After a long five-year absence, Kendrick Lamar has finally returned. Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers is the kind of dense, complex, contradictory and thrilling journey into the mind of Pulitzer Kenny we’ve been waiting for. With over 70 minutes of music, there’s plenty here to process, enjoy and debate. Our full review is on its way. In the meantime, here are five observations from a long night of deep listening.
1. Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers Is a Double Album…Sort Of
While formatted like a double album, Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers is reminiscent of an old-school two-vinyl release with a running time of an hour – 34 minutes for Disc 1: Big Steppers and 38 minutes for Disc 2: Mr. Morale. At 15+ minutes per side, it’s comparable to the first double album in hip-hop history, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s 1998 hit He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. It’s also in contrast to the nearly two-hour, double-CD blowouts of late 90s epics like 2Pac’s All Eyez on Me, Wu-Tang Clan’s Wu-Tang Forever, the Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death and E-40’s The Element of Surprise.
2. Lamar’s Guest List Is Filled with Shocking Surprises
Mr. Morale is packed with features like Blxst of “Chosen” fame, Wu-Tang ironman Ghostface Killah, R&B sensation Summer Walker, Caribbean singer Amanda Reifer, British singer-songwriter Sampha, and pgLang acts Baby Keem and Tanna Leone. But perhaps the biggest reveal is Beth Gibbons, the voice of UK trip-hop trio Portishead. She adds a spectral croon to “Mother May I,” Lamar’s wrenching and cathartic exploration of physical and sexual abuse in his family and the Black community. It’s Gibbons’s most high-profile musical contribution since Portishead’s final album to date, 2008’s brilliant Third. Until now, she’s only made modest appearances with Jneiro Jarel and MF Doom’s JJ Doom project and British metallers Gonga (the latter an evocative cover of Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath”). Coupled with Portishead’s reunion gig during a May 2 Ukraine benefit concert, this month has brought a surprising groundswell of activity from the famously publicity shy singer.
Meanwhile, Kodak Black gets more mic time than nearly anyone else on the album. Some will ask why Lamar is platforming a talented but wayward rapper who has been convicted for sexual assault and has generated numerous controversies since former president Donald Trump pardoned him in January 2021. An answer arrives near the end of “Mother I Sober” when Lamar raps, “I know the secrets/Every other rapper sexually abused/I see them daily burying their pain in chains and tattoos/So listen close before you pass judgement on how we move.” As evinced by Lamar’s widely acclaimed
“The Heart Part IV” video clip, he believes that Black male behavior is a wide spectrum that can be tragically heroic (Nipsey Hussle), frustratingly erratic (Kanye West), heartbreakingly disappointing (Will Smith), and toxically violent (OJ Simpson).
Another uncomfortable Mr. Morale moment arrives in “We Cry Together,” where Lamar and actress Taylour Paige – who made a memorable star turn in the 2020 cult hit Zola – get into a loud argument full of cruel insults. The song is reminiscent of the RZA’s 1998 fan favorite “Domestic Violence.” Here, Lamar gives Paige an equal voice, and she lands a few good lines: “Always act like your shit don’t stink/Motherfucker, grow up!”
3. Yes, Kendrick Lamar Has Been Reading the News
There are several topical lyrics on Mr. Morale. He talks on “Father Time” about how Drake and Kanye squashing their “beef” last year “confused” him, only to realize that he needs to learn compassion and forgiveness himself. “Guess I’m not as mature as I think/Got some healing to do,” he adds.
Another moment bound to generate internet headlines arrives on the standout track “Savior,” when he appears to criticize Brooklyn Nets guard and prominent antivaxxer Kyrie Irving: “See the Christians say the vaccine the mark of the beast/Then he caught Covid and prayed to Pfizer for relief/Then I caught Covid and started to question Kyrie.” He also references Russian president Vladimir Putin on the same track (“Vladimir making nightmares”).
