A long five years after fully establishing himself as one of the biggest artists in the world and taking home a Pulitzer Prize for his album DAMN., Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar has returned with his most polarizing and controversial project yet. Split up into a double album for narrative purposes, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers certainly makes it evident how long we’ve been waiting for new material from Lamar – because he’s clearly grown up, become a father, and has done a lot of healing and re-evaluating of the values he’s presented on his previous works. Structured like a therapy session as Lamar’s spoken asides find him resisting and ultimately embracing the emotional outpouring, he’s never been quite so vulnerable on a project as he reveals layers of vices and trauma both current and generational. At times, it feels like a combination of the freeform theatricality of To Pimp a Butterfly and the dense storytelling of good kid, m.A.A.d city, even if some tracks’ experimental lack of structure makes for some of Lamar’s first ever moments that are less than spellbinding from a musical standpoint. Still, if listeners are willing to engage with this album and unpack its many details, they’ll be deeply rewarded with what might be Lamar’s most important and compelling narrative yet.
The album seems to be divided between Disc 1’s younger Kendrick solving his problems in unhealthy ways and unwittingly contributing to the cycle of abuse he describes, and Disc 2 finding him breaking the cycle, revealing the ugly truths beneath and entering a healthier place. While many of these tracks are an initial shock to the system that take time to grow on you – especially after five years of building hype and expectations – the album’s opening run of four contains some of its least digestible material, though they prove essential to the story Lamar tells. “United In Grief” is a shifting monster of an opening track, as Lamar introduces the album’s themes in a spastic triplet flow over Hamilton-esque bouncy pianos and steps into the character of a toxic, materialistic and misogynistic man burying his problems underneath a mountain of jewelry and romantic conquests. The touching, jazzy piano notes do so much for the track’s complicated web of emotions, and the beat-switch to a percussion-heavy section houses one of Lamar’s most impressive pockets of flow on the whole project. “N95” offers up a clever comparison, as these coping mechanisms are compared to an extra-strength COVID mask – this kind of mask hiding the ugliness underneath from the world and protecting us from having to face it head-on. The off-kilter chorus is a little jarring, but the final, Baby Keem-style verse is incredible and the fuzzy synth bass and blaring, chiptune-y chords certainly hit hard.
Lamar continues to introduce more critical themes that are addressed later on, panicking about being viewed as a saviour of sorts when the world is seemingly beyond saving on “N95” and getting generational on the highly disorienting, rather unmusical “Worldwide Steppers” while bringing up how centuries of discourse on how to view himself creates deep-seated feelings that perpetuate the cycle, dubbing everyone on the planet an unconscious “killer” in their own way as their actions set off a butterfly effect. This track is hard to return to, Lamar sounding like a deeply troubled soul, but it’s great character work. The track “Die Hard” ventures into a poppy R&B space, which doesn’t give him as much space to take a deep dive lyrically, but it’s a solid play at the radio with an intoxicating chorus from relative unknown Amanda Reifer, who has a truly unique and striking vocal tone.
The first indisputable masterpiece on the album is “Father Time,” as Lamar drops some of the most emotional and affecting verses on the project speaking about his relationship with a father who imbued him with toxic masculinity, teaching him to be tough and put up his walls. Hearing a tale about witnessing his father go back to work the day after his mother’s passing because he didn’t believe the world would show him sympathy is a huge gut punch, and the beautiful chord progression and chorus from the emotive voice of Sampha only add to things further. “Rich Spirit” contains an introduction from noted abuser Kodak Black, whose inclusion on the album has already stirred up numerous thinkpieces. Lamar says that he sees a younger version of himself in Kodak later on, as he invites an authentic perspective of someone who has been abused and has abused himself on board to further warn of the toxic cycle. It certainly could be argued that an even more compelling angle might have been hearing from a victim, as Kodak never directly addresses his checkered past, but it still enhances the album’s themes. The track itself is a low-key, charismatic trap song that represents the first look towards a shift in the album’s messaging, as Lamar prides himself on appearing “rich” on the inside rather than the outside.
Closing out the first disc, “We Cry Together” and “Purple Hearts” serve as companion pieces. The former is one of the most mind-bending and shocking tracks you’ll hear all year, as Lamar and actress Taylour Paige stage a highly upsetting, corrosive and venomous couples’ argument over a jazzy piano loop, while “Purple Hearts” finds him imploring listeners to deal with their issues before it ruins a real connection and trauma is unfairly doled out onto a partner. With one of the catchiest hooks on the album, Summer Walker delivering a great vocal at home in the swirling, blissful R&B soundscape, and a feature from none other than Ghostface Killah on the back end, it’s a great way to close out the first half.
The project’s second half is arguably even stronger, as Lamar begins to reveal the horrifying secrets hidden underneath and metamorphose before our eyes. The majority of the second disc’s opening moments find Lamar embracing himself as a flawed, regular person after fans had put him on a pedestal as an all-knowing, progressive saviour of sorts for years, admitting that it likely did more harm than good to play into it before dealing with his internal struggles. The choral sample and finger-snaps on “Count Me Out” make it sound like he’s at a supportive therapy circle, as he proclaims a new love for himself, while the somber, piano-backed “Crown” finds him repeating a simple mantra – “I can’t please everybody.” With an orchestral introduction from cousin Baby Keem, “Saviour” is the definitive statement on the issue. Listing some of the ills of the world and essentially replying with a shrug, Lamar informs listeners that he’s not here to solve their problems or the world’s, retreating to work on his own and calling into question if a happier, healthier Kendrick Lamar is still the product they’d like to consume. The instrumentals and flows remain top-notch, with another great piano loop and rattling bass on “Saviour” and an innovative beat laced with what sounds like a gun silencer on “Silent Hill,” an instantly memorable and memeable quirky banger where Lamar swiftly disavows the fake people in his life.
The album’s final run of tracks is its most impactful, as Lamar relinquishes his most pervasive sources of pain. “Auntie Diaries,” a song where Lamar shows support to two transgender members of his family and criticizes his younger self’s apprehension to the subject, is a deeply moving and massively important statement for a rapper of Lamar’s fame to make, especially given the genre’s history. Featuring some brilliantly woven character work and storytelling as Lamar’s perspective switches – and so, too, does his usage of pronouns – the orchestral swell at the end as Lamar confronts a bigoted preacher and “chooses humanity over religion” is enough to activate the tear ducts. Lamar’s use of slurs is certainly shocking, adding to the album’s list of controversies, and it’s not my place to justify them. However, it certainly aligns with Lamar’s necessity to tell the ugly truth. After “Mr. Morale,” a Pharrell-produced track that brings the Black Panther soundtrack’s infectious, tribalistic energy back, “Mother I Sober” essentially acts as the genesis of the album itself, and stands as one of the best tracks in Lamar’s career. With a voice that sounds like it’s all cried out, Lamar dates the larger culture of abuse in the Black community all the way back to some graphic depictions of slavery, offering up some grisly details of his mother’s abuse and the guilt he felt for perpetuating the cycle through infidelity. Setting himself free from the “generational curse” by the track’s end, the credits roll with “Mirror,” a funky, celebratory track where Lamar chooses himself over everything else.
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers might be Lamar’s least accessible record yet, and the least ready to be thrown on the aux cord or listened to for casual enjoyment. As he enters his 30s, however, it’s clearly the exact statement that he needed to make as he grapples with the meaning behind the position and platform he’s been thrust into. Throw away your preconceived notions and approach this one with an open mind.
Favourite Tracks: Mother I Sober, We Cry Together, Father Time, Auntie Diaries, Savior
Least Favourite Track: Worldwide Steppers