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Kendrick Lamar uses his grief-fueled new album to reveal just how human he is


Kendrick Lamar dropped his new album overnight.


KENDRICK LAMAR: (Rapping) One thousand, eight hundred and fifty-five days - I've been going through something.

FLORIDO: One thousand, eight hundred fifty-five days is how long it's been since Lamar's last album - more than five years.


LAMAR: (Rapping) Be afraid.

FLORIDO: This is the introduction of the first song on this new album, "Mr. Morale And The Big Steppers." NPR Music's Rodney Carmichael had his first listen to the new album this morning, and he's here now. Hey, Rodney.

RODNEY CARMICHAEL, BYLINE: Hey. What's going on, Adrian?

FLORIDO: There aren't a lot of hip-hop artists who could make their fans wait five years for a new album.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, Kendrick is definitely one of the few. But it's probably also taken us about five years to process the last album, so he's right on time, you know?


LAMAR: (Rapping) I pop the pain away. I slide the pain away. I pop the pain away. I slide the pain away.

FLORIDO: Well, when Kendrick Lamar speaks, the whole music world listens. So I'm wondering, what do you hear him saying on this new album?

CARMICHAEL: Oh, man, it's a lot. It's an album that's fueled by childhood trauma, abuse, self-contempt and struggle for acceptance. It's really acceptance from an equally damaged and contemptuous culture.


RADEL ORTIZ: What the...

LAMAR: (Rapping) Eight billion people on Earth - silent murderers, nonprofits, preachers and church, crooks and burglars.

CARMICHAEL: You know, if Kendrick spent his last album, "Damn.," grappling with God's judgment, it feels like it's the judgment of God's people, aka the culture, that he's grappling with now. And, you know, the culture in Kendrick's critique - it really includes the hip-hop populace but also the internet's so-called cancel culture as well as just America's inbred hate of the other.

FLORIDO: Where does Kendrick himself fit into this culture that he's describing? I noticed that on the album cover, he's wearing a crown of thorns.

CARMICHAEL: So I think Kendrick is - has also come to bring peace. He reminds us several times throughout the album, I'm Christ with a shooter. You know, so it's this dichotomy that, you know, tends to play out in his work a lot.

On the song "Savior," though, he's quick to really, like, castigate this popular image of him as some sort of savior, you know, and not just for himself but for anyone who kind of bears the burden of fame.


LAMAR: (Rapping) The cat is out the bag. I am not your savior. I find it just as difficult to love thy neighbors, especially when people got ambiguous favors. But they hearts not in it. See; everything's for the paper.

CARMICHAEL: You know, sometimes those contradictions - they seem purposeful coming from Kendrick. But sometimes they might also be a result of his own faulty logic. I think that's really his ultimate intention - is just to hold up a mirror in the hope that we might see ourselves.

FLORIDO: Does he turn the lens on himself, Rodney? - you know, because Kendrick Lamar is nothing if he's not self-aware. I mean, on the first track, he's rapping about a conversation with his therapist.

CARMICHAEL: Right. I mean, so this album is really fueled by grief. You know, it's Kendrick using his personal grief to tap into our collective grief. And he does that throughout the album.

And on this one confessional song in particular toward the end of the album called "Mother Sober," he tells these stories of, like, generational trauma and sexual abuse and its impact not only on the Black family but really using his own family to kind of, like, reveal the root of his insecurities.


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.

CARMICHAEL: You know, his words, in a way, become a way for him to really try to break that generational curse.

I really think that this album - it has the potential to be a culture-shifting album, which Kendrick's albums tend to be. It's also already being heavily critiqued by the culture, which is, again, fitting and speaks to that dichotomy that he tends to carry within the culture.

So this is all, you know, just my first impressions. But I will definitely be listening to it for the next five years. And who knows what I might hear and what we all might hear in the meantime?


KODAK BLACK: (Rapping) I choose me.

FLORIDO: We've been talking about Kendrick Lamar's new album, "Mr. Morale And The Big Steppers," with NPR Music's Rodney Carmichael. Rodney, thanks for this.

CARMICHAEL: Thanks so much, Adrian.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENDRICK LAMAR SONG, "MIRROR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.