4. “Auntie Diaries” Is a Song of the Year Candidate
With “Auntie Diaries,” Lamar becomes the rare hip-hop superstar to honor the transgender community. As with everything Lamar, it’s complicated. He reveals that his aunt “is a man” now and his cousin is “Mary Anne now,” but he can’t help but deadname both by calling out their identity before they transitioned. He admits that he frequently used the word “faggot” when he was younger. However, Lamar arrives at a very different place than Dave Chappelle, who tried the same stunt of deploying bigoted language in his 2019 special Sticks & Stones but ultimately couldn’t let go of his prejudices. Lamar’s eventual embrace of his queer family members feels sincere and hard-won, and for listeners who remember how fire-and-brimstone Christian torment has been central to his past work, it’s exciting to hear him reflect a spiritual ethos that’s more inclusive. “Auntie Diaries” is the highlight of an album that finds him fitfully evolving beyond the fears, misogyny, and wanderlusts of his past in favor of a richer, positive “morale” life.
5. Kendrick Lamar vs. “Cancel Culture”
Mr. Morale listeners are already parsing several Lamar lyrics that seem to embrace “cancel culture,” a concept many would argue doesn’t exist. On “Savior,” he raps, “Bite they tongues in rap lyrics/Scared to be crucified about a song but they won’t admit it/Politically correct, that’s how you keep an opinion.” “N95” finds him asserting, “I am too real/I’m done with the sensitive taking it personal.” For “Worldwide Steppers,” he offers, “Niggas killed freedom of speech/Everyone’s sensitive.”
However, it’s worth listening to Lamar’s lyrics within the context of the entire album. Mr. Morale finds him learning to let go of his youthful biases, an evolution not only prompted by his years-long absence from the rap scene (save for a handful of guest shots like Baby Keem’s “Family Ties”) and a global pandemic, but also his desire to be a better father, romantic partner, and citizen of the Black community, all while learning to accept a level of fame that makes fans swarm him whenever he’s seen in public. It’s a lot to process, and he says on the title track that sometimes he’s “afraid of my open mind.” He just wants to be honest about his journey. Besides, it’s not as if he pretends to be above criticism: “Kendrick made you think about it/But he is not your savior.”
Justice Department Asks Jan. 6 Committee for Transcripts to Help With Criminal Investigation
The Justice Department has asked the Jan. 6 committee to turn over transcripts of interviews it has conducted, signaling that Attornegy General Merrick Garland’s probe into the attack on the Capitol could be intensifying.
The New York Times reported the news on Tuesday, noting that the committee was made aware last month that interviews it had conducted “may contain information relevant to a criminal investigation we are conducting,” as Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite and U.S. Attorney Matthew Graves wrote to the committee. Polite and Graves requested the panel “provide to us transcripts of these interviews, and of any additional interviews you conduct in the future.”
More than 1,000 people have appeared before the committee so far, including Donald Trump, Jr. and Ivanka Trump, as well as several former aides in the Trump administration. But more than a dozen close Trump allies, including former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, have refused to cooperate.
According to the Times, investigators at the Justice Department and at the committee have been conducting their work separately, “except for at times communicating to ensure that a witness is not scheduled to appear before different investigators at the same time.”
The Justice Department has charged more than 700 individuals for their role in the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection, including several for seditious conspiracy.
The Times reports that the Justice Department is working its way up the chain by looking into actions of the “Stop the Steal” rally planners, but notes that the Jan. 6 committee and the DOJ have yet to reach an agreement regarding the sharing of interview transcripts.
Garland told reporters last month that he will “follow the facts and the law wherever they may lead.”
Amber Heard Admits to Striking Johnny Depp Multiple Times During Fights: ‘I Had to Use My Body to Defend Myself’
Depp’s attorney, Camille Vasquez, set the tone from the jump as she attempted to frame Heard as the physically aggressive party in the marriage, playing numerous recordings that appeared to demonstrate Heard taunting Depp’s age and career, calling him a “sellout.” Another recording was referenced in which Heard said that she hopes his son Jack’s new stepfather can teach him how to be a man, as Depp cannot.
“You’re a joke,” she said in one recording, laughing as she sarcastically added, “If only I could be like you.”
Heard appeared to become personally offended when Vasquez suggested that Depp was responsible for her getting her role in Aquaman. “No, I got myself that role by auditioning,” she said.
