Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

Kendrick Lamar: Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers [PGLand/Top Dawg Entertainment/Aftermath/Interscope, 2022]
Five years after his unprecedented not to say dumbfounding Pulitzer, Compton's favorite son returns with an album only he could make. Rags-to-riches miracles are a pop music meme because in few other endeavors is the transformation so lickety-split, so unpredictable. That said, however, not many instant cynosures have the guts or brains to make much artistically of the privilege and displacement that come with instant riches and renown--that's Beatles and Dylan territory, maybe in their very different ways Prince and Neil Young, and in not one of these cases was Pulitzer-size validation part of the deal. So it's to Lamar's credit that many of his new songs deal so unbraggadociously with the obvious theme of how bizarre and confusing fame and the sudden wealth it generates can be. Sure he buys the impossible cars and exotic timepieces that signify status in hip-hop. But he doesn't so much show them off as check the appropriate boxes while admitting that he doesn't know what to make of his riches. Nor does he brag about the pussy-chasing "lust addiction" with which he saddles the long-suffering Whitney, his fiancee of seven years, the mother of his two children, and perhaps too the inspiration for the raw six-minute spoken-word exchange with Taylor Paige that Lamar unloads smack in the middle of the album, rendering it impossible to play front-to-back as music solely: a mean, painfully detailed sex fight in which the two lovers insult each other till almost the end, when out of nowhere they start to fuck instead. Also of note is the one that begins "My auntie is a man now/I think I'm old enough to understand now." Not that he does, necessarily. But anyone unimpressed that he has the decency to bring it up is living in a bubble. A-