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Kendrick Lamar: Mr Morale & the Big Steppers review – rap genius bares heart, soul and mind
After a five-year hiatus, the Pulitzer winner returns with an exhilarating hip-hop feast that ties personal pain to collective trauma – and lets no one off the hook
Kendrick Lamar: Mr Morale & the Big Steppers review – rap genius bares heart, soul and mind
After a five-year hiatus, the Pulitzer winner returns with an exhilarating epic that ties personal pain to collective trauma – and lets no one off the hook
Fri 13 May 2022 15.52 BST
s Kendrick Lamar notes on Mr Morale & the Big Steppers’ opening track, it’s been 1,855 days since he last released an album. By his own account, the intervening five years have been something of a rollercoaster ride. He and his partner started a family (his children are on the album’s front cover), he made an acclaimed acting debut, performed at the first ever Super Bowl half-time show centred around hip-hop, and watched as the praise for his work shifted into an unprecedented realm. He won the Pulitzer prize for music, becoming not just the first rapper but the first pop artist period to receive the award.
As Mr Morale & the Big Steppers makes clear, he also struggled with his mental health, sought therapy and endured a two-year stretch of writer’s block – cured, he suggests, when he “asked God to speak through me”.
Clearly his prayers were answered in no uncertain terms: on the evidence here, the block ended like a dam bursting. The album is 18 tracks and nearly 75 minutes long. Anyone who learned to be wary of rappers who confused quantity with quality in the CD era, when every hip-hop album came stretched out to a disc’s maximum playing time, should note that there isn’t a moment of padding here.
Mr Morale & the Big Steppers is absolutely crammed with lyrical and musical ideas. Its opening tracks don’t so much play as teem, cutting frantically from one style to another – staccato piano chords and backwards drums; a frantic, jazzy loop with a bass drum that recalls a racing heartbeat; a mass of sampled voices; thick 80s-film-soundtrack synth and trap beats. On Worldwide Steppers, Lamar’s words rattle out at such a pace that they threaten to race ahead of the backing track, a muffled, dense, relentless loop of Nigerian afro-rock band the Funkees that suddenly switches to a burst of laidback 70s soul and back again.
On N95, the tone of his delivery changes so dramatically and so often that it sounds less like the work of one man than a series of guest appearances. When it comes to actual guest appearances, it casts its net wide – Ghostface Killah, Sampha, Summer Walker, the singer from Barbadian pop band Cover Drive – and occasionally delights in some unlikely juxtapositions. One interlude features a string quartet and 74-year-old German self-help author Eckhart Tolle discussing the perils of a victim mentality alongside Lamar’s cousin, rapper Baby Keem, whose concerns are more earthy: “White panties and minimal condoms”.
The album keeps executing similar tonal handbrake turns, from deeply troubled to lovestruck and from furious to laugh-out-loud funny, the latter switch covered by We Cry Together, an ill-tempered duet with actor Taylour Paige that drags everything from the rise of Donald Trump and the crimes of Harvey Weinstein to the question of why “R&B bitches don’t feature on each other’s songs” into a heated domestic dispute. Even by hip-hop standards, there’s a quite phenomenal amount of swearing involved: no one has made more creative capital out of two people telling each other to fuck off since Peter Cook and Dudley Moore reinvented themselves as Derek and Clive.
Lamar’s lyrical skill is prodigious enough to make gripping rhymes from some very well-worn topics: fake news, the projection of false lifestyles via social media, the pressures of fame. But more notable still is his willingness to take risks.
Auntie Diaries, a lengthy, heartfelt lobbying on behalf of the trans community, is new territory for mainstream hip-hop. It confesses Lamar’s past homophobia and lashes out at the church and his fellow rappers in dextrous, convincing style. On Savior, he upbraids pop’s censorious moral climate as an unthinking exercise in liberal box-ticking. Elsewhere, the track turns its ire not merely on white people glomming on to the Black Lives Matter movement (“one protest for you, 365 for me”), but the black community and indeed himself.
Kendrick Lamar performing in 2018. Photograph: Theo Wargo/WireImage
He employs Kodak Black, a rapper whose lengthy legal issues include pleading guilty to assault and battery. This guest spot will be seen by some as an ethical failing but Lamar seems uninterested in moral purity, and more in how environment and other factors shape behaviour. Tellingly, the next track begins with Tolle: “Let’s say bad things were done to you when you were a child, and you develop a sense of self that is based on the bad things that happened to you…”
He saves the album’s most shattering moment until the end. Mother I Sober offers a devastating series of verses that draw together slavery and sexual abuse, and deal unflinchingly with a sexual assault experienced by his mother and an episode in which a young Lamar, being questioned by his family, denied that a cousin had abused him. He was not lying but the disbelief that greeted his answer, he suggests, led to feelings of inadequacy that left him “chasing manhood” and nearly losing his partner in the process. It’s difficult but compelling listening, held together by a fragile chorus sung by Portishead’s Beth Gibbons.
