Ever since releasing his seminal major label debut good kid, m.A.A.d city nearly ten years ago, Kendrick Lamar has experienced this meteoric rise to the top. He’s at the point in his career now where much of his audience will argue that he is the greatest hip-hop artist of his generation, with some even going as far as calling him the greatest of all-time. Each successive project of his has seemed to garner more and more acclaim – good kid topped many end-of-year lists just two months after its release in October of 2012, while 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly swept the rap category at the Grammys the following year, and DAMN. was the first non-jazz or -classical album to win a Pulitzer in 2018. Even in the several years since his last LP, it’s as if Lamar’s cultural impact has only increased in his absence, so we had to know the world was going to stop when he finally did announce (and as of today release) Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers.
Although the latest chapter in Kendrick Lamar’s illustrious career is classified as a double album, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is actually shorter than his 78-minute opus To Pimp a Butterfly, and it could manageably fit onto one disc. Based on the record’s title it would follow that “Mr. Morale” would comprise one disc and “The Big Steppers” the other, but things aren’t always that simple. A quick glance at the track listing shows the closest thing to a title track for the latter, the stomper “Worldwide Steppers,” on disc one, and the fantastic, Pharrell-produced highlight “Mr. Morale” as a part of disc two. Of course, everything the Compton emcee does is conceived, planned, and executed with both purpose and poise, so there’s certainly a reason for why he chose to release the album this way, even if we may not know or understand it at this point.
Right away Lamar personifies this purpose and poise on the intro to the album’s opening track “United in Grief:” he mentions that “one-thousand eight-hundred and fifty-five days I’ve been goin’ through somethin’ [sic.],” marking the exact amount of time that has passed since the release of DAMN. on Good Friday of 2017. “United in Grief” also opens by introducing this eerie vocal theme that recurs on different refrains over the course of the record, not entirely unlike what the opening line of “BLOOD.” did for DAMN. – although the latter’s theme came from the same lyrics, not different ones, as is the case this time around.
The rapper is consistently changing up his flow on “United in Grief” – every time you think he’ll go right, he goes left. This may be the first time on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers where he fakes listeners out, but it won’t be the last. Take, for instance, the stunning “We Cry Together,” which starts with a gorgeous intro sampling Florence & The Machine’s 2018 song “June,” before quickly devolving into this domestic dispute set over top of discordant piano notes that run in perfect parallel with each side of the argument, represented by Lamar and actress Taylour Paige, respectively. It almost feels odd to classify “We Cry Together” as a “song,” yet, the track, which will definitely make some folks uncomfortable upon hearing it, easily stands out as another of the album’s highlights. It is simply further proof that the emcee knows exactly what he is doing.
Some would deem it foolish trying to compare Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers to Kendrick’s earlier work, however it’s fascinating to consider when using the rest of his discography as a frame of reference, as he seems to channel different aspects from each of his three other major label LP’s throughout his latest. Consider “Rich,” the intro and immediate predecessor to “Rich Spirit,” where both Kodak Black’s raps and the instrumental backing underneath him are reminiscent of the To Pimp a Butterfly interludes. On disc two opener “Count Me Out,” Kendrick’s sung delivery goes right along with the track’s tight trap beat, a la DAMN. And with the album’s penultimate cut “Mother I Sober,” he captures both a musical and lyrical vibe that harkens back to good kid, m.A.A.d city. The difference with “Mother I Sober” is that Portishead’s Beth Gibbons steps in to add extra melody to the song, which also features Lamar’s fiancée Whitney Alford (along with the couple’s child) with an encouraging message near the end. As for other aspects throughout that are inherently different, “Mirror” boasts this funky, watery beat and a stellar outro that closes out the record in phenomenal fashion. It really doesn’t matter which Kendrick era you prefer because with his fifth studio album, you get a little bit of everything, including something new.
Thematically, Lamar explores everything from trauma on “Mother I Sober” and excess on “Mr. Morale,” to masculinity (“Father Time”) and even the nature of society today with cuts like “N95” and “Savior.” Known for constantly painting a vivid picture with his storytelling in his songs, this only continues with tunes like the powerful, convicting “Auntie Diaries.” Even more introspective cuts, such as highlight “Crown,” boast this sort of staying power. He also assembles a host of awesome guest artists who are almost always adding something to the songs they are a part of. Some of those I haven’t already mentioned who appear more than once on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers include Baby Keem, Kendrick’s protégé who also assists on some of the album’s production; Sampha, whose debut Process actually topped DAMN. for me back in 2017; and Sam Dew, whose work I was not familiar with beforehand, but I definitely want to familiarize myself with after hearing his soulful hooks on “Savior” and “Mr. Morale.”
On Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, Kendrick Lamar combines different sonic dispositions used throughout his career up to this point and assembles it all together to create this 18-track LP that covers all sorts of ground, both sonically and thematically. The result is this vast, wide-ranging work of art that holds its own, even within a catalogue as impressive as his own.
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