On the cover of his new album Mr. Morals & the Big Steppers” — which fell from hip-hop heaven on Friday — Kendrick Lamar wears a crown of thorns while holding his daughter.
And there’s no doubt the 34-year-old artist has become the king of the rap world, winning 14 Grammys and even a bloody Pulitzer Prize, in the 10 years since his Insta-classic breakthrough, 2012’s “Good Kid, MAAD City.” While contemporaries like Drake had more hits, Lamar has earned insane respect as the most important rapper of his generation.
On his ambitious new double LP – split evenly into two nine-track parts – Lamar reflects both the power and pressure of his position. “Heavy is the head that has chosen to wear the crown/to which much is now given,” he raps on “Crown.”
Later, in the famous musing “Saviour,” he makes it clear that he wasn’t trying to strike a Jesus pose with the crown of thorns on the album cover: “Kendrick made you think, but he’s not your savior.”
Still, there’s no doubt that from ‘Good Kid’ to 2015’s ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ and 2017’s ‘Damn’ to ‘Mr. Morale”—not to mention 2018’s Black Panther soundtrack—Lamar was the truth-clarifying voice and awareness of hip-hop.
“One of the most fascinating things about Lamar as this cultural icon is that he essentially can’t go wrong,” Christopher Driscoll, co-author of 2019’s Kendrick Lamar and the Making of Black Meaning, told The Post. “It’s worth emphasizing how powerful his art is for so many people.”
Although it’s been five years – an eternity in hip-hop – since his last studio album, Lamar remains with “Mr. Moral.”
“He’s at the top of the list for lyricists as far as presenters in general are concerned,” Driscoll said. “Right now there is no one better and everyone knows it.”
After bringing the streets of Compton to life with The Good Kid, Lamar quickly became the more soulful, spiritual heir to the throne of Dr. Dre anointed. In fact, that connection and evolution was evident when K-Dot performed during that year’s Super Bowl halftime show as part of what was essentially an all-star tribute to Dre.
But with “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Lamar took on even greater prominence thanks to “Alright,” which became the anthem the Black Lives Matter movement didn’t even know they needed. “The local people who march and do things like that find themselves with an anthem … it’s 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 the first rapper right to win a Pulitzer Prize for music. Just like another Pulitzer Prize winner, Bob Dylan, in the ’60s, Lamar became the artist who reflected the times and the social changes that had to take place.
“His work heals 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 given college classes on Lamar.
It’s no surprise that “Mr. Moral & the Big Steppers instantly became the most important album of 2022 – the kind you’ll dissect in all its lyrical detail as it digs deeper and deeper, with music that ranges from the lusciously soulful to the hauntingly moody. Whether he’s reflecting on the pandemic on “N95” and “Count Me Out,” or on black family issues on “Father Time” and “Mother I Sober,” Lamar’s voice counts.
It’s a voice Lamar uses to make a statement of support for the trans community on one of the album’s highlights, “Auntie Diaries.” Set against a chilled electro groove, he raps about two trans family members who taught him to choose “humanity over religion.”
Given hip-hop’s history of homophobia, it’s a revelation — and a reminder of exactly why we need Lamar.