Kendrick Lamar – 'Mr Morale & The Big Steppers': the NME review
The rapper overcomes "writer's block" to triumph with a collection on which his observational skills go into overdrive
Kendrick Lamar – ‘Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers’ review: a cathartic, soul-baring autobiography
The rapper's first album in five years sees him overcome "writer's block" to triumph with a collection on which his observational skills go into overdrive
By Kyann-Sian Williams
13th May 2022
Credit: Renell Medrano
Over the last five years, since his last album, the Pulitzer Award-winning ‘DAMN’, Kendrick Lamar has been missed by the rap world. Revered for his vivid storytelling since his emergence in 2011, Kendrick has become a reference for all in the rap game on how to make seminal music and how to carry yourself while doing it. The man of mystique’s elaborate imagination is what has drawn us in year on year – and on his new double album, ‘Mr Morale & The Big Steppers’, he serves up two nine-track discs of contemporary philosophy and fun.
Every Kendrick Lamar album has had a theme: 2011’s ‘Section 8.0’ saw him tackle systemic racism; 2012’s ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ was Kendrick relaying his childhood; 2015’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ was Kenny rebelling and empowering his community (be that Black people or Compton residents); and 2017’s ‘DAMN’ was all about Kendrick battling internal and external battles as Kung-Fu Kenny. Here, Oklama – Kendrick’s latest form – excavates societal and communal issues within the black community.
On the surface of his latest record, Kendrick Lamar comes off as a sort of hood messiah. Just look at the thorny crown he sports on the artwork, the endless prophetic verses about change or, most explicitly, when he describes himself as on ‘Rich Spirit’. But on ‘Savior’, which features his younger cousin Baby Keem, he reminds the world that he’s not perfect enough to be seen this way: . On this choppy tune, Kendrick grapples with cancel culture, and capitalism and COVID: “Seen a Christian say the vaccine mark of the beast / Then he caught COVID and prayed to Pfizer for relief.”
The penultimate track, ‘Mother I Sober’, featuring Beth Gibbons of Portishead, finds him playing with the messiah concept once more. Peeling back the layers of his family life, he truly tries to free himself, his family and others of their trauma. Telling the dark tale of his own mother’s sexual assault and the overarching systemic weight Black people have to carry, the track pulls at the heartstrings of any Black person listening. It is an emotional experience between Lamar and his community.
As with ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, Kendrick taps into his knockout theatrical skills here. On ‘Auntie Diaries’, he opens up about coming to terms with his auntie being transgender, embodying the immature attitude he had about everything as a child. As he questionably throws around the F-word, as he used it then, ‘Auntie Diaries’ is a polarising track – but an important one on this album.
But it’s not all serious. On the first disc, ‘The Big Steppers’ definitely has fun. Take ‘N95’, the most high-octane track on the album, on which we get a plethora of zippy one-liners and humour, which you might not expect sandwiched between piercing commentary on materialism and society: . He might be a mature 34-year-old man, but it’s still good for Kendrick to cut loose and have some fun between the philosophising – particularly since, atop a muffled, ‘90s-style instrumental on ‘Worldwide Steppers’, he reveals that he had and that he .
Overall, ‘Mr Morale & The Big Steppers’ might exude a moodier, more melancholic sound than Kendrick’s previous albums, but there are other pop gems on the record too. ‘Count Me Out’, for example, sees Lamar utilise his understated melodic rap tone over dark guitar gargles. Sometimes he splits the difference between the two moods: ‘Die Hard’ might be a redemptive track about it never being too late to right wrongs and chase your dreams, but the clinks of cowbells in the background remind you of chinking glasses in the summertime.
The Kodak Black-assisted ‘Silent Hill’, too, sees Kendrick draw on Keem’s loose rap style to have some fun, as he relays a lyrically simple tale about how his life is now. The refrain harnesses that animated Kendrick voice we all love, as he’s .
At the same time, though, ‘Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers’ is a record outlining the Black plight and is created for his community. In this sense, it’s one of the deepest cuts we’ve had from Kendrick. While ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ showed the world what it’s like to grow up as a kid in Compton, his fifth album serves up vignettes about what it’s like to be a Black adult whose trauma still haunts them. In laying his soul bare, he hopes we realise how we can set ourselves free from generational curses too. This album is as much about struggle as it is freedom, and what a beautiful sentiment that is.
Release date: May 13Record label: PgLang / Top Dawg Entertainment / Aftermath / Interscope Records
Related Topics Kendrick Lamar Pop Rap
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First Impressions Review of Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers
It’s far too soon to have a fully-formed, rock solid opinion about an album as complex as ‘Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers,’ but here are first-listen thoughts.
