Album Reviews

Kendrick Lamar – Mr Morale & The Big Steppers

(pgLang/Interscope) UK release date: 13 May 2022

With lyrics as erudite as ever, this remarkably detailed self-portrait offers a surprising glimpse behind the curtain – and should be applauded for its intimacy

Kendrick Lamar - Mr Morale & The Big Steppers Several big albums since the mid-2010s have come with a tantalising tabloid backstory: Beyoncé’s Lemonade was supposedly documenting her reaction to an affair, while Ariana Grande’s thank u, next served as a commentary on her many celebrity relationships. Kendrick Lamar is very private by comparison, so the presence of his (ex?) partner Whitney Alford on Mr Morale & The Big Steppers offers a surprising glimpse behind the curtain. She recommends therapy on the intro to Father Time, and the album’s concept hangs around Kendrick working through his feelings in an attempt to save his relationship with her.

Unlike DAMN. this record has a narrative and a clear purpose – we are coming with him on a journey of discovery similar to good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp A Butterfly, and while the results aren’t quite as show-stopping as those seminal records this is perhaps an unfair expectation to place on an artist. Worldwide Steppers features a jumble of abrasive sentiments over stuttering beatless production, a sense of extreme alienation wrapped up in misanthropy, while Auntie Diaries sees him discussing trans people in his family with an honesty and humanity that would be welcome from other similarly high-profile rappers.

The production varies dramatically, as Boi-1da and Cardo provide conventional bassy beats while Crown and Rich (Interlude) have a piano accompaniment and no further adornments. The Alchemist provides an uneasy backdrop to the deliberately unpleasant We Cry Together, while Pharrell continues his habit of delivering quality beats for Kendrick albums with the knotty metre of Mr Morale. A particular musical highlight is Silent Hill, as a minimal trap beat gradually becomes infused with orchestral elements under a braggadocious Kodak Black guest verse.

Two sub-plots pop up on various tracks: the covid-19 pandemic receding into the West’s rearview mirror and Kendrick’s general reclusiveness. Fans of lateral thinking will enjoy the choice of title on a song encouraging people to take off various things, while the hook “I choose me, I’m sorry” on closing track Mirror is a roundabout response to those wondering why the rapper wasn’t more visible during the anti-police protests of 2020. He also laments social media’s selective empathy and censorious attitudes, and at times seems to deliberately provoke its ire (“I think about Robert Kelly / if he weren’t molested, I wonder if life’d fail him”).

Mother I Sober is a deeply powerful song, and the culmination of much soul searching – Kendrick examines cycles of trauma and abuse, passed down through black ancestry, and attempts to purge his own toxic inclinations over muted production that crescendos nicely in its final section. Beth Gibbons of Portishead delivers a fragile, haunting hook, and as the piano plays out Whitney congratulates him for breaking what she calls “a generational curse”. The contrast couldn’t be clearer: whereas Mortal Man questioned the nature of fame and public affection, the focus here is entirely on family and inner peace.

Kendrick’s lyrics are as erudite as ever, and he has thankfully backed away from the excessive voiceplay of DAMN., though a few tracks could have been cut to create a more consistent listening experience. That being said, Mr Morale & The Big Steppers should be applauded for its intimacy, a remarkably detailed self-portrait of his unique, troubled mind. We are left to speculate if this is his last ever album, but it certainly feels appropriate to exorcise one’s demons, renounce any desire for a public presence or persona, then step away from the limelight. It would be a significant blow to the rap scene though, as he’s still one of the best to ever do it.

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Kendrick Lamar – Mr Morale & The Big Steppers
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