Kendrick Lamar: Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers (pgLang / Top Dawg Entertainment / Aftermath / Interscope) | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, August 16th, 2022  

Kendrick Lamar

Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers

pgLang / Top Dawg Entertainment / Aftermath / Interscope

Jun 15, 2022 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


“Tell them the truth,” pleads fiancée Whitney Alford in the opening seconds of Kendrick Lamar’s new double-album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers. It’s been five long years since we’d heard from Mr. Duckworth. In that time, he admits that he’s been “going through something,” before remarking, “be afraid.” Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is an hour and thirteen minutes of sex addiction, generational trauma, cultural introspection, ego mutilation, quack psychology, and way too much Kodak Black.

But before we get into all that, we’re gonna put it in reverse.

It’s July 12, 2017, Gila River Arena, Glendale, Arizona. The air conditioned arena is a respite from yet another hot summer in the concrete jungle, with temperatures reaching well into the 100s. It’s also the venue for opening night of Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar’s first arena tour, possibly the hottest artist in the states. Just two months prior, Lamar dropped his fourth critically acclaimed record in only six years, DAMN.. Like his other work, it’s lyrically dense and conceptually ambitious, praised by many rap fans as yet another instant classic that cements Lamar as one of the greatest rappers of his generation, if not of all time. Unlike his prior work, it’s a commercial hit, his first album to top the Billboard 200 chart and scoring his first number one single with the oxymoronically braggadocious “HUMBLE.”

It’s the song that delivers the concert’s defining moment. For the first part of the song, Lamar emphatically raps the start of each line before stopping and letting the crowd finish the rest. Simple showmanship. Crowd work. You’ve seen it before. However, midway through his verse, he cuts the music and stops rapping. 13,000 fans in attendance don’t. They complete the first verse and chorus in unison as Kendrick subtly bobs his head, keeping time like a conductor. The crowd erupts.

A full minute goes by. They’re still cheering. When he lifts his mic to speak, he can’t help but let out a little awe-inspired chuckle. The arena erupts once more, louder this time. Dressed in all white, the self-proclaimed “hip-hop rhyme savior” has stopped just short of going full Kanye West and proclaiming himself the almighty, but, witnessing the awesome power he holds over his audience, one might be compelled to believe him if he did. This is more than a concert: it’s a coronation.

On Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, he rejects the crown. The record opens with “United in Grief,” a frantic, stop-start piano-laden odyssey where Lamar lays his struggles with sex addiction bare. He describes one encounter with “green eyes,” a model he meets on tour in Chicago with whom he bonds over shared family trauma and has escapist sex. He explains it away: “I grieve different.”

This might be Lamar’s most personal record yet: the main focus is on how his sex addiction and emotional baggage threaten his intimate relationship with his fiancée and the futures of his children. At her urging, he begins going to therapy with German spiritualist/quack psychologist (depending on who you ask) Eckhart Tolle. On “Worldwide Steppers,” he rationalizes his infidelities as an act of revenge. “Whitney asked did I have a problem?/I said ‘I might be racist’/Ancestors watchin’ me fuck was like retaliation.” On the chopped-up old-Kanye soul of “Father Time,” he acknowledges how his father’s toxic masculine traits contributed both to his relentless pursuit of greatness and his mental health struggles. “Daddy issues, hid my emotions, never expressed myself/Men should never show feelings, being sensitive never helped.”

On the radio-friendly synth adorned single “N95,” he criticizes materialistic coping mechanisms, clout chasing, and cancel culture. “Take all that designer bullshit off and what do you have?” he asks. Answer: “Bitch, you ugly as fuck!” The Alchemist-produced “We Cry Together” illustrates the visceral breakdown of a romantic relationship through a screaming match between Lamar and actress Taylour Paige (whose exasperated performance steals the show). “Hold on to each other,” sings the Florence Welch sample, before descending into sparsely-orchestrated chaos. Some of their zingers are genuinely funny (when Lamar boasts “Ahh now you mad at me, I got you hollerin’ for nothin’,” Paige retorts “I do the same when we fuckin’”), but it’s clear from the get-go that their arrangement is toxic, built on bottled-up resentment and lust.