First Impressions of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers’
BY JORDAN ROSE, ANDRE GEE, JESSICA MCKINNEY, ERIC SKELTON
May 13, 2022
Image via TDE
Let’s start by stating the obvious: It’s far too soon to have a fully-formed, rock solid opinion about an album as complex as Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers.
Kendrick fills his songs with so much symbolism and nuance that it takes a long time to fully absorb the music, so we will wait to publish an in-depth review of the album at a later date. With that being said, first-listen thoughts are an integral part of the listening experience. Over time, opinions change and evolve, but there’s something special about the first time that new music hits your ears. With that in mind, the Complex Music team wrote down some of our first-listen thoughts about the album. We’ll be publishing more analysis in the days and weeks to come (and you can read a breakdown of the album’s major themes here) but for now, here’s how the music hit us within the first 24 hours.
Standout song?Andre: There’s no way I can choose a singular favorite right now, but I’ll say “Count Me Out” because it’s my favorite mesh of production, melody, and lyrical substance. It’s deeply self-reflective. Also, “I care too much, wanna share too much, in my head too much”? Relatable.Jordan: “Father Time” is really important to me. I don’t know if it’s the “best song” per se, or even my favorite, but the subject matter is weighing heavy on my mind. As someone who comes from a place where therapy was not normalized because of the stigmas he’s talking about, this track really hit home. From Kendrick’s fiancée urging him to try therapy, to the way he explains how his upbringing influenced the way he viewed vulnerability, everything about the song blindsided me. I can’t stop thinking about it.Jessica: “N95” is one of the more hype tracks on the album and easily the most digestible. Kendrick is masterful at evoking different personas and vocals in order to capture a full story. Plus he’s just really spitting here.Eric: “Father Time” on disc one and “Savior” on disc two. “Father Time” is gorgeous (those Sampha vocals are perfect) and Kendrick delivers two brutally honest, soul-baring verses. On disc two, “Savior” holds one of the keys to understanding this whole album, as Kendrick pushes against the idea that he (and other celebrities) are saviors, while he works through his own flaws. He points out that other artists “bite their tongues in rap lyrics” and are “scared to be crucified about a song,” but he’s committed to be honest in his music, unafraid of how the public will receive it.
A song you’ll skip?Andre: “We Cry Together.” It might have my favorite beat on the album, and it’s not a bad song in a vacuum, but it’s such an intense listen that I’m not going to be able to do it during every play-through.Jordan: I’m not listening to “We Cry Together” again. It’s not a bad song, and Taylour Paige really killed it with her performance, but I don’t need to be teleported to that very real and very destructive space a second time.Jessica: I can’t bear to listen to “We Cry Together” again. The contrast of Kendrick and Taylour Paige’s voice was unbalanced and the argument gave me flashbacks to Malcolm and Marie.Eric: I don’t want to skip any of these songs yet. When it comes to pure replay value, obviously “We Cry Together” isn’t a song I’ll want to play every day, so I’m sure it’ll be getting skips in the future, but it’s one of the most emotionally-charged, affecting songs of the year so far and I’m glad it’s on the album.
Favorite thing about the album?Andre: Music critic Charles Holmes recently made an astute point about how he felt some of the year’s recent albums represent an archaic “here’s the radio record, this one is for the ladies, and this is for the streets” formula in which artists and labels attempt to pander to every demographic, but ultimately don’t keep anyone engaged for the length of a project.
I think the genius of Mr. Morale, like many Kendrick albums, is that instead of trying to cover every demographic base, he covers a lot of thematic bases. He has songs, or at least verses, about fatherhood, domestic abuse, substance abuse, therapy, infidelity, spirituality, homophobia, not wanting to be a role model, and so many others. Almost everyone who listens to this is going to have something they deeply resonate with. The whole project reads as a diary entry, and so many of the themes intersect as he tells his story. He’s clearly been doing a lot of reflection over the past five years.Jordan: It takes a lot of bravery to be as honest as Kendrick is on this album. He’s always been great at stringing together personal stories and balancing them with well-crafted bars and production, but this album reveals a new emotional maturity that can only be reached by looking at the ugliest parts of yourself and your upbringing. I don’t think we give artists enough credit for baring their souls for millions of people to scrutinize. I understand that it’s a part of their job, but when someone shares art that’s as deeply personal as this is, it deserves to be treated with a different level of care. As someone who knows how challenging it is to take that first step toward therapy, I commend him for sharing so much on such a big stage. I also love the intentional easter eggs layered throughout this project, like the tap dancing that reflects him “dancing around the subject” on certain songs (which his wife thankfully spells out for us at the end of “We Cry Together”) and the way it slowly fades away as we enter the Mr. Morale side of the album, because by that point he has shed self-doubt and is being more direct.
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