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Kendrick Lamar, Mortal Icon

Lamar is the rare popular musician who receives almost universal acclaim, not only artistically, but often as a kind of paragon of virtue. But there are all sorts of complexities and heterodoxies that are suffocated by uncomplicated embrace. “Mr. Morale” appears to be a corrective for that — it is an album that aims to repel, or if not quite that, then at least is at peace with alienating some of its audience.

It is also a reminder of how rare it is these days to encounter popular music with unstable politics, and a gut punch to the presumption that progressive art and ideas always go hand in hand.

On two different songs, Lamar expresses a kind of sympathy for R. Kelly, who has been convicted of sex trafficking and racketeering. And one of the voices that appears throughout the album is that of the Florida rapper Kodak Black, who has in the past faced sexual assault charges. (He later pleaded guilty to lesser assault charges.) Opting to work with Kodak is both creative and political provocation — it suggests Lamar believes in redemption (or perhaps that everyone is flawed, some more publicly than others), but also feels like an implicit rebuke to those who don’t see poetry, pain or progress in the work of Kodak or his peers. (Indeed, it has plenty of all of that.)

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These are dares of a kind — in a way, they are the most public-minded decisions on this album, which often feels insular, lyrically and musically. “Mr. Morale” is probably Lamar’s least tonally consistent work. Unlike on “DAMN.,” where Lamar tried to smooth the edges of his songs and arrived at his most commercially appealing album, “Mr. Morale” — on which Lamar works with his frequent collaborators Sounwave and DJ Dahi, Beach Noise, Duval Timothy, and others — is rangy and structurally erratic, full of mid-song beat switches, sorrowful piano and a few moments of dead air.

At his best, Lamar embodies the deep creative promise of the art form of rapping — he provides hope that there are ways of agglomerating syllables that haven’t yet been thought of, that word and cadence and meaning can still collide in unanticipated ways. His voice is squeaky and malleable, and it’s often most riveting when untethered from simple rhythms. But there is a difference between effort and achievement. And when Lamar is under-delivering — say, on “Crown” — the air fills with expectancy: Surely more is just around the corner?

That said, one gift of the Lamar aura is the way he frees those around him to reach for transcendence. Ghostface Killah, a veteran so accepted as a lyrical hulk as to be taken for granted, appears on “Purple Hearts” with an astonishing, floating verse. Lamar’s cousin Baby Keem also shines on “Savior (Interlude),” as does Kodak Black on “Silent Hill.”

Such is the enviable house Lamar has built over the last decade, one that demands more of everyone who visits. But “Mr. Morale” reveals him to be a titan who is a victim of idolatry. Lamar knows that in truth, no one is a hero, and maybe no one should be. He is just a man. Allow him that.

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Kendrick Lamar
“Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers”
(pgLang/Top Dawg Entertainment/Aftermath/Interscope)

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