When Kendrick Lamar drops an album, it's always a big deal. His mere presence energizes hip-hop with a fervor few possess. Dubbed the authoritative conscience of rap, Lamar's genius, by critics' assessments, lies in his virtuosic storytelling. He holds a mirror to the culture he narrates. With his latest release, "Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers," K.Dot isn't afraid to reflect the culture's beauty and its darkness.
Listeners didn't know what to expect from Lamar's followup to 2017's "DAMN" - a vivid album filled with sophisticated candor about vices and avoiding damnation. But his cryptic letter to fans in August 2021 did suggest that his final Top Dawg Entertainment project would be another deeply personal offering. "Love, loss, and grief have disturbed my comfort zone, but the glimmers of God speak through my music and family," Lamar wrote on his Oklama website. "While the world around me evolves, I reflect on what matters the most. The life in which my words will land next."
"Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers" is an uncomfortable listen by design, and it's not exactly flawless for someone revered for crafting nearly perfect musical masterpieces.
Up until April 18, Lamar's fifth studio LP was nameless. And after five long years of no solo drops, the Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper's surprise release of "The Heart Part 5" on May 8 was thought to be a clue to what "Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers" would deliver on May 13. More self-examination? A dissertation on the rise and fall of man? Lamar has a knack for keeping listeners on their toes; the options were endless. Instead, listeners received an introspective, and almost painful, dive into Lamar's deepest insecurities and struggles.
"Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers" is an uncomfortable listen by design, and it's not exactly flawless for someone revered for crafting nearly perfect musical masterpieces. The 18-track album reveals Lamar's trauma, strained relationships with family, overly critical assessments of society at large, and long, long road to therapy. Split into two chapters, Lamar's latest offering doesn't cut corners. Part one intimately breaks down his five-year hiatus, while part two reveals his impassioned breakthrough in fearlessly confronting his troubles. Lamar stars as the main character of his story, explaining the choices and missteps that have led him to seek a remedy for his inner turmoil.
"Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers" takes us on a chaotic tour of Lamar's psyche, dismantling his idol image to remind us that he's still a flawed human being.
Lamar wants to be an open book on this double album, regardless of how his lyrics (or a particular problematic featured artist - i.e. Kodak Black) may irk his devoted listeners on his quest for peace. Right off the bat, the rapper warns us that he's had a lot on his mind lately, and his burdens won't be easy to unpack. "I've been goin' through somethin' / 1,855 days I've been goin' through somethin'. Be afraid," he declares on "United in Grief." On "N95," Lamar gathers us together for all the "true stories" he's more than willing to tell now; he wastes no time opening with his true feelings about cancel culture and frauds. With assistance from scattered features and a bold spirit of honesty, "Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers" takes us on a chaotic tour of Lamar's psyche, dismantling his idol image to remind us that he's still a flawed human being.
Compared to the cohesiveness of previous albums, "Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers" is sonically experimental. Part one tracks like "Father Time" and "Purple Hearts" use elevated instrumentation to paint a vivid picture of love lost and infatuation. Meanwhile, "Worldwide Steppers" and "Die Hard" rely on funkier beats to make space for Lamar's musings over the world's faults and his own. Yet a song like the Taylour Paige-assisted "We Cry Together" opts for a simple composition to balance the harsh insults exchanged between the actor and the rapper. It resembles the fiery fight scenes from Zendaya and John David Washington in "Malcolm & Marie" or Taraji P. Henson and Tyrese in John Singleton's "Baby Boy."
At its best, the first half of "Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers" offers a better understanding of Lamar's journey to get right. And part two starts on a high note with "Count Me Out," marking essentially a new chapter for the rapper. However, some of his reform efforts that follow get muddled as the album continues.
"Auntie Diaries" is one of the most important songs on "Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers." It mainly tackles something hip-hop has struggled with since its inception: homophobia. The song about Lamar's experience growing up with two trans family members was the perfect opportunity for him to weigh in with a powerful stance as one of rap's giants. But he fumbled his chance to show up as an ally by deadnaming and misgendering his relatives alongside 10 calculated, completely unnecessary uses of the F-slur. While some fans have defended the intent of Lamar's song, the message gets lost amid the offense. But just as Lamar raps on the chorus of "Crown," perhaps he isn't concerned with how people react to his discourse: "No, I can't please everybody / I can't please everybody."
Lamar's argument for the inherent moral flaws of humanity spills across the latter portion of "Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers"' second half. Fed up with the world's wildly exaggerated expectations of him and other celebrities of his measure, Lamar reminds us that they are not our saviors and shouldn't be regarded as such. "Kendrick made you think about it, but he is not your savior / Cole made you feel empowered, but he is not your savior," he notes. "Future said, 'Get a money counter,' but he is not your savior / 'Bron made you give his flowers, but he is not your savior."
The album may not be perfect, but it's his brilliance on his terms.
Lamar's point carries over to "Mr. Morale," where he speaks to his son and daughter about healing himself to be a better father. But to do so, he must work through the trauma he murmurs about in "Mother I Sober" and break the generational curse of abuse, fear, and overprotectiveness passed down from his mom - a common battle that has haunted many Black families in America. "I'm sensitive, I feel everything, I feel everybody / One man standin' on two words, heal everybody / Transformation, then reciprocation, karma must return / Heal myself, secrets that I hide, buried in these words." According to the song's conclusion, his actions prove to be successful as his fiancée, Whitney Alford, congratulates him for disrupting the cycle. "You did it, I'm proud of you," she says. "You broke a generational curse / Say 'Thank you, dad.'"
After a few listens, it's hard to resist praising Lamar's bravery for bearing his soul on "Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers." It's the most honest he's ever been about how he views the world. But despite the proclamation he makes about choosing himself on "Mirror," Lamar still has some issues he needs to work through. The album may not be perfect, but it's his brilliance on his terms. It's still too early to tell if "Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers" will be labeled yet another classic for the hip-hop icon, but Lamar has given us a lot to ponder.