Vasquez showed the court text messages and played a recording of what she termed Heard’s “incessant” requests that Depp not leave in the heat of an argument. In response, the actress said she often tried to stop her husband — whom she referred to as “the monster” in the messages — from leaving out of fear that he would go do drugs.
“This is what would happen when Johnny would move into the next cycle — he decided to use, and our lives would get a lot worse,” she said. “I was trying to stop him from using…I would try everything to stop the cycle. It was that important to me.”
But Vasquez shot back, saying Heard wasn’t calling Depp a “monster” for doing drugs but simply for needing space. “I need space… I’m getting frustrated… I will take my space, and you will take your space,” Depp said in the recording. “We will speak to each other in a couple of hours.”
Heard replied on the tape in tears: “You’re causing me immense stress right now when you walk away… I’m begging you to stop.”
Heard also admitted to striking Depp on multiple occasions but insisted that every instance of violence was self-defense. “There are many times I had to use my body to defend myself, and that included slapping wherever I could,” she said. “If it meant I could get away, absolutely, or the difference between a sore face and a broken nose… I tried to defend myself when I could, but it was after years of not defending myself.”
In one example, the court played an audio clip in which Heard told Depp she “meant” to hit him as they argued about a bathroom door that Depp claimed hit him on the head. In response, Heard said she reacted instinctively at the time after Depp pushed the door into her toes, hurting her.
Vasquez later brought up Heard’s ex-partner, Tasya van Ree, and a previous domestic violence allegation. (Heard was arrested for hitting van Ree at Seattle Airport in 2009, but the charges were eventually dropped.)
“I’ve never assaulted Mr. Depp or anyone else that I’ve been romantically linked to, ever,” she responded.
Much of Tuesday’s testimony featured a tense back and forth between Heard and Depp’s attorney, with the lawyer often interrupting Heard as the actress attempted to argue nearly every question directed her way. While both women maintained their composure throughout the afternoon, it was clear that neither planned on backing down.
At one point, Vasquez presented the court with a knife Heard had gifted Depp during the early days of their relationship in 2012, a time period during which she has previously alleged abuse occurred. Vasquez questioned why Heard would give a weapon to Depp when he was already allegedly abusing her.
“I wasn’t worried he was going to stab me with it when I gave it to him,” Heard replied. “That’s for certain.”
But much of Vasquez’s early questioning focused on the alleged multiday assault in Australia that Heard has claimed culminated with Depp pinning her on a kitchen countertop and vaginally penetrating her with a liquor bottle. Attempting to undermine Heard’s credibility and her recollection of the fight, Vasquez challenged the actress’ assertion that Depp was able to assault her after severing the top of his finger.
Heard remained firm that all of the alleged incidents did occur, but acknowledged that she does not remember an exact timeline of the fight.
“I have never claimed that I can remember an exact sequence of these things,” she said. “This was a multiday assault that took place over three horrible days.”
Vasquez also challenged the “serious injuries” Heard said she sustained during the fight, including cuts on her forearms and feet from shattered glass and a bruise across her jaw.
“Having a sore jaw and some bruises at that time in my relationship wasn’t that serious,” Heard said, later confirming that she did not photograph any of her injuries and never sought medical treatment. Instead, Heard photographed only specific items from the scene, rarely her injuries or the most damning evidence (such as a phone she claimed was smashed, or pillows she said had been bloodied) — a practice Depp’s lawyer referred to as “convenient” and continued to point to when discussing other abuse allegations.
After playing audio of a conversation between the former couple, in which Depp said that Heard had continued to pursue him after he separated himself into a bathroom during the Australia fight, Depp’s lawyer asked, “You weren’t scared of him at all, were you?”
“I have a mixed relationship with Johnny, one in which I’m scared, one in which I love him very much,” Heard said. “This is a man who tried to kill me. Of course, it’s scary.”
Vasquez then turned her attention to a series of letters Heard wrote Depp throughout their relationship in a shared journal between the two. Pointing to a “love letter” written two months after the Australia fight and shortly after Heard claimed that Depp had attempted to throw her sister down a flight of stairs, Heard wrote, “I have seen in you the true bones of friendship and respect. But of course, I still perhaps more than ever want to rip you apart, devour you and savor the taste.”
