Kendrick Lamar re-captures the zeitgeist with Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers

Posted on 14 May 2022
By William Rymer
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Kendrick Lamar’s level of respect, be it among fans, within the hip-hop scene, or from the music industry as a whole, has reached such heights that new music is more an enormous cultural event than a standard album release. The silence preceding his new album, ‘Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers’, only intensified speculation as to the subject matter and musical style of the album. What has arrived is a double album, which sees Lamar at his most introspective and vulnerable while the societal implications remain as far-reaching as ever. The latest release is an ambitious and impressive piece of work yet is unwieldy. There’s a lot to unpack and one-time listeners may not recognise the scope of what’s on offer.

The album is socially and politically challenging, and heated discourse has already begun over a couple of aspects. The featuring of Florida MC, Kodak Black, who has been imprisoned for drugs and weapon offences, and who has been taken to court on sexual assault allegations, has raised eyebrows. Meanwhile, in the song “Auntie Diaries,” Lamar tells the story of his struggles with, and eventual acceptance of, trans family members. Whatever the listener is to make of these tracks, they appear an earnest contribution to areas of discussion that provoke intense cultural tension. The song ‘Savior’ goes some way to unpicking the meaning behind these controversial inclusions. “Kendrick made you think about it/ But he is not your savior.”

Throughout the album, Lamar lays bare his own demons, including admitting to sex addiction and infidelity on ‘Mother I Sober’, one of the albums most powerful tracks, which includes a surprising and beautiful turn from Portishead’s Beth Gibbons. He acts out an argument in a toxic relationship on ‘We Cry Together’ with actor Taylour Paige and throughout this honesty, he problematises the expectation placed on him to be a true spokesperson and saviour when his own actions seem to disqualify him from this position. In the current cultural climate, this message is prescient and the inclusion of Kodak Black intensifies the album’s sense of disillusionment with the expectation of certain artists (who are troubled themselves) to be forces for good.

From Pharrell Williams to The Alchemist, production credits on the album are spread far and wide, leading to a varied soundscape. From the intricate and hard-hitting synths of ‘Mr Morale’ to the soul-sampling ‘Father time,’ there will be something for every listener. However, this may be where the album falls short for some. There are hints of the grand, instrumentally focused production of ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ as well as more minimalist cuts that wouldn’t sound out of place on his previous works like ‘DAMN,’ while Lamar even seems to take cues from Drake on ‘Die Hard’. While this helps to keep the double-album interesting throughout its runtime, it lacks the cohesion of earlier projects.

There are no dancefloor fillers like ‘HUMBLE.’ or ‘m.A.A.d city’ on this album. Nor is there anything similar to ‘Alright,’ which became a Black Lives Matter protest anthem but the surprisingly vulnerable and self-critical content here is no less important. What we see is one of the world’s most critically and commercially successful artists taking a step back and asking whether he has earnt his place as a role model while he is still working through his own traumas and shortcomings. Saviour or not, Kendrick Lamar has, again, proven to be a unique voice in the world of music, and this album, arguably his most conflicted and complex yet, will be discussed for a very long time.