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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 Guide, Features
Kendrick Lamar released his fifth studio album, “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers,” after five years of waiting. Here is a guide to the double album, including the features, Kodak Black, “Auntie Diaries,” his fiancé and kids, and the best bars.
vulture guides May 13, 2022
A Big Guide to Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers
By Justin Curto
Photo: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
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Kendrick Lamar albums are dense enough to merit dissertations. That’s once again the case on the rapper’s latest, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers. His fifth album and final for longtime label Top Dawg Entertainment comes after a five-year hiatus since his previous record, DAMN., which became the first non-classical or -jazz work to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Suffice to say, Lamar is one of the defining rappers of his generation — and on Mr. Morale, he returns to address his widest array of subjects yet, including trauma, sex, the pandemic, money, abuse, fatherhood, religion, gender identity, and more. (Maybe chalk it up to the therapist he’s been seeing, as he notes early in opening track “United in Grief.”) It’s a big album from a big rapper full of big topics, so you’ve probably got a lot of big questions. Here’s our big guide to Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers to help.
How long has this been in the works?
Well, it depends whom you ask. Days after releasing DAMN., Lamar was already talking about having new music — but that could very well have been songs for Black Panther or features. Thundercat, who co-wrote two tracks on the project, mentioned working on new music with Lamar in 2020. Also in 2020, Lamar talked to his cousin Baby Keem in an interview for i-D about new music, and spending “a whole year” thinking about his “new sound.” And 2020 was, of course, the year Lamar launched his “at-service” company, pgLang, which co-released Mr. Morale.
But while K.Dot was scheduled to headline big festivals like Glastonbury in 2020, fueling speculation about new music, the album couldn’t have been finished by that point. Mr. Morale gets extremely topical when it comes to the past few years, addressing the COVID-19 pandemic on songs like “N95” and “Savior.” “Mother I Sober” references Baby Keem’s song “Family Ties,” released in August 2021, and “Father Time” references Ye and Drake’s reunion concert, which took place in December 2021.
As for what Lamar himself says? “I’ve been going through something,” he declares at the outset of opening track “United in Grief. “One thousand eight hundred fifty-five days.” That’s five years and 30 days, or the precise amount of time since he released DAMN. on April 14, 2017. On “Worldwide Steppers,” he raps that he had “writer’s block for two years, nothing moved me” — adding an explanation for that long, long wait.
So is it a double album?
Yes. Details were few and far between before Lamar released Mr. Morale, but he did tease that it might be a double album when he posted a photo of two CDs to his website, oklama.com. Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers logs 18 tracks, the most stuffed album of Lamar’s career. (At 73 minutes, though, it’s shorter than 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which clocks in at 79 minutes.) And those songs are split into two sides (sorry, volumes), “Big Steppers” and “Mr. Morale,” as the photo teased. At first listen, the songs on “Big Steppers” sound more upbeat, touching on Lamar’s dating and relationships, while “Mr. Morale” gets darker, digging into family issues and abuse.
Who are the returning players?
When Lamar finds someone he likes to work with, he keeps them close. This album pulls together collaborators from across Lamar’s career, including:
➽ Sounwave: Produced 13 of Mr. Morale’s 18 tracks. Producer for Lamar since his mixtapes.
➽ J.LBS: Produced nine Mr. Morale songs. Previously produced “Cartoon & Cereal” and Baby Keem’s “Vent,” featuring Lamar.
➽ DJ Dahi: Produced five Mr. Morale songs, also contributed vocals on one. Previously produced “Money Trees” and five tracks off DAMN.
➽ Bekon: Produced five Mr. Morale tracks, also contributed vocals on two. Previously produced eight songs and contributed vocals to four songs on DAMN.
➽ Matt Schaeffer: Produced five Mr. Morale songs, as part of Beach Noise. Previously engineered “Humble,” mixed “Element,” and played guitar on “DNA” and “Feel.”
➽ Baby Keem: Featured on “Savior (Interlude)” and “Savior,” produced “N95” and “Die Hard,” played drums on “Die Hard.” Lamar previously featured on his songs “Family Ties,” “Range Brothers,” and “Vent.”
➽ Boi-1da: Produced “N95” and “Silent Hill.” Previously produced “The Blacker the Berry.”
➽ Thundercat: Co-wrote and played bass on “Die Hard” and “Mother I Sober.” Previously featured, produced, wrote, and played bass on To Pimp a Butterfly, untitled. unmastered., and DAMN.
➽ Pharrell: Produced “Mr. Morale.” Previously produced “good kid” and “Alright.”
➽ The Alchemist: Produced “We Cry Together.” Previously produced “Fear” and “The Heart Pt. 4.”
➽ DJ Khalil: Produced “Purple Hearts.” Previously produced “County Building Blues.”
➽ Blxst: Featured on “Die Hard.” Previously produced Hitta J3’s “Do Yo Gudda (Remix),” featuring Lamar.
Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Mr Morale & The Big Steppers’ Tracks Ranked – Billboard
Billboard ranks the tracks from Kendrick Lamar’s fifth studio album – his first in more than five years.
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Every Song Ranked on Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers’ Album: Critic’s Picks
Billboard ranks the tracks from Kendrick Lamar's fifth studio album – his first in more than five years.
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Kendrick Lamar Renell Medrano
, released Friday (May 13), is Compton wordsmith Kendrick Lamar’s momentous 18-track return to the rap spotlight after a five-year layoff.
Outside of a few guest appearances on cousin Baby Keem’s 2021 effort , fans have not heard much from the Pulitzer Prize winner since 2017’s . Precursor single “The Heart Pt. 5,” in which Lamar raps over a sample loop of Marvin Gaye’s 1976 single “I Want You,” came earlier this week (May 8) and gave fans a taste of the new record’s overarching concepts, themes and ideas.
Kendrick Lamar Addresses Drake and Ye's Reconciliation on 'Father Time': 'I Was Slightly Confused'
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Sporting guest appearances from Ghostface Killah, Kodak Black, Blxst, Sampha, Summer Walker and plenty more, the double-disc record clocks in at 73 minutes and sees Lamar stretch the creative boundaries of his artistry to reflect on fatherhood, faithfulness, materialism, generational curses and much more.
Below, ranks the tracks from Lamar’s long-awaited new effort. Read through for the full ranking.18. “Rich – Interlude”
The short piano-backed interlude contains an uncredited spoken word verse from Florida rapper Kodak Black, in which he discusses the obstacles he’s faced and overcame while coming up in the music industry. What he says is insightful, but the 1:43 interlude also has the least amount of “song” on the entire record.17. “Mr. Morale” (feat. Tanna Leone)
With Pharrell behind the boards and an intriguing guest spot by pgLang newcomer Tanna Leone, the record’s title track should’ve worked out better than it actually did. Kendrick rides the song’s futuristic bounce relatively well as he touches on themes of generational trauma and materialistic excess, but Leone’s lackluster energy and some convoluted production moments fail to make “Mr. Morale” truly stand out.16. “Die Hard” (feat. Blxst and Amanda Reifer)
The poppy “Die Hard” features singing contributions from all three of its vocalists, including rising Los Angeles artist Blxst and Barbados-born singer Amanda Reifer. Kendrick opens up about his hesitancy to be vulnerable to his partner, remarking: “If I told you who I am, would you use it against me?” The track is an easy and relatable listen, but it feels safe compared to where the rest of takes its listeners.15. “Savior – Interlude”
Fans who are well aware of Kendrick and Baby Keem’s family ties will find it hard not to smile when the 21-year-old pgLang rapper comes on for an uncredited two-minute bar-fest over luscious orchestral strings in “Savior – Interlude.” Painting the picture with the tumultuous family life that defined his rough upbringing, Keem brings listeners up to his present life of success, where he anoints himself a “new prophet” of the rap game. Yet, the trappings of his troubled childhood still follow him around today (“My uncle would tell me the shit in the movies could only be magic/ This year, I did 43 shows and took it all home to buy him a casket”).14. “Silent Hill (feat. Kodak Black)”
The subdued, ominous tone of “Silent Hill” provides ample space for Kendrick to slide over, putting up an infectious hook that might remind listeners of cousin Keem’s trademark vocal inflections. Kodak’s guest verse fits the vibe of the track incredibly well and even slightly outshines Kendrick’s own, matching its overall theme of all the stresses that come with being a successful artist.13. “Worldwide Steppers”
The third track on the record carries an urgency in its production that Kendrick matches with the bars, covering a wide range of topics that catches listeners up on his newfound fatherhood, a two-year writer’s block and past romantic encounters. Its beat is minimal but hypnotic, putting the spotlight on K. Dot’s compelling flows: “Playing ‘Baby Shark’ with my daughter/ Watching for sharks outside at the same time/ Life as a protective father, I’d kill for her.”12. “Purple Hearts” (with Summer Walker and Ghostface Killah)
With support from singer Summer Walker and Wu-Tang Clan legend Ghostface Killah, “Purple Hearts” directs attention to the theme of love as a healing component with the catchy refrain “Shut the f–k up when you hear love talking.” The track’s lush and grand production matches the smooth, relaxed vibe Kendrick and Summer put forth, and Ghostface’s iconic delivery in his spiritual-focused verse cuts through with great contrast: “This world’s in , this is the fifth dimension/ God, please blow the whistle, we need an intermission.”11. “Rich Spirit”
“Rich Spirit” is one of the record’s poppier efforts that works well, and is sold heavily through Kendrick’s seemingly effortless flows and braggadocious rhymes. The Sounwave- and Dahi-produced beat carries a smooth bounce to it, matching Kendrick’s cool, calm and collected demeanor throughout. In between verses, he begs naysayers and doubters to steer clear from his path: “Stop playing with me before I turn you to a song.”