Kendrick Lamar - Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers
May 13, 2022 (updated May 18, 2022)
80
"Hello, new world.
...I got some true stories to tell" πŸ‘žπŸ‘ž

Theatrical as if it were a musical, introspective as if a group therapy session and recited with the abstract grace of renaissance poetry. Kendrick returns with the “new flows” us brothers have been so patient for. And maybe it’s not the earth-rattling moment of TPAB, or the cultural zeitgeist of GKMC. But that shouldn't matter. So in the words of the man himself; let’s get this shit!

Kendrick Lamar is back with a new album (can't believe I just wrote that). The staggering amount of anticipation and speculation surrounding this album would permeate for the weeks following its ambiguous announcement via a Windows 3.0 era-inspired website called “oklama.com”. But the return of the fabled rapstar was imminent ever since the pgLang banner-wielding music video for Baby Keem’s ‘Family Ties’ set the ball rolling in 2021. It proved that fire remained in the belly of Kendrick despite already collating one of the most influential and impactful discographies in recent memory. His bars felt renewed and relished with the socio-political landmarks that would dictate language of the first portion of the 2020s (“I been duckin' the pandemic, I been- social gimmicks. I been duckin' the overnight activist"). It was as if he knew it were coming all along. And he was ready to light his blunt over the industry’s trend-hoppers and chart-toppers with a new mission statement and a new album. It would arrive 8 months later... “Appreciate your patience”. ‘The Heart Part 5’ fell from the good gates of heaven on May 9th, and would take the internet by storm with its striking commentary and reinvigoration of his most iconic story-telling tropes. Oh yeah, and there's a Will Smith deepfake rapping over a Marvin Gaye sample which was cool too I guess! But in all seriousness, the record is a holy matrimony of biting political cynicism and soulful musings on "the culture" of the now, and how it perpetuates death, grieving and acceptance. For many, this would be the perfect lead single to your album. But for Kendrick? Simply a tease...

His fourth exhibition, ‘Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers’ is perhaps his boldest diversification of sounds, drawing from the psychedelic, futuristic trap musings of labelmates Baby Keem and Tanna Leone, while calling back to all his previous albums with the jazz fusions of TPAB, the percussive anthems of GKMC and some of the story-telling subtlies first alluded to on S80’s ‘Poe Man Dreams’ or ‘Kush & Corinthians’. The product feels calculated, and in need of heartfelt dissection, as Kendrick covers topics ranging from racial inequity, domestic violence, sexual abuse, identity and fittingly above all, his family ties. Captivating keys and reversed toms form the first beat of the album (United In Grief), creating a sombre atmosphere which is ushered in by the hauntingly lethargic narration from Kenny (“I've been goin’ through somethin', One-thousand eight-hundred and fifty-five days”) This meta reference to his absence in the scene introduces the LP’s central themes of isolation, and being able to reckon with yourself before you try to reckon with the world. He reflects on his experience as a mogul, and says he’s “got me a therapist”, rounding out with the desperate claim; “I hope the psychologist listening'”. Suddenly the beat stutters and a bustling drum rhythm enters, puncturing my headphones with a sweet sweet EQ job!! Oh wait – in returns the piano – just remembered I’m listening to a Kendrick Lamar album, YES WOW AHHHH! (i digress) As I stated earlier, this record is theatrical, as if it were Kenny’s take on a conceptual musical, as I feel like an audience member more than ever listening to this album. The soundscapes are built on orchestral inflections (cello chops on United in Grief) and curious soundbites that feel like they have a voice of their own (a curious pitched siren completes the aforementioned track, also hear the reverberated cowbell on Die Hard dominate the groove of the nocturnal Blxst collab).

N95 picks up where The Melodic Blue left off - with Beach Noise duo production - we’re met with tight trap percussion and larger than life synth chords as Kenny floats over the beat. Also, it seems Kenny thinks we’re “ugly as f*ck”, apparently :( His vocal timbre is unstable, as if the therapy session is only bringing up more resentment; an anger levelled against his contemporaries in the rap scene relying on excess he wishes you’d “take off”. But how much can you remove before your naked? Well, with ‘Worldwide Steppers’ we can infer that he’s the one who needs checking on (“playing Baby Shark with my daughter, while watching for sharks outside”). The instrumental here feels like elevator music stuck on a buffering loop, and Kendrick’s verses are claustrophobic, giving us wild juxtapositions between his divinely written bars and his “thumbs hurt[ing]” from “messagin' b*tches”. A real Morale Vs. Stepper dichotomy. This seems to be the reasoning behind the name as many songs here play off each other, like the braggadocio on ‘Rich Spirit’ versus the intense couples’ dispute on ‘We Cry Together’ testing both his namesakes. The beat on ‘Worldwide Steppers’ samples Breakthrough by The Funkees, which like many of Kendrick's sample choices, offers layers of meaning within the 1973 song's lyrics; “I'm in an invisible prison as there could have been, down it made me though”. It seems this Oklama character is going through just the same, as he meditates on the anxieties of fatherhood and through a wider lens, the anxiety he has towards men who feel insecure enough to make others feel like crap because they are more in-tune with their emotions. 'Father Time' continues synthesis on fatherhood, the instrumentation on this one is some of the best on the record, brilliant use of this dusty