Heard testified that she wrote the letter during their relationship’s “honeymoon phase” after Depp had gotten sober. She also defended several other letters in which she apologized to the actor for her behavior. In one letter, she wrote, “I can get crazy. I’m sorry. I hurt you…I am so sorry for my part. None of this is meant to be an excuse for hurting you because the truth is nothing is there is never a reason good enough to hurt you.”
“I was always trying to fix [things]. I think it’s important in any relationship to apologize when you’re trying to move past fights,” Heard explained of the letters. “I tried everything … I couldn’t change my relationship.”
Depp’s lawyer also presented elevator footage of actor James Franco visiting the actress at her penthouse. The surveillance video was played to jurors in the courthouse, which showed the pair getting into an elevator together just ahead of 11 p.m. on May 22, 2018. Heard was asked if she knew Depp would be out of town when she invited Franco over. She denied knowing his schedule at the time.
“[James] was my friend, and he lived next door. I had frankly exhausted my support network with my usual friends and was happy to welcome as much friendship at that time as I could possibly get,” Heard later explained.
Turning her attention to the 2018 Washington Post op-ed at the center of this case, Vasquez tried to push Heard into admitting that the article was about Depp. Instead, Heard said the article was about powerful men, sexual assault, and issues related to the #MeToo movement prevalent at the time — and not just about Depp.
“It is not about him,” she said. “It’s not about Johnny. It’s about what happened to me after [the relationship]…that was the more interesting thing for me to write about, at the time.”
She added: “I wrote this op-ed in the context of many men at the time that were public figures, or in the public, [and] had been accused as well, so it was a reference in general to a larger phenomenon, not just Johnny.”
Pointing to three specific statements made by Depp’s former lawyer Adam Waldman, on which Heard’s counterclaim is based, Vasquez said the actress had no way of linking the statements to negative impacts on her career. Heard disagreed, saying she was dropped from multiple ongoing projects, including the end of a L’Oréal contract, press obligations for The Stand, and a rewritten role in the Aquaman sequel.
“They couldn’t use me because of all of the online attention that the article generated,” she said. “There’s been an orchestrated smear campaign [against me]. Just look me up.”
When asked if she lost any jobs due to Waldman’s statements, Heard said: “It’s kind of hard to point to the jobs you’re not offered, to the gigs you don’t get.” And while she said she “fought” to keep her role in the upcoming Aquaman 2 film, she doesn’t know how much she’s “actually in the final cut.”
While Heard’s cross-examination took up most of the day in court, Heard’s team completed their redirect later in the afternoon — though Depp’s team objected to almost every question. Heard’s lawyer, Elaine Bredehoft, began by asking why the actress thought Depp had refused to look her in the eye throughout the trial.
“Because he’s guilty,” she said. “He knows he’s lying. Why can’t he look at me? I survived that man, and I’m here, and I’m able to look at him.”
Depp cracked a smile during Heard’s statement.
Closing arguments are expected to occur on May 27, with a verdict likely coming after Memorial Day weekend.
The Buffalo Shooter Recorded His Deadly Attack. Twitter Let the Video Go Viral
On Monday, a new Twitter user with the handle @BuffaloSh00ting, the screen name “Buffalo Supermarket Video,” and a bio reading “Buffalo Supermarket Video, Get it here,” popped up on the platform.
The account’s avatar was a depiction of Red Skull, the Nazi supervillain from the Marvel universe; its header image featured a man holding a rifle over a camo vest emblazoned with the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division logo. And true to its promise, the account posted several versions of the gruesome video of the Buffalo massacre, originally live-streamed by the gunman, visually overlayed with fascist imagery, including goose-stepping German soldiers and the SS insignia.
That account (now suspended) was just one of many Twitter users sharing bloody footage of the Buffalo rampage, typically beginning as the gunman exited his vehicle and trained his rifle on shoppers at the Tops supermarket. Rolling Stone discovered more than half a dozen examples on Monday, using basic search terms like “Buffalo video” and “Buffalo vid.” The images of the massacre appeared to be in wide circulation on Twitter, with users complaining of being traumatized: “Stop putting the fucking Buffalo shooting video on my timeline,” wrote one.
