Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers’ – a first-listen review
Like Kendrick's last three albums, there's a lot to unpack on this new album and repeated listens are necessary to do so. This is a first-listen review.
Kendrick Lamar is just built different. After five long years without a new album and lengthy periods of silence, he announced in late April that his new album Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers would be out in less than a month. He didn't put out any pre-release singles, he didn't do any interviews about it, and he kept his social media presence minimal. And then, just days before the album was released, he dropped "The Heart Part 5," the latest in his series of non-album tracks that usually come out before the release of a new album. "The Heart Part 5" isn't on Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, but it did set the stage for it. Over a lively Marvin Gaye sample, he ruminates about how his perspective on life has changed over time and the various forms of tragedy and trauma that accompany the life of so many Black men, and it all leads up to a final verse where he raps from the perspective of the late Nipsey Hussle. It's a stunning, remarkable track that suggested the start of a new era for Kendrick, and Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers makes very, very good on that suggestion.
Kendrick's last album, 2017's DAMN., was his return to classicist rap form, even if it was still more ambitious than that description suggests, a necessary and welcome detour after 2012's lush, instant-classic good kid, m.A.A.d city and 2015's dense jazz-rap odyssey To Pimp A Butterfly. By contrast, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is a massive leap forward. It's loaded with thrilling, inventive production, from vintage jazz to futuristic electronics, from weeping pianos to sweeping strings, from chaotic drums to blissful ambience, and with multiple beat switches and layers and musical progressions that go far beyond standard hip hop beats. Being released without a single makes sense, as I can't really think of any song on this that could be a single the way "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe" or "King Kunta" or "Humble" were, but it never feels inaccessible. It's ripe with gorgeously sung melodies from Kendrick himself and a few well-curated guests, including Sampha, Summer Walker, Amanda Reifer, and perhaps most show-stoppingly of all, Portishead's Beth Gibbons. If TPAB was his jazz-rap album and DAMN. was his trad-rap album, this is his art-rap album. Comparisons that came to mind during my first listen included albums like Aquemini, Kid A, and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy -- all albums that Kendrick's music has recalled in the past in one way or another, but presented here in a way that feels entirely new for him.
As much as Kendrick is a musical visionary, he's also still a rapper's rapper -- that's what separates him from the Kanyes and the Drakes of the world. He's obsessed with in-depth lyricism, with changing up flows, and with stopping you in your tracks with the power of his words alone. Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers does that over and over again. It opens with a reflection on grief. On "Father Time," he talks about his own daddy issues and the culture of toxic masculinity that so many men are taught from childhood on. On "We Cry Together" (which samples Florence + the Machine's "June"), he and actress Taylour Paige engage in a mock argument that offers a glimpse into the reality of toxic boys becoming toxic men and starting their own ill-fated relationships. On "Auntie Diaries," he comes to terms with a culture that has normalized and perpetuated homophobia for his entire life. On the Beth Gibbons-aided "Mother I Sober," he confronts the passed-down trauma that comes from generations of sexual abuse. "I wish I was somebody, anybody but myself," Beth Gibbons sings, eerily punctuating all three of Kendrick's increasingly devastating verses.
The album includes multiple references to therapy, trauma, toxicity, and abuse, and often specifically the ways in which those things influence and impact the lives of Black men, which goes back to the stage that "The Heart Part 5" set. "I am. All of us," Kendrick wrote on screen at the beginning of that song's video, before using deepfake technology to morph his face into other famous Black men, from the beloved (Nipsey) to the notorious (O.J. Simpson) to the complicated (Kobe Bryant, Kanye West). Hypocrisy and contradiction has always informed Kendrick's music ("The Blacker the Berry"), and that's a recurring theme on Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers. He addresses the trauma caused by sexual abuse in his lyrics, but he also features Kodak Black (who was charged with rape and sexual assault) on three of the album's songs. Some of his own lyrics are sure to raise some eyebrows too. Choices like intentionally featuring an accused abuser on your album are probably not the most productive way to start these conversations, but Kendrick doesn't necessarily want you coming to this album looking for answers. "Kendrick made you think about it, but he is not your savior," he says on "Savior," and on "Crown," he repeatedly insists, "I can't please everybody."
Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is complicated, contradictory, and hypocritical on purpose, sometimes to its detriment, but it's also hard to deny that those imperfections are all part of a grand, masterful work of art. Kendrick didn't win a Pulitzer just because he's better at rapping than anybody else in his generation; he's an artist and a visionary, he achieves things with his music that virtually no one else can achieve. Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers stops you in your tracks and leaves you jaw-dropped and speechless on multiple occasions. It feels like watching a three-hour, Oscar-winning drama and being stunned right away but knowing there's still so much you haven't unpacked. (It's actually just an hour and 13 minutes, shorter than To Pimp A Butterfly even though this is his first LP advertised as a double album.) I can't wait to keep diving back to it; it's already exceeded the impossibly high expectations that are inevitable when an A-list artist takes a five-year break after three consecutive masterpieces. Even after one listen, it feels safe to assume this will be his fourth.
Update (5/14): Kendrick has released the first video from the album, for "N95." Watch: