Kendrick Lamar has finally released his long-awaited new album Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers– his follow up to 2017’s Pulitzer Prize winning Damn. Mr. Morale is an excruciatingly personal album, perhaps Lamar’s most personal one to date. While it’s not quite as experimental as To Pimp a Butterfly and doesn’t even attempt to feature anything remotely radio friendly, this album is an absolute knockout. In the five years since his last album, Kendrick makes it clear that he’s been through a lot.
Mr. Morale takes us through Kendrick’s journey towards healing- tackling a range of topics from personal insecurities, lifelong trauma, struggles with fame, cancel culture, and transphobia. It’s not always easy to listen to- we’re talking some heavy topics here, but Lamar’s delivery and each track’s unique production make it a pleasure to return to over and over.
In a way, a big theme of this album is the fact that he “can’t please everybody,” which Lamar repeats on album track “Crown”. He criticizes the worship of celebrity and yet knows that he too is a prominent figure and recognizes the pressure that his status has placed on him. Instead of crumbling underneath the pressure, he chooses to push through and offers up more of himself along the way.
“Rich Spirit” is an automatic album standout- instantly catchy and has a great replay value. On the track, he talks about his personal struggle with balancing spirituality and the material gain that his status has afforded him as well as morality and the idolization of celebrity. “Can’t fuck with you no more, I’m fastin,'” he says on the chorus, referring to the distractions and technology that he has tried to shift his mind away from in the five years since we’d seen him. He’s trying to focus on what’s important- going without a phone and social media despite the fact that he has plenty of money to provide himself with it. The production is sleek, and his flow is smooth over the rich production.
On “N95”, Kendrick uses his talent as a wordsmith to criticize the government’s inconsistencies of handling the pandemic while also encouraging us to all strip away the material distractions that shift our focus away from what matters. “Take off the Chanel, take off the Dolce, take off the Birkin bag, take all that designer bullshit off, and what do you have,” Lamar questions the significance that we as a society have misplaced in these material goods on the first verse. Between his style and the incredible switch ups in his delivery throughout the song- “N95” is certainly the most high-octane track on the album.
“Father Time” is a powerful track that finds Kendrick unpacking a lot of his trauma from his childhood that have had a detrimental impact on his relationships throughout his life. Here he targets the toxic masculinity that has been passed down from generation to generation through his family, specifically from his own father who instilled a lot of these outdated beliefs in him. “And to my partners that figured it out without a father, I salute you, may your blessings be neutral to your toddlers, it’s crucial, they can’t stop us if we see the mistakes, ’til then, let’s give the women a break, grown men with daddy issues,” he gives his male listeners a stern message- asking us all to try to break the endless wheel of toxic masculinity and daddy issues that have continued to plague the women in our lives. It’s a topic not often discussed by most men- let alone in Hip Hop and I sincerely hope that the importance of this message is not lost on his listeners.
There’s a significance and a purpose to every word Kendrick writes- bleeding himself out and leaving himself raw with every track as he makes it clear that he may not be everything that we all believed him to be. The album’s artwork and accompanying music video feature a plethora of religious imagery, even so far as the album cover with his crown of thorns- placed upon Jesus before his crucifixion. He’s reminding us all that he is just a man, with his child in his arms and fiancée Whitney Alford holding their newborn in the background. It’s poignant and vulnerable- a perfect juxtaposition for the album to come.
If the album is a journey towards healing, taking us through multiple stages- “Mother I Sober” is the moment of realization- the moment he wakes up and takes in the fact that he’s no longer the sole focus of his life. He tells us of the generational trauma that has plagued his family, starting with his mother and working his way down towards his own before his utter refusal to let it impact his own children. His delivery is at first guarded, a mere mumble and yet as he continues to open up, his delivery becomes clearer as he accepts the fact that his past was never in his control. “You did it, I’m proud of you. You broke a generational curse. Say ‘thank you, dad’,” Whitney’s voice gives him the acknowledgment that he so wishes for in the end- freeing him of this guilt that has consumed him for so long.
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers isn’t an easy listen- it leaves you in its wake contemplating everything you’ve just taken in. In fact, after listening to it in full about 7 or 8 times now, I still don’t feel qualified enough to truly speak on it. It’s gorgeous, it’s uncomfortable and it’s the kind of music that benefits you with each subsequent listen.
Thank you, Kendrick.
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is out now on all streaming platforms!