For the gunman, who livestreamed his attack hoping it would be recorded, going viral like this was part of the plan. As he wrote in his manifesto, he hoped others seeing and sharing his violent acts would “increase coverage and spread my beliefs.”
Twitter is in the midst of an on-again, off-again drama with Elon Musk, the billionaire whose $44 billion bid to acquire the social media platform is now “on hold.” Musk has sharply criticized Twitter for going too far in limiting access to offensive content, recently declaring, “I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.” Musk has been unusually silent in the wake of the Buffalo massacre, however, and a Twitter representative said Tuesday the company remains committed to policies that seek to block the dissemination of content that is hateful or glorifies violence.
The Buffalo gunman originally livestreamed his rampage to Twitch on Saturday. And that platform has received praise for removing the video within two minutes of the carnage beginning. But even that swift action didn’t stop at least one user from downloading a copy, after which video of the killings began to circulate widely online.
Tech companies had pledged to do better. Twitter is a signatory to the Christchurch Call — an organized response by governments and social media giants in the aftermath of the New Zealand mosque shootings of 2019. Those shootings left 50 dead and were streamed, in part, on Facebook Live. For companies, the voluntary pledge includes a vow to “prevent the upload of terrorist and violent-extremist content and to prevent its dissemination,” including by “its immediate and permanent removal.”
Major social media firms have also developed collaborative high-tech tools to combat the spread of such grizzly content. In 2017, Twitter, YouTube, Microsoft, and Facebook launched an NGO called the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism that seeks to prevent “violent extremists from exploiting digital platforms.”
Late Saturday afternoon, shortly after the shooting, that group launched its “Content Incident Protocol” — putting members on high alert for “perpetrator-produced content depicting the attack.” The protocol enables companies to share data about what images and videos should be flagged. The objective is to enable members to quickly zap bloody videos and pictures across their platforms, in accordance with the companies’ individual policies.
Some 48 hours later, Rolling Stone could not easily pull up copies of the massacre video on YouTube or Facebook. But Twitter was rife with users posting the footage of the rampage that killed 10 people.
As the extreme case of @BuffaloSh00ting illustrated, users sharing the violent footage were not subtle. They promoted the video in plain language that even a rudimentary keyword filter could have flagged. “Warning!” one wrote. “This is the video of the racist murderer that shot up the ‘Tops’ supermarket this weekend in Buffalo, NY.” Another touted the video with the gunman’s name and the words: “MASS SHOOTING VIDEO LAST TIME REUPLOADING!!!!!” Still another wrote “Buffalo Massacre Shooting Full Video” followed by a long string of hashtags intended to broaden the audience for the tweet, ranging from #blm to #WhiteSupremacist.
A Twitter representative provided a statement Tuesday that insisted “our teams are working to proactively identify and take action,” and are “removing videos and media related to the incident.”
But in real time on Monday afternoon and evening, that effort appeared halting and reactive at best, resembling a game of Whac-A-Mole. Each new iteration of violent content would remain live for about 20 minutes after it had been posted. The tweet would then quietly disappear with a notice reading, “This Tweet violated the Twitter Rules.” But by that time, another user had posted the footage again. (Twitter took somewhat more aggressive action against @BuffaloSh00ting, with a notice reading that the account “is temporarily unavailable because it violates the Twitter Media Policy”)
Rolling Stone reached out to Twitter on Monday night to ask why so many iterations of the video were reaching the feeds of users. By Tuesday morning, copies of the video were notably more difficult to find, with simple searches no longer surfacing footage of the violence. A source with knowledge of the platform’s efforts to tamp down on the videos says that some accounts appeared to have been sharing footage that had been deliberately tweaked or manipulated to evade the platform’s filters.
The Twitter representative insisted that the company believes that “hateful and discriminatory views promoted in content produced by perpetrators are harmful for society,” adding that “their dissemination should be limited to prevent perpetrators from publicizing their message.”
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