Say this for Kendrick Lamar – he’ll make you wait, but when he returns, it’s a massive presentation.
On 18 tracks evenly divided between “Big Steppers” and “Mr. Morale,” Lamar spends an hour and 13 minutes steering listeners through a musical odyssey heavy on piano riffs, incongruous bites of sound and, as expected, much baring of his soul.
The guest list includes familiar names – Kodak Black, Baby Keem, Ghostface Killah – and some interesting inclusions, such as actress Taylour Paige (“We Cry Together”) and Portishead’s Beth Gibbons (“Mother I Sober”).
A history of Kendrick Lamar: Where he's been and where his music might be headed
But Lamar, 34, never cedes the spotlight – as he shouldn’t – on what will rightfully be considered his musical opus. “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” is the first release on his new creative imprint, pgLang, as well as his final association with Top Dawg Entertainment, his home since the start of his career more than a decade ago.
On Friday, Lamar announced the worldwide The Big Steppers Tour, which kicks off July 19 in Oklahoma City and wraps in Australia in December. Baby Keem will join him for all shows and Tanna Leone on select dates.
Lamar’s lyrical intensity is built for repeated listening, but here are some first impressions from standout tracks on the album.
Following an introduction from Black – who refers to Lamar by one of his many alternative names, Oklama – the song swings between a mesmerizing pulse and old-school soul. It’s also Lamar’s autobiographical catch-up for fans who wonder if he and fiancée Whitney Alford had a second child, based on the album cover photo; references to “playin’ ‘Baby Shark’ with my daughter” and “I’d kill for my son Enoch” would indicate yes. Lamar also alludes to his lengthy absence between new releases: “Writer’s block for two years, nothin’ moved me / Asked God to speak through me, that’s what you’re hearing now.”
With a dense piano backdrop, Lamar rhymes about how his “daddy issues kept me competitive.” But fans will surely buzz about his high-profile name dropping: “When Kanye got back with Drake, I was slightly confused / Guess I’m not as mature as I think, I got some healing to do.”
'We Cry Together'
Not so much a song as a raw, expletive-filled tirade over random piano notes with Lamar and actress Paige hurling insults at each other for almost six minutes. You’ll wince listening to their unvarnished attacks on each other. “This the kind of (expletive) that couples do?” wonders Lamar. Paige’s script, meanwhile, includes the verbal grenade, “You’re the reason R. Kelly can’t recognize that he’s abusive.”
'Count Me Out'
The first song on the “Mr. Morale” section of the album finds Lamar grappling with the contradictions in his head (“I care too much, wanna share too much / In my head too much, I shut down too”) and nodding to the pandemic while also remaining reflective (“Masks on the babies, mask on an opp / Wear masks in the neighborhood stores when you shop / But a mask won’t hide who you are inside”).
Lamar handles the first two verses, which ride on a clip-clopping beat before Kodak Black jumps in for an epic run through the final third with lyrics including “Every Sunday someone's gotta teach my boy to be a man / I had no father.”
The song following the interlude of the same name squeezes in references to COVID-19, Russian President Vladimir Putin, protests and vaccines (“Seen a Christian say the vaccine mark of the beast / Then he caught COVID and prayed the Pfizer for relief”) with an assist from Baby Keem and Sam Dew.
'Mother I Sober'
For almost seven minutes, Lamar rolls through a list of heartbreaking grievances and vivid descriptions of the generations of women who have affected him in some way. With piano and a throbbing beat the only backdrop aside from some vocalizing, Lamar’s voice rises from a murmur to throes of anger by the final section of the song as he unspools references to physical abuse, sex addiction and cheating on Alford. Portishead’s Gibbons is the Greek chorus of sorts as she chimes in with, “I wish I was somebody / Anybody but myself.”
The album concludes with the most groove-infested offering as well as the most melodically cohesive. As Lamar intones “I choose me, I’m sorry,” with a shrug in his voice, it’s apparent that he’s not apologizing, but, rather, continuing his journey to look at his reflection without remorse.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kendrick Lamar returns with 'Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers' album