Opinion

Kendrick Lamar Attempts to Blaze a Trail for Redemption with an Unlikely Aid

Kendrick Lamar's new album features several guest appearances by controversial rapper Kodak Black.
Kendrick Lamar's new album features several guest appearances by controversial rapper Kodak Black. Photo courtesy of the artist
Kendrick Lamar wants you to know that he is not who you think he is.

Having spent the past decade being championed as hip-hop's high-minded figurehead, the rap virtuoso has taken it upon himself to step down from the moral high ground placed beneath him. On Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, his newly released fifth album, Kendrick tears down preconceived notions and romanticized narratives that deify him beyond human judgment.

The 18-track double album delves into themes of remorse, affliction, and absolution, as Lamar reveals grim accounts of familial trauma and personal travails. In between manic stretches of elaborate confessionals, he intentionally leaves the door open for guest appearances to shine through.

The most prominently featured guest: Pompano Beach's own Kodak Black.

Once regarded as Broward County's beloved prodigy, the prolific 24-year-old emcee, known as Bill Kahan Kapri, has had a promising career tainted by legal cases and immoral decisions. From friendly ties with Donald Trump to his flirty advances toward newly widowed Lauren London, Kodak is no stranger to public controversy. In April 2021, he copped a plea deal for an alleged 2016 rape, receiving no jail sentence after admitting wrongdoing and pleading guilty to lesser assault charges.

Of course, Kodak's résumé also includes numerous A-list collaborations, 25 RIAA certifications, nine Billboard 200 projects, and over 16 million followers across Twitter and Instagram. His 2014 freestyle "No Flockin" still sets the roof on fire at any house party in South Florida.

But even with a catalog of platinum plaques and a cult following, Kodak's overarching presence on Mr. Morale provoked some backlash. Listeners took to social media to share their thoughts about Lamar giving the scorned artist a platform for graceful reintegration.
The odd juxtaposition between the two rappers mainly comes down to subject matter. Kendrick's 2015 record To Pimp a Butterfly is a monolith of allegorical commentary on Black oppression, while Kodak would rather flex German whips, Cuban link chains, and Audemars watches. In tongue-in-cheek fashion, Kodak uses his spoken-word verse on Mr. Morale's "Rich (Interdule)" to ask the same questions many were asking upon their first listen to the new album: "What you doing with Kendrick?/What you doing with a legend?

"Rich (Interlude)" details the dog-eat-dog mentality of disadvantaged youth living through generational poverty. Kodak puffs out his chest and speaks about life with one foot in the music business and one stuck in the muck and grime of the streets. The imagery is bleak, the idolatry behind it even bleaker.

The anthemic "Silent Hill" features Kodak and Kendrick working in tandem for something more triumphant. Lamar's chorus is an earworm that floats over flaring percussion, which is bound to be heard at barbershops and NBA arenas. A fiery Kodak verse picks up where he left off on "Rich," outlining mob ties and luxury vices.

Kendrick is a ventriloquist. He strings together concepts and anecdotes with help from the team he handpicks for each body of work. In the context of his new album, it's implied that Kodak Black's presence is emblematic of exoneration for past mistakes.

On "Mother I Sober," Lamar instructs listeners to sympathize with perpetrators of abuse because it's likely they've been abused themselves. It's a prickly sentiment that may need time to settle, but it does raise a question worth pondering in the meantime: Where is the line between showing grace to a flawed individual and dignifying a convicted abuser?
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Olivier Lafontant is an intern for Miami New Times. He's pursuing a bachelor's in digital journalism at Florida International University. He specializes in music writing and photography and got his start as a writer for South Florida Media Network in 2021.