Well… what to say about this monstrous album that hasn’t already been said and analyzed to shreds, eh? Kendrick Lamar has finally released his 5th studio album, 5 years after his Pulitzer-winning work DAMN. Can’t lie, it feels great and still slightly surreal that Kendrick has dropped, as with every album. I’ve been a fan of his since 2011’s Section. 80, which was a jazzy, introspective body of work that gave us an insight into his life, state of mind, as well well as thoughts on the state of the world and how certain situations impact his community back home directly. For a 24 year old (at the time) to release an album with such heavy and mature subject matter is just surreal to me, and an early indication of his genius. Since then obviously, he’s released two classic albums in 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly (the latter of which is one of the most musically and thematically dense albums I’ve ever listened to), an EP / B-side project in 2016 titled Untitled Unmastered that was better than most hip-hop albums that came out that year, and 2017’s DAMN, a more radio-friendly album that is equally as captivating and memorable as his previous works. This is the longest we’ve had to wait in between albums, and boy was it worth it. Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is a double album of 9 tracks each (so 18 in total), including some of his most personal, vulnerable and beautiful tracks he’s ever written. As with every Kendrick album, it has taken multiple listens to truly appreciate what he’s saying, and after listening to it again and again, I absolutely love it, and wanted to share a few thoughts of mine on the album.
Firstly, themes – the album is basically a therapy session between Kendrick and Eckhart Tolle, a spiritual teacher and author of books such as The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment and A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about the author to confidently theorize about the meaning of him being on the album, but it does hold some significance, as Kendrick to me is trying to reach a level of spiritual peace, and having someone to guide him through his thoughts is important for him to keep a sense of clarity throughout the album. The interesting thing about the album is how contradictory it can be. Getting Kodak Black to feature on and narrate parts of the album, (having been accused multiple times of sexual assault and battery), while simultaneously encouraging men to ‘give the women a break” on the beautiful standout “Father Time” with Sampha, was slightly strange. He reminds everyone that he and other celebrities aren’t saviors on the incredibly catchy “Savior” with Baby Keem and Sam Dew while simultaneously claiming that he’s writing through God and posing with a crown of thorns on the album cover (and a gun in his back pocket) as if he’s sacrificing himself for the betterment of society as a whole. I definitely think this is intentional, and to be honest it’s what I love about him. Human beings by nature are contradictions, and he personifies that within his music. It confuses a lot of people, but I think that’s the whole point. He blasts against cancel culture on the incredible “N95”, and talks attempts to create a pro-trans track with “Auntie Diaries” while dropping the f-bomb like 20 times throughout. It’s things like this that make people raise their eyebrows, but it creates valuable dialogue. He’s not above criticism at all, and I think it’s healthy to have these difficult discussions about some of the things and topics he’s covering on the project. His imperfections and revelations about himself are on full display throughout this double album, and it may be his most vulnerable and personal album yet.
The way it kicks off with “United in Grief” is just sublime. It may be my favourite opener to a Kendrick album. The gorgeous piano keys (shoutout to Duval Timothy!), complemented by Kendrick’s choppy flow, with that intense beat switch and the textured and layers of the track are just so mesmerising to me. Kendrick is a master at using space within beats. What I mean is, every bar, every flow, every verse is constructed in a way to bring the absolute maximum out of it. Kendrick’s music has never felt lazy, and the way he is able to bring that energy on this opener is just perfect to me. “Worldwide Steppers” is another highlight. The pulsating beat and groove to the track, his eclectic, monotonous flow, that random beat switch, and some of the lyrics are exceptional. “Photoshoppin’ lies and motives / Hide your eyes, then pose for the pic'” is a lyric that has stuck with me. It’s such a vivid bar about our society’s need for public validation, something that is often masked by lies just to make our lives seem better than they are to others out there while hiding our true reality from the world. Like on “N95” where he tells everyone to take off all the materialistic shit we’ve been used to in order to get closer to our truth, it seems to me like he’s really pushing this narrative of being the truest, most authentic version of yourself, as that’s the only real vessel for love and healing. We tend to mask our own insecurities with things we don’t need, only to avoid dealing with the truth. This brings me to my next point and theory – the album title. To me, Mr. Morale represents the egotistical, often blind version of ourselves that creates a worldview dictated by our own insecurities, and masks that with a corrupt ‘morality’ that is only self-serving. The big steppers are those who like to avoid difficult conversations. Basically, this album confronts Kendrick’s insecurities and imperfections via a therapy session that sees us, the listener, judging him and his own state of mind (Mr. Morale in full effect). On the Alchemist-produced domestic argument “We Cry Together” with Taylour Paige (who absolutely kills it by the way), Whitney Alford (Kendrick’s wife) states “Stop tap-dancing around the conversation”, a poignant line about the importance of confronting your own truth head-on. “Purple Hearts” featuring Summer Walker and Ghostface Killah (who has my favourite feature on the entire album) is a track that asks you to “shut the fuck up when you hear love talking”, a fitting and uplifting closer to the heavy subject matter explored in throughout the album up until this point.
The second disc is the one that sees him confront everything head-on, and finally stops tap dancing around the issues. It’s a revealing disc, starting off with the beautifully melodic “Count Me Out”, where he calls out someone who has always counted him out and questioned his motives and ways of life. The piano-led “Crown” is hypnotic, and reminds everyone that he can’t please everybody, conflicting with the messiah-like figure everyone seems to portray him as. It seems like he’s liberating himself through all expectations on this track, and his unique, spoken word-like flow is mesmerizing. All of this leads and climaxes on the magnum opus of the entire project “Mother I Sober” with Beth Gibbons of Portishead. I still shed a tear listening to this track, it’s so moving and so profound that I can’t separate myself from Kendrick’s pain and trauma. From his family believing that his cousin touched him when he didn’t, to revealing more about the abuse his mother experienced and the subsequent trauma she had, to him admitting he had an addiction sleeping around with other women – it’s so powerful yet heavy to process. Beth Gibbons’ vocals are as perfect as I expected, and the eerie piano-led piece is haunting. As the track builds and grows in the third verse with the strings and Kendrick’s more animated voice, the record really takes off. “So listen close before you start to pass judgement on how we move / Learn how we cope” is such an important reminder about the importance of empathy and our need to show love and understanding to people around us. “Mirror” champions the idea of choosing you for you, as he apologises openly for choosing to be himself and not the image people want to portray him as. It’s a triumphant yet heartfelt closer that sees him conclude his therapy session with clarity.
Combined with the warm, piano-led and colourful sonic tapestry throughout the 18 tracks of the album, Kendrick Lamar finally finds (dis)comfort in sharing his biggest vulnerabilities, while staying true to himself, however contradicting that may be to others. By the end of the ‘therapy session’, it feels like he’s finally broken free from the shackles of everyone’s expectations. Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is a transcendent album in Kendrick’s discography, and a fitting closing statement for TDE. Go listen it and support!