Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is one of the hardest albums to listen to in the past decade. The Compton rapper not only explicitly rides through with a f**k you-styled emotional dump throughout his return following a five-year hiatus, but the sentiment is bristling throughout all 18 tracks and 73 minutes.
A lot has happened within the last five years since 2017’s DAMN (Kendrick Lamar’s last release), including Donald Trump and the rise of the far-right, Black Lives Matter protests, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the #MeToo movement, just to name a few major events. Many of his fans, and even contemporaries in hip-hop, called for the rapper to speak out during this time. Kendrick Lamar stayed mostly silent.
A god-like figure in rap who released three masterpieces in Good Kid M.A.A.D. City, To Pimp a Butterfly, and DAMN, Kendrick Lamar returned this month to finally tell us what he thinks about everything that’s been going on. And tell us what he thinks he sure does.
The biggest refrain on the record is that Kendrick Lamar started seeing a therapist. If he’s been “gone,” it’s because he’s been working on himself. Thought by many to be the youngest member solidly in the pantheon of “greatest rappers of all time,” Kendrick sheds any Christ-like representations to tell us he is also human, with all the good and bad that comes with it. Oh, you’ve been having a bad time? Well, me too.
“I grieve different,” he raps on “United in Grief,” the album’s opener. “I’ve been goin’ through somethin’.”
Over tracks about his “daddy issues,” the evils of materialism/capitalism, the short-sightedness of cancel culture, his “lust addiction” and infidelity, and his difficulty in accepting his family members who have transitioned, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is one long therapy session. One in which Kendrick comes to the realization that he can’t be the “savior” everyone wants him to be until he can be the kind of man that he wants to be.
“Heavy is the head that chose to wear the crown, to whom is given much is required now,” he raps on “Crown.” “I can’t please everybody, I can’t even please myself.”
With immaculate production and classic Kendrick Lamar flows, Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers sounds fantastic, but the days of hitting the top of the rap charts with bangers like “LOYALTY” featuring Rihanna, or protest anthems like “Alright” are nowhere to be seen. It’s a personal album and one of his hardest to sit through. Even for many critics and fans who love him, it’s understandable that some don’t ever want to listen to a track like “We Cry Together” again–a brutal argument between him and his fiancée Whitney Alford (played by Zola‘s Taylour Paige) that’s more uncomfortable and divisive than the playful past of tracks like “For Free?”
The intensity is there, as presented in bombastic tracks like “N95” and “Count Me Out,” but there’s nary a “DNA” or “M.A.A.D. City” to feel that he’s still gunning for the top spot in hip-hop. He’s searching for self-healing, presenting himself as a flawed, mortal man, and in doing so he says a lot of… questionable things.
He talks about “f**king white b**ches” in his youth for “retaliation,” wondering if idols-turned-monsters like R. Kelly would have committed evils if they weren’t molested themselves, and questioning getting the Covid-19 vaccine after listening to prominent celebrity skeptics like NBA’s Kyrie Irving.
Lamar, famous for rapping in songs from the perspective of another character he is attempting to sympathize with, also frequently misgenders and drops the “f-bomb” on his family members in a track called “Auntie Diaries,” which centers around how he felt after both his aunt and cousin transitioned.
Two frequent guests on the record, Eckhart Tolle and Kodak Black, also raise eyebrows. Tolle, an author best known for writing 1997’s The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, plays the role of Kendrick’s therapist, while Kodak Black, a rapper with a past of sexual assault and rape allegations, plays a contemporary who Kendrick seems to see a lot of himself in.
“Like it when they pro-Black, but I’m more Kodak Black,” Kendrick Lamar states, later explaining on a track titled “Mother I Sober” that generational trauma has put many Black Americans where they are today. It’s nowhere near a controversial take, but it’s a little muddied when held up to figures like R. Kelly and Kodak Black, the latter of whom seems to be absolved in Kendrick’s eyes because of this.
Each song is not without purpose: Kendrick has come to accept his LGBTQ+ family members; he’s working past cancel culture to learn how to forgive (even if forgiveness comes a little too easy); he’s seeing a therapist to work on his infidelity and be there for his fiancée and two children; and he’s generally just trying to be the best man he can be in 2022. I’m happy for him, but it doesn’t always make for the best song material. He may be rapping over some of the most dense and enriching beats released this year so far, but his bars aren’t always so equally endowed.
Sure, Mr. Morale could have been more “We Major” and less 4:44–more of a victory lap and celebration of his rise to rap superstardom than an imperfect burst of thoughts–but that’s not what Kendrick Lamar has been feeling for the past five years, and we can’t really blame him for that. It’s certainly not what we as a country have been feeling for the past five years, and it only seems to be trending downward as the Supreme Court seeks to reverse Roe v. Wade (a move that would make over 50% of America second-class citizens).
After his stellar body of work at just 34 years old, Kendrick Lamar has nothing left to prove to us. He never had to follow up DAMN with Mr. Morale (a concept Rihanna’s fans need to get through their skulls), and on this album he means it when he says to stop looking at him to fix everything or be a voice for all of Black America.
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers has definitely done a lot more than Drake’s Certified Lover Boy, Future’s I Never Liked You, or Kanye West’s DONDA 2, however. And that’s not just to throw shade at his rivals and contemporaries at the end of the review, but to focus on how great records (even flawed ones at that), at least get people talking about the concepts at work more than “was that a good song or a bad song.” Only time will show its true impact, and I’ve already come back to 9-10 tracks of an edited-down version at least a dozen times since its release on Friday.
At the end of the day, hopefully this process was cathartic for Kendrick. I can only pray moving forward that this record creates a healthier relationship between his music and his fans’ expectations, but I know how the world works and so does Kendrick. They probably won’t let him be, even after he’s already given us so much.
“Sorry I didn’t save the world, my friend, I was too busy buildin’ mine again,” he says at the end of “Mirror,” the album’s closing track. “I choose me, I’m sorry.”
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