Image Courtesy of Genius
By Joey Brasco
In April of this year, Kendrick Lamar chose to pluck a Twitter user out of relative obscurity after @raptalksk tweeted out, “Kendrick Lamar is officially retired.” Kendrick chose to respond to this comment with the announcement of a double album, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, which was definitely one way to end retirement rumors.
The “Kendrick is retired” sentiment likely rose from the lack of any studio LPs since 2017’s DAMN. There was the Black Panther: The Album soundtrack, as well as some excellent guest features since, but a Kendrick solo album is a different beast entirely.
Each of his records have earned heaps of critical acclaim in addition to wild mainstream success. Quite possibly the highest point of Kendrick’s critical and commercial acclaim came by way of the aforementioned DAMN., which not only won a Pulitzer Prize, but also garnered a number one song with “HUMBLE.”
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is a difficult album to digest. Themes of abuse, trauma, and Kendrick’s personal demons permeate the entire record. It is an album that is not suited for casual listening. What it is however, is a testament to an artist with a deep devotion to his craft and a desire to express every facet of his inner world in a raw and unfiltered manner.
When considering an artist of Kendrick’s pedigree, to say there were high expectations for new music would be a gross understatement. “The Heart Part 5” was the first taste of the new album. With each new album cycle, Kendrick updates his “The Heart” series, a growing collection of tracks that prepare fans for what is to come.
“The Heart Part 5” is a dense meditation on black culture and controversial figures within it. Set over a spectacular sample of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You,” the music video sees Kendrick donning numerous faces, ranging from Kanye West to OJ Simpson. With this video and song, Kendrick was preparing audiences for a radical fifth album.
The music comprising both sides of Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is not nearly as commercially accessible as his previous works. This is made evidently clear from the album’s first song, “United In Grief.” Rather than reintroducing himself with a banging beat and catchy chorus, Kendrick delivers a diatribe about hiding grief in materialism set over jarring piano keys and blisstering drums.
The sonic oddities continue with the unlikely hit “N95.” The song gets its title from the medical mask of the same name and is a metaphor for the facades we put up to hide our true selves. With its triumphant synth leads, off-kilter rapping, and disorienting music video, Kendrick proves that whatever he experiments with, fans will eat up.
The following two cuts, “Worldwide Steppers,” and “Die Hard” confront Kendrick’s self proclaimed “lust addiction,” and his desire to get better. “Die Hard” is boosted by guest vocalists Blxst and Amanda Reifer, whose vocals on the chorus make for one of the few moments of unabashed pop levity on the album. The song’s mantra of “I hope I’m not too late to set my demons straight,” expresses Kendricks’s resolve to rectify his wrongs and save his soul.
Delving further into his own psyche, Kendrick reflects on his relationship with his father on “Father Time,” which features a stellar feature from singer Sampha. The grand piano chords and impassioned flows from Kedrick make this one of the most standout tracks on the record.
Contrasting with the beauty of “Father Time”is the hellish “We Cry Together.” Kendrick and actress Taylour Paige deliver a song that soundtracks a toxic relationship. The two are not so much rapping as they are verbally assaulting each other, trading sexually-tinged insults and vulgarity that would make a sailor blush. As a song, this is a tough listen, but as a display of raw emotion, it is executed phenomenally.
“Auntie Diaries,” is a tribute to both Kendrick’s aunt and cousin, who each dealt with scorn from Kendrick’s family due their transgender identities. The song slowly builds to a dramatic conclusion, as Kendrick recounts a scene when he defended his cousin against the ire of a preacher: “I said, ‘Mr. Preacher Man, should we love thy neighbor?’ The laws of the land, or the heart, what’s greater?” It is a moment where Kendrick tackles a difficult topic with a compassionate sensibility that most artists could never dream to achieve.
Not all fans viewed this album as sensitive in its content however. In addition to the obvious extremity of a song like “We Cry Together,” fans had strong reaction to Kendricks decision to feature controversial rapper Kodak Black throughout the record. Many were quick to point out that featuring him invalidated the album’s sensitivty towards trauma induced by sexual assault on songs like “Mother I Sober,” and “Mr. Morale.”
On this album Kendrick presents listeners a vast array of challenging topics which he is not afraid to say he does not have all of the answers to. The self-referencial intro of “Savior,” says as much: “Kendrick made you think about it, but he is not your savior.”
While Kendrick may not be a messiah sent to save the world through his music, he is an artist unencumbered by expectations and audience demands directing his artistic vision. While his latest album may not have the replay value of good kid, m.A.A.d city, or garner the critical praise heaped onto To Pimp a Butterfly and DAMN., it will serve as an indelible testament to Kendrick’s uncompromised persistence to lay himself bare in his music.