On the cover of his new album, “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” — which dropped from the hip-hop heavens on Friday — Kendrick Lamar wears a crown of thorns while holding his daughter.
And no doubt, in the 10 years since his insta-classic breakthrough, 2012’s “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City,” the 34-year-old artist has emerged as the king of the rap world, winning 14 Grammys and even a freaking Pulitzer Prize. While contemporaries such as Drake have had more hits, Lamar has earned mad respect as the most important rapper of his generation.
On his ambitious new double LP — evenly split into two parts with nine tracks each — Lamar reflects on both the power and the pressures of his position. “Heavy is the head that chose to wear the crown/To whom is given much is required now,” he raps on “Crown.”
Later, on the fame rumination “Savior,” he makes it clear that he wasn’t trying to strike a Jesus pose with that crown of thorns on the album cover: “Kendrick made you think about it, but he is not your savior.”
Still, there is no doubt that, from “Good Kid” to 2015’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” to 2017’s “Damn” to now “Mr. Morale” — not to mention 2018’s “Black Panther” soundtrack — Lamar has been the truth-telling voice and consciousness of hip-hop.
Lamar wears a crown of thorns on the cover of his new album.Image via pgLang/Top Dawg Entert
“One of the most fascinating things about Lamar as this cultural icon is essentially he can do no wrong,” Christopher Driscoll, co-author of 2019’s “Kendrick Lamar and the Making of Black Meaning,” told The Post. “It’s worth us marking just how powerful his art is for so many people.”
Indeed, even though it’s been five years — an eternity in hip-hop — since his last studio album, Lamar remains at the top of the game on “Mr. Morale.”
It’s been 5 years since his last album dropped, but Lamar remains at the top of his game.AFP via Getty Images
“He is at the top of the heap as far as lyricists, as far as just emcees in general,” said Driscoll. “There’s no one better right now, and everybody knows it.”
After Lamar brought the Compton streets to gritty life on “Good Kid,” he was quickly anointed as the more soulful, spiritual heir to the Dr. Dre throne. In fact, that connection and evolution was showcased when K-Dot performed during this year’s Super Bowl halftime show as part of what was essentially an all-star tribute to Dre.
But it was with “To Pimp a Butterfly” that Lamar took on even greater significance thanks to “Alright,” which became the anthem that the Black Lives Matter movement didn’t even know it needed yet. “The folks on the ground, marching and doing things like that, find themselves with an anthem … that is just a product of his genius and his vulnerability,” said Driscoll.
And while Lamar famously rapped about being “Humble” on “Damn,” that album earned him bragging rights as the first rapper to win a Pulitzer Prize for music. Just as another Pulitzer Prize winner, Bob Dylan, did in the ’60s, Lamar became the artist that reflected the times and the social change that needed to happen.
“His work is healing a lot of really deep wounds within the black community, within the broader American community and within the hip-hop community,” said Driscoll, who is one of the academics who has even taught college courses on Lamar.
It’s no surprise that “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” instantly became the most important album of 2022 — the kind that you will dissect in all of its lyrical detail as it gets in deeper and deeper with music that ranges from lushly soulful to hauntingly moody. Whether he’s reflecting on the pandemic on “N95” and “Count Me Out” or black family issues on “Father Time” and “Mother I Sober,” Lamar’s voice matters.
It’s a voice that Lamar uses to make a statement in support of the trans community on one of the album’s highlights, “Auntie Diaries.” Against a chill, electro-infused groove, he raps about two trans family members who taught him to choose “humanity over religion.”
Given the homophobic history in hip-hop, it’s a revelation — and a reminder of exactly why we need Lamar.