Ah… I never thought that someday I would eventually review an album from an artist that’s this widely celebrated. A rapper that’s always in the conversation if you’re talking your personal top 5 and probably some people’s gateway into hip-hop as a whole growing up. Yes, folks, we’re talking Kendrick Lamar.
In the 2010s, the man garnered so much critical and commercial acclaim in many ways from the start: his debut Section .80, the starter Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, the widely acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly and the other critically acclaimed but more commercially successful DAMN. We have waited 5 years since then, as he’s finally graced us with his presence again recently with his two features on his cousin Baby Keem’s record The Melodic Blue (that being “Family Ties” and “Range Brothers” – TOP O’ THE MORNING!!), his 5th entry of The Heart series (aka them damn deep fakes!) and now following that… his 5th album Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers.
This highly anticipated album got a lot of people questioning what sound Kendrick would go for this time around. It was rumored that it would move into a rock direction, and there hadn’t been any singles going in prior to this. Plus, it is a double album, 9 tracks for each disc, clocking in 73 minutes.
Now I know that going into a Kendrick album (actually, any album to be honest), I really need to pay attention to what’s going on and do some repeat listens. The question now is… did it STEP UP?
Well… you know how there’s already a lot of reviews, thinkpieces, threads, etc. about how they interpreted the album and it’s themes and all that? This is going to be about 20% of that and the rest is how I do it in a review, so here goes.
There isn’t a shortage of content that opens our eyes in what we experience in the black community like abuse, toxic relationships, generational/childhood trauma, homophobia, transphobia and there’s also Kendrick trying to paint himself as human and not the artist and/or savior all of us want him to be. “United in Grief” got the issues of pressures of fame, spanning over a near two decade career with spending habits, real estate, therapy. etc.
The new Mercedes with black G-Wagon
The way you front, it was all for rap
I was 28 years young, twenty mill’ in tax
Bought a couple of mansions, just for practice
Five hundred in jewelry, chain was magic
Never had it in public, late reaction
Fifty K to cousins, post a caption
Pray none of my enemies hold me captive
There’s also “N95” and yes, that’s a reference to those face masks people wear as he makes some reference of taking it off (not just a mask but a bunch of stuff). “Worldwide Steppers” focuses on him, his fatherhood, religion and spirituality, infidelity and lust, holding himself accountable for having sex with white girls twice, one time being on his good kid, m.A.A.d city tour. I did like the touch of adding the audio from that one meme (the one that goes “Ay, yo, what the fuck?!”)
The next tracks, “Die Hard” feat. Blxst and Amanda Reifer, and “Father Time” both delve into relationships. The former is about opening up yourself, being honest with yourself and your loved ones, and having doubts whether if you’ll be loved if that happens, while the latter is the long-term toxic masculinity passed down from generation to generation, whether it be from the father or someone as a father figure. I have to say I’m so glad he got Sampha out of another dimension or wherever he is to do the chorus for this. We still need that album, Sampha!
Then we come to one of the most talked about songs of the album, “We Cry Together” feat, Taylour Paige. The song is basically a couple having a really ugly fight, Just imagine your parents arguing all night as you sleep when you were young but add an Alchemist beat to it. Speaking of Alchemist, this beat might be my favorite of the whole joint, almost sounds like anything the Griselda crew would rap on and makes me wish for an instrumental, although the closest to that is the clean version of it, which sounds like them doing ad-libs. Short version, uncensored version is the one that makes you contemplate and the censored version is basically meme material. Don’t believe me? Check TikTok.
The chorus is made up of “Fuck You, Nigga!” or “Fuck You, Bitch!” and that censored sounds hilarious rather than traumatic. There’s also some lines with Taylour Paige about how men like you are the reason for Harvey Weinstein and R. Kelly and then they smash… no, really, the ending is them smashing cheeks. Then comes some whiplash with “Purple Hearts”, a song about love, spirituality and drugs. It’s very sensual, romantic-sounding and you’ll hear Summer Walker say this:
It ain’t love if you gon’ judge me for my past
No, it ain’t love if you ain’t never eat my ass
Also, we got a Ghostface Killah appearance, capping off the song and it reminded me of when he was doing that Ghostdini project a long time ago. It’s fitting stuff…
…now we go to part 2!
It begins with “Count Me Out” with him calling out a person of his past for making him feel miserable, and “Crown” is about how people look as Kendrick as a savior, a leader but he knows that he isn’t going to please everyone.
Speaking of not pleasing everyone…
Yeah, you noticed one element that I’ve kept off until now? We need to talk about Kodak Black.
