talking to. I had to reap whatever consequences came behind that, and also be compassionate and show empathy if they were hurt by it.” Had he had conversations about what was in the album before it came out, or allowed other people’s feelings to override his own, Mr. Morale might have become just another set of songs on a hard drive somewhere. Or, as Lamar puts it, “Them shits would’ve never came out.”
The risk has paid off in ways that can’t be quantified. It’s in the discussions he’s been able to have with family members; beyond that, it’s in the space he’s made in others’ lives for open conversations. “That’s the beauty; that’s the best feeling I’ve been getting,” he says. “It’s like when I be talking to some of my partners that never was able to express themself and communicate—they only knew how to communicate with violence—and for them to call up they moms, call they pops and say, ‘You hurt me, and this pushed me to go stay with my grandma, which my grandma pushed me to stay with my homies, which the homies pushed me to...’ ” he says, trailing off. “For them to be able to express that and have that communication is rewarding for me.”
But more than the skeletons falling out of his closet, more than fans and their expectations, it was fatherhood that made Lamar question everything the most. When he speaks about being transformed by his children, he doesn’t like that he lands on the cliché of unconditional love, but in the end, that’s the best he can come up with. “A lot of times, we play with the idea and don’t necessarily know if it’s real, until you feel it. My children allowed me, in their development as human beings beginning to walk and talk, to remove my ego, to know that my children, too, will have their own independence,” he explains. “That allows me to understand the unconditional love on my end—will I allow them to be themselves? Will I allow them to journey off in the world and experience life for what they know of? That’s love, to me. And when I look at that, I try to apply it with how I express myself, how I look at my career, and how I meet other individuals. Am I allowing them to be themselves without any judgment? My children have taught me that.”
In fact, when insecurities came creeping back, filling him with doubt and questions about whether Mr. Morale was the album he needed to share with the world at this particular moment, it was his children who pushed him across the finish line. If he couldn’t break his curses once and for all, he thought, maybe in some future timeline this music could be part of the blueprint. “When I got to completion and I said, ‘I may or may not put this out; I’m not going to put this out; it’s way too much,’ I thought about my children,” he says, a grin spreading across his face. “I thought about when they turn 21, or they’re older in life, and when I got grandchildren, or if I’m long gone—this can be a prerequisite of how to cope. That’s the beauty of it for me.”
Hair by Khristien “Khristn” Ray; barber: Mike Cruz; makeup by Ayami Nishimura for Augustinus Bader at Forward Artists; manicure by Leeanne Colley for Tips Nail Bar at P1M. Set design by Mila Taylor-Young at CLM Agency.
Produced by The Canvas Agency and Ice Studios; executive producer: Michaela Peker; producer: Carina Mak; production coordinator: Sophia Salador; lighting director: Eduardo Silva; photo assistants: Tristan C-M, Nam Dang, Hao Nguyen; lab + retouching: Picturehouse and Thesmalldarkroom; fashion assistants: Priya Howlader, Kyla Akey; production assistants: Kit Weyman, Alicia Roberts, Marvin Lau; makeup assistant: Neha Baig; set dresser: Electa Porado; set assistants: Isaac Taylor-Young, Chris Yue, Juliana Bergen, Slavic Rogozine; fitting tailor: Mack Mozé; on-set tailor: Zoba Martin; acupuncturist: Wendy Leung.