The Compton star is plagued with trauma on his first album in five years; a conflicted oracle that finds Lamar at his most sincere, astute, and controversial.
It takes quite the career to undisputedly become the best rapper of the 21st century. For ten years, it’s been Kendrick Lamar setting the bar and reaching it each and every time. Four critically-acclaimed albums, including a Pulitzer Prize winning record, all came with progressive messages that put the whole rap culture in the palm of his hand. His meticulous approach is why it’s been five years since his last album, a gap longer than 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly. In that time, Lil Baby released nine projects, a global pandemic impacted the world, and NBA YoungBoy had approximately five children. The return is titled Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, his final album on Top Dawg, announced in quiet-storm fashion through a deserted website and social media posts.
Family trauma plagues Kendrick on his most personal record to date, unearthing bruise and cuts ridden in the battle between self-care and mortal responsibility.
Kendrick is more than aware of his long absence. He quotes the exact days since DAMN. was released (1,855) on the album opener, the amount of days he’s been ‘going through something’. He reveals a two-year stretch of writer’s block, overcoming it in 2020 to complete the product in our grasp today. If the product is anything to go by, the time off has been meditative, shrinking the bigger picture down to the being that needs to unpack himself rather than unpack the world around him.
Across eighteen tracks and 73 minutes, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers weaves through two discs of emotional highs and lows, dissecting open wounds by exploring topics he’s never touched before. It is his most conceptually coherent record to date, and most conventional in sound, manoeuvring across modern trap percussion, mellow piano and strings, and traditional samples. He opts to keep up with the times; it’s a risky approach from someone who’s reinvented himself with every album. But as a result, his words and writing are clearer than ever.
Every Kendrick Lamar album can be labelled as some form of media. Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was a motion picture, To Pimp a Butterfly was a poem, and DAMN. was a looping tape. At times, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers feels like a play. The pianos that kick off “United in Grief” resemble theatre music, as does the production on both interludes, on which Kodak Black and Baby Keem feel like lone actors in onstage monologue, offering transitional moments to kick off the next act.
Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers follows Kendrick’s journey through therapy, encouraged by his wife Whitney Alford and conducted with German spiritual author, Eckhart Tolle. The conflicts arise between his two characters, Oklama and Mr. Morale. Oklama appears on the Big Steppers disc, seemingly Kendrick’s self-proclaimed, messiah figure that feels responsible for guiding the world and holding its burdens on his shoulders. It fulfils the God complex Kendrick feels as an accomplished artist who’s ultimately arrogant (“Rich Spirit”), instructive (“N95”), and toxic (“Worldwide Steppers”). Mr. Morale is who Kendrick becomes by the end of the album, shedding the responsibilities felt as Oklama who felt anointed to save the world (“Crown”, “Saviour”). It is Lamar’s most linear narrative of his catalogue, cryptic at first but unpacked layer by layer just like the therapy sessions on show.
“The morality can wait,” he says on “Rich Spirit”, which lands on the first disc, and clarifies the breathing room Oklama needs before Mr. Morale’s breakthrough. His presence is felt most on “N95”, the album’s “DNA” that orders superficial masks to be taken off; though is also a critique of COVID-19 responses. Its stadium synths grant Kendrick a hit that’s right in line with today’s hip hop landscape, but has the writing and personality to individualise it as well.
Topically, Kendrick is found at his most unfiltered. “Can I vent all my truth? I got nothing to lose,” he says on “N95”, a line that conjoins the two themes of the album. The first is the family trauma that Kendrick unpacks on the most intimate moments. He acknowledges daddy issues on the tender “Father Time”, uttered with a bitter tongue and brash tone. It’s a collaboration of the reclusive, connecting Lamar with Sampha for one of his warmest songs. In contrast, “Mother I Sober” is his coldest, seeing Kendrick reveal the sexual abuse of his mother through the most desolate delivery we’ve ever heard from him. It’s both an album and career highlight, encapsulating the raw honesty the Compton rapper’s consistently shown for the last decade.