He has appeared in some speaking segments in the beginning of “Worldwide Steppers” and “Rich (Interlude)” and in the latter, he discusses his struggles in the rap industry. That might be fine except publicly we know about Kodak and his legal troubles, most of them being SA cases, and he doesn’t show remorse about it or even mention it. Plus, he’s just not a good rapper with his nasally flow and delivery that puts me off the song. Oh, and he’s on the next track “Silent Hill” where you get this melodic trap beat, which is a beat Kodak often works with and despite Kodak being on there, the track is fine but I can do without him.
With “Savior” on the other hand, we get Baby Keem on the track and Sam Dew on vocals, as well as the three combined with Baby Keem on the interlude of the song before it officially starts. While I wasn’t too keen on his debut, he does well here with the orchestra sounds backing him. The official song starts off reminding us that the rappers and public figures that we look up to… well, they’re not your savior. They’re not going to solve everything for you. Plus, there’s this bar:
Seen a Christian say the vaccine mark of the beast
Then he caught COVID and prayed to Pfizer for relief
Then I caught COVID and started to question Kyrie
Will I stay organic or hurt in this bed for two weeks? (You really wanna know?)
And then there’s “Auntie Diaries”…
In the song, he recollects a story about his transgender uncle and cousin, going over issues of societal and religious views of gay and trans individuals. I’ll say this: this does come from a well-intentioned view, trying to educate himself on this issue and learning to better himself around it and this is coming from me… sometimes we as black people can be homophobic and transphobic, and we sometimes need to better ourselves regarding that with trans people, especially since black LGBTQIA people, are often in the most danger due to this messed-up society. Then you used a gay slur numerous times and deadnaming and misgendering his trans relatives and he mentions that time he got a white woman on stage at the Alabama Hangout and sang “m.A.A.d. city” with her and of course, she says the N-word in comparison of that.
I get that it’s part of showing his ignorance back then, and we know art can be uncomfortable, but I don’t know if it was the right move, and if some people didn’t vibe with that part, I get it. I know it’s not coming from a place of hatred but it is more of a fumble on his move and it’s a shame considering there’s things I liked about that song from the production as I liked that it builds up from beginning to end. I got a feeling that people, mostly straight people, might sing along this song and would not get it.
The title track (sorta) with “Mr. Morale” covers generational trauma, excess and its own vices (especially abuse), referencing Oprah and R. Kelly, once again. It continues with the following track “Mother I Sober” with vocals from Beth Gibbons of Portishead, opening up about his upbringing and trauma, and later on he talks about his mother’s experience with sexual abuse and her fear that he might experience it.
They raped our mothers, then they raped our sisters
Then they made us watch, then made us rape each other
Psychotic torture between our lives we ain’t recovered
Still livin’ as victims in the public eyes who pledge allegiance
Every other brother has been compromised
I know the secrets, every other rapper sexually abused
I see ’em daily buryin’ they pain in chains and tattoos
So listen close before you start to pass judgement on how we move
Learn how we cope, whenever his uncle had to walk him from school
We cap off the album with “Mirror,” where he goes on about the dichotomy of living selfishly despite his humble image as he chooses himself over the fame, and it’s mostly a fitting way to end the album.
OK, I went off long here and I conclude with this: the album does tackle a lot of content that goes deep, although it’s not unusual for hip-hop to do this as lately, records from IDK to Denzel Curry have done this, and I’m glad that hip-hop is starting to go in depth with mental health in their songs. In Kendrick’s case, his is more of a mainstream record than the ones I just mentioned so it might reach more people. It probably won’t be anything that’s Top 40 material like his previous album but I’ll take it. Production-wise, there are some interesting choices that has many variations of free & psychedelic jazz, funk, trap, blues, quiet storm among others with production from J.Lbs, DJ Dahi, Bekon and Sounwave on the majority of the album as well as Beach Noise, who produced The Heart Part 5 prior to the album dropping. I mentioned the Alchemist earlier producing “We Cry Together,” and I like the sample he got with Florence and the Machine with their song “June”. Other producers on here include Pharrell Williams on “Mr. Morale”, Boi-1da on “N95”, Tae Beast on “Worldwide Steppers” and some other songwriting contributions from Sam Dew, Thundercat on bass on “Die Hard” and “Mother I Sober” and some narration done by Eckhart Tolle, a German self-help spiritual author, who has been mentioned a few times in the album.
I’d say that this album is quite the feat, with ideas that are executed well with very polarizing results on how he does it, and I still like that he went with some different sounds that isn’t too monotonous, which makes it a step better than DAMN. to be honest. Nothing wrong with that album, mind you but I think the production here varies more interest to me than that one. If this is how he delivers his final album with TDE, then he went out swinging.
FINAL VERDICT: BUY IT. Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers stepped up…. even if they’re some rocks on the way there.
MR. MORALE AND THE BIG STEPPERS is on pgLang/Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope Records and is available on digital download and streaming services.