Tuesday 31 May 2022

Review of ‘Mr Morale & The Big Steppers’ by Kendrick Lamar

Mr Morale & The Big Steppers is a masterpiece – and quite possibly my favourite Kendrick album to date.

It feels like we’ve been waiting forever for a new Kendrick Lamar album. Like the fabled new Avatar movie, I started to wonder if it would ever drop. And if it did drop, would it be worth the wait? Would Kendrick still be relevant after all this time? Even if it has only been five years since Kendrick released DAMN, the hip hop landscape has shifted dramatically since then. Rappers have come and gone within that time (including pretty much the entire SoundCloud rap movement). It’s as if centuries have passed. 

But now the wait is over…THE NEW KENDRICK ALBUM IS HERE!!! And it turns out a lot of the rumours surrounding this record were wrong – it’s definitely not rock inspired and that whole 'Oklama alter ego' theory was a complete miss.  Like DAMN, this is another personal record with a lot of different sonic influences. Unlike DAMN, it takes this personal content to much more uncomfortable places and there’s very little pop appeal to any of the songs. It’s a much more daring album – definitely his most boundary-pushing work since To Pimp A Butterfly. But is it a better album than TPAB? Hot take alert: I think so.   

In terms of production and Kendrick’s delivery, this album is borderline flawless. ‘United in Grief’ is Kendrick’s best album opener to date (it surpasses even ‘Sherane’) for the simple fact that it hits us with so many surprises: the speedy rapping straight off the gate, the pianos taking a jazzy turn and those ballistic drums! At the same time, it’s not like Drake’s ‘Champagne Poetry’ in that it’s so good that it overshadows everything after. Kendrick’s dynamic ever-morphing delivery ensures that every track here sounds excitingly fresh. Never has K-dot sounded so angry as on ‘We Cry Together’ or as intimately vulnerable as on ‘Mother I Sober’ (more about those tracks in a moment…). He does a lot of serious emoting, while also contrasting this with kooky inflections as on ‘N65’ and cartoonish ad libs as on ‘Silent Hill’: ‘pushing these n****s off me like, hngggg’. This is accompanied by beats that are both experimental and addictive from the drumless pulsing suspense of ‘Worldwide Steppers’ to the 3.15.20-esque spacey synth-funk of ‘Mirror’.

Lyrically, it’s hard to know where to start with an album like this, as there’s so much to dissect. As mentioned earlier in this review, he takes us to some uncomfortable places – places that the likes of Pitchfork have been quick to dismiss as too ‘problematic’. There’s certainly a lot of swearing and slurring on this album, however it’s clear Kendrick is deliberately trying to explore the boundaries of this language. ‘We Cry Together’ is a rap duet between Kendrick and Taylour Paige that takes the form of a toxic couple arguing (it’s got to be one of the most creative hip hop tracks of the year). The ‘fuck’ count in this song is easily over 100, making it an uncomfortable-but-accurate representation of your average toxic couple rowing. It probably would have been deemed outrageous had it been released 20 years ago, and yet this is not the f-bomb that has sparked so much controversy. In ‘Auntie Diaries’, Kendrick uses the word ‘f****t’ 6 times as he tells his story of overcoming homophobia. He probably didn’t need to use it 6 times, but in doing so he deliberately shows us how offensive it is coming out the mouth of straight cis person in 2022 – and how many old-skool hip hop heads need to realise that, despite being once heavily used in hip hop by almost every rapper, the word is now the new n-word (and evidently more offensive than 100 fucks).

Of course, there’s more to Kendrick’s lyrics than expletives. He does lots of storytelling on this album, often revelling in contradictions and playing with gloomy metaphors as is the case with lines like ‘my last Christmas toy drive in Compton handed out eulogies’. While there are some lighter moments on the album, many of the tracks here explore heavy topics such as growing up with a cold-hearted father on ‘Father Time’ and growing up around abuse in ‘Mother I Sober’. He details how these experiences have not just moulded him, but how they have affected entire communities and generations around him. In doing so, it feels like he’s not just exploring his own issues but drawing attention to societal issues at large.  

That said, unlike previous Kendrick albums, this is definitely an album focused around trying to fix himself, rather than trying to fix society. Many diehard K-dot fans have long viewed the rapper as a messiah figure or ‘saviour’ because of his ability to shed light on social issues in the past, and he alludes to this by portraying himself as a Jesus-like figure on the front cover of the album. But instead of embracing this Jesus persona in a conceited way like Kanye, he seems determined to shake off these perceptions with this album by pointing out his flaws and admitting to his mistakes. He even concludes the album by letting us know that he too is ultimately selfish ‘I choose me, I’m sorry’. In this world of excessive virtue signalling in which everyone claims to be holier than thou, it’s refreshing to see a righteous artist like Kendrick owning up to making mistakes and admitting to flaws. If more of us took pride in fixing ourselves rather than pretending we always had perfect principles, we’d probably inspire more people to change their views.

MM&TBS personally feels like a big improvement from DAMN, which suffered from a few derivative ‘poppy’ moments. It’s certainly more creative musically and more challenging lyrically. And yet it doesn’t sacrifice replay value in the process as TPAB did with the slowly revealed poem and Tupac interview. This is everything I wanted from a Kendrick album. Okay, I could have done without him saying 'f****t' 6 times, but otherwise every track impressed me, which is rare for a double album. I doubt anything will beat this to the AOTY spot, but we’ll see!