“We Cry Together” shows a different side to the album artwork, a brow-raising track that enacts a domestic argument between Lamar and a partner, voiced expertly by Taylour Paige. Harnessed by signature Alchemist production, the duo work in tandem to outdo the other’s rhetorics. Despite the song essentially being a conversation, there’s a jagged flow that still makes it enjoyable as a song. The track spotlights humanity’s lack of accountability and Oklama’s egotistical nature, ultimately arguing to no avail (“This is what the world sounds like”).
Cancel culture is the other central theme on Big Steppers. We find Lamar at his most controversial, speaking his mind with no second thought, whether it’s opinions on COVID, virtue signalling on social media, or his history of banging white girls (“Worldwide Steppers”). Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is about flawed humanity and accepting those imperfections, which is why cancel culture is an imaginary idea to Lamar (“What the fuck is cancel culture, dawg? / Say what I want about you n****s, I’m like Oprah, dawg”). He takes it a step further on “Auntie Diaries”, knowing the repercussions of his angle on transgender topics, but taking the risk for the sake of the greater message. If the generational trauma is the ‘vent all my truth’, the risky remarks are the ‘I got nothing to lose’.
Kodak Black’s unlikely placements double down on the disdain for cancel culture, who took a plea deal on accusations of sexual assault. More importantly, his inclusion echoes the final words of “Mother I Sober” where Kendrick frees “all you abusers”; the final moment needed to transform into Mr. Morale. Though many will disagree with the messaging, this is Kendrick’s message to share, and his interpretation on how he’s chosen to deal with the trauma of abuse in his family.
Having Kodak Black on your album would severely question Kendrick’s morality. Is he entirely moral? Will the culture cancel him for doing so? It’s this acceptance of his imperfections that summarises the character of Mr. Morale. How can he provide morale to the people when he is not a moral man?
As dense as the album can get, there are plenty light moments to consume. Matter fact, this is Lamar’s most aux-friendly record. “Die Hard” is one of his catchiest songs to date, filled to the brim with melodies by Blxst and Amanda Reifer. His humour exudes on the minimal “Rich Spirit” (“Bitch, I’m attractive”) and carefree “Silent Hill”. The Keem-assisted “Saviour” reps the album’s care for memorable hooks. These songs debunk the myth that Kendrick is just a conscious rapper making conscious albums.
Lamar’s albums always split opinion, even if just on initial impression. His high standards have set solar expectations, and peaks that can never be met again. Much in the realm of DAMN., Mr. Morale plays it safe sonically, resisting the urge to experiment with its production. While consistent, the production leaves more to be desired on songs that don’t individualise themselves outside the album (“Mirror”, and “Crown”, which runs too long and would’ve been better off as an interlude). Songs fall victim to their pristine make-up, namely “Purple Hearts”, which features forgettable production and bland vocals by Summer Walker.
These ambitions were sacrificed in favour of transparent writing. It’s often Lamar’s performances carrying the punch, particularly when tracks opt for a minimal approach. “N95” aside, the record’s trap cuts pale in production when compared to Lamar’s collaborations on Baby Keem’s The Melodic Blue. It’s familiar, with no surprises to the ears; virtually Kendrick’s acceptance as a mainstream rapper. One cannot help but feel a part of his genius is missing.
On Mr. Morale, Kendrick confesses he’s not the social commentator that people want him to be. The saviour complex is gone, hammered away with the power of his pen that’s given his most revealing songs to date. Even through its chinks, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is the confirming piece for one of the best hip hop discographies of all time. Kendrick Lamar’s no saviour, but he’s sure saved himself.
8.5 / 10
Best tracks: “Mother I Sober”, “N95”, “Die Hard”, “United in Grief”, “Saviour”, “Worldwide Steppers”, “Auntie Diaries”