Then there’s the imperfect “Auntie Diaries,” where Lamar grapples with his feelings toward his Trans family members. Throughout he misgenders and deadnames, using the f-slur in the context of childhood ignorance, and yet by the end he stands up to the hateful words of his pastor and chooses “humanity over religion,” and is even confronted for his use of the f-slur by his Trans cousin. It’s a challenging song, especially poignant coming from a hip-hop artist outspoken about his Christian faith, both communities that haven’t always welcomed Trans people with open arms. And the flaws in its execution suggest that its creator is earnestly attempting, and sometimes failing, to learn and grow. However, whether or not those flaws outweigh his positive intentions depends on your perspective. (Quick PSA for my fellow cis-folk who appreciate the song: please don’t go on Twitter or Reddit or your favorite social media platform and start telling Trans people that they “just don’t get it” because they have negative feelings toward the song or criticisms of it. Remember, you’re listening to a song about an experience they’re living. Listen to their perspective. You might learn something.)

Yet, for all its thematic heaviness and thought provoking ego dissection, on a purely musical level, this might be Lamar’s least consistent record yet. Whereas Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City was an ode to gangsta rap and To Pimp a Butterfly a celebratory progressive fusion of jazz and funk, Mr. Morale follows in DAMN.’s footsteps as more of a sonically mixed bag. There are highlights: the Pharrell Williams-produced “Mr. Morale” that’s Yeezus done right, the harrowing high-pitched “can’t please everybody” crescendo on “Crown,” the lushly orchestrated mantra of “I choose me, I’m sorry” that closes out the record on “Mirror,” the relaxed jam on “Purple Hearts” (god bless Ghostface Killah and his amazing Brooklyn Accent). Some of the more piano-heavy moments are a neat departure from his prior work, and the use of actual tap-dancing twins to represent his tap-dancing around the conversation is incorporated tastefully.

The lowlights come when he dips into tepid, Drake-adjacent pop-rap. “Die Hard” is the worst offender: a piece of monotone R&B sporting weak features from Blxst and the weirdly baby-voiced Amanda Reifer. Elsewhere, “Silent Hill” is marred by a bare-bones beat, a goofy TikTok bait chorus (coming to a football highlight video near you!) and, oh god, why is there so much Kodak Black? And even thematic intrigue can’t save “Rich Spirit” from being such a bore to listen to.

In some ways, it’s a more mature, reserved sound than he’s produced on his past records; less in-your-face than in-the-background, possibly reflective of where Lamar is at in his career, no longer the hungry 20-something trailblazer looking to make a name for himself. He’s 34 now, a Pulitzer Prize winning father of two who has, for all intents and purposes, made it. It’s a different energy. The more reserved tone is also reflective of the album’s somber themes, in some ways a continuation of DAMN., a record that, singles aside, also found Kung-Fu Kenny in a depressed funk. There, he was attempting to reconcile the seemingly endless plight of African Americans with his faith in a loving, righteous god, even indulging in a theory that his people are the descendants of cursed Israelites, though even this felt more like he was throwing his hands up in the air in exasperation, as though to say “at this point, what else could it be?”

In the music video for the promotional single “The Heart Part 5,” the opening title-card reads “I am all of us.” The visual setup is plain: Lamar, wearing a white T-shirt with a black bandana tied around his neck, raps in front of a red background for the full five minutes and change. However, throughout the video, his face transforms into that of OJ Simpson, Kanye West, Jussie Smollet, Will Smith, Kobe Bryant, and Nipsey Hussle via deep fakes. At times, it’s as though he’s rapping from their perspective. “To my brother, to my kids, I’m in heaven,” he raps as the deceased Nipsey. “In the land where hurt people hurt more people/Fuck callin’ it culture,” he proclaims. But, as the titled card suggests, he is an inseparable part of that culture, the good and the bad. Any criticism of it is self-criticism.

It’s an idea expanded upon on the record’s penultimate track, “Mother I Sober.” Featuring a tender vocal performance from Portishead’s Beth Gibbons, it’s the album’s thesis statement, where Lamar reflects on his suppressed sensitivity, the pain he’s caused his fiancée, the pain his mother suffered when she was sexually assaulted as a child, his desire to run away from all the fame and be someone else. His story, he argues, is not isolated but rather reflective of a continuous cycle of generational trauma that has haunted the African American community stretching back to the days of slavery. And that it’s his responsibility, to his fiancée and to his children, to break it through the power of forgiveness, both of himself and his abusers.

And yeah, even with how wholesome his two-year-old daughter is at the end of the track, we could probably do without the self-congratulatory “you did it.” There’s still work to be done. But the point is that there’s hope. Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers is an incredibly ambitious, messy, heavy, daunting record that ultimately ends with our protagonist coming out on the other side as a better person, though still not a perfect person. He’ll never be perfect, and that’s okay. After all, as he says on the aptly titled “Savior,” “Kendrick made you think about it, but he is not your savior.” (www.oklama.com)

Author rating: 7.5/10

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