In Review: Kendrick Lamar - Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers
The opening seconds of Kendrick Lamar’s fifth studio Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers album reflect the new, pandemic-worn world from which it has emerged. "I’ve been going through something" are his opening words, "one thousand eight hundred and fifty-five days", the time since his last studio album Damn was released in 2017. After a long period of writer’s block and two years of the global Covid-19 crisis, this album has a different tone to his last. Collaborations with Rihanna and U2 are absent and Trap anthems are replaced with introspective monologues.
Like previous artists of his stature, the evolution of Kendrick Lamar’s albums have reflected the mood of the times. Every generation has a handful of artists whose music transcends the normal boundaries of fame, coming to reflect phases within in an era. In our own time, ‘Alright’ from Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly became a totem of the Black Lives Matter movement. Black Panther: The Album (2018) was not only the source of three of his top ten hits but also helped to diversify predominantly white superhero franchises. Kendrick Lamar appears in Stephen Fry’s Mythos as the modern equivalent of Orpheus, the archetypal music maker.
Perhaps because of this wide-reaching, elevated and critically-acclaimed status, his latest album stands out more as an irritable response to criticism, defiantly refusing to do much more than provoke. Despite this, listening to the latest album is like peering into an unsettling and refracted kaleidoscope lens on our own time, blending political polarisation, gender issues, mental health, pandemics and relationship issues.
The opening track to Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers casts an introspective tone. :I grieve different" is the refrain, in between rapid-fire words, tripping over themselves, staccato piano chords and syncopated drum rhythms. It is the most akin to the jazz-soul-funk fusion of To Pimp a Butterfly, and in some ways the strongest track on the album. As in To Pimp a Butterfly, the crushing claustrophobia of absolute materialism is conveyed in manic lists of gleaming new purchases. In that album, Lucifer asks "what you want, a house? A car? Forty acres and a mule? A piano, a guitar?"
In this album, the same mass accumulation weighs on us. Unused purchases seem hollow - "I bought a Rolex watch, I only wore it once" - "I bought infinity pools I never swimmed in". A kind of exhaustion is palpable in the scattergun rhythms and hectic rapping in the opening track. The following track, 'N95', asks in seven repetitions we "take off" the wifi, money phone and car loan to see the "real world" outside. The album seems to lurch around reaching for something beyond the material, with references to therapy, daddy issues and samples of self-help guru Eckhardt Tolle. In any case, Kendrick is working through some issues in this album. The same female voice that orders him to tell them he is "going through something" later begins ‘Father Time’ with you "realllllly need some therapy".
Just as Kendrick Lamar’s confessions about therapy, daddy issues and writer’s block do not dampen the shock-factor of the album, he also refuses to descend into political virtue signalling, instead opting for unrelenting offensiveness. "I am not for the faint of heart" he warns on ‘Worldwide Steppers’, over a lurching, hypnotic pedal of one chord. Elsewhere, he reminds us "I am not your saviour". The claim is borne out by his response to liberal propriety on ‘N95’ - "what the fuck is cancel culture dog?"
In the wake of a shower of critical acclaim, music awards and glowing Guardian-style reviews, he stays true to the origins of the genre in rap battle format by refusing to be an artist that is entirely palatable to those who are hailing him as something akin to a prophet, donning an ironic crown of thorns for this album cover. In particular, the inclusion of Kodak Black is uncomfortable to say the least, after he pleaded guilty to assault charges, but women remain far from voiceless in the album. In ‘We Cry Together’ (which features a full-length toxic couples’ argument culminating in 15 “fuck yous”) we hear a scathing female rebuke - "it’s a man’s world - you the reason for Trump, you the reason we overlooked, underpaid, under-booked…you the reason Harvey Weinstein had to see his conclusion, the reason R. Kelly can’t recognise he’s abusive".
For all its brazen offensiveness, the album stands out as one that is profoundly concerned with self-image. "Don’t judge me" he entreats on ‘Die Hard’, before the mellow piano parts of ‘Crown’ introduce layered vocal repetitions of "I can’t please everybody". In many ways, the album is the outcome of a two-year paralysis, resulting in a decision to ignore what other people think. Somehow, this feels like a good outcome, one that is at least more honest than the alternative.
Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is out now via PGLang, Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE), Aftermath Entertainment, and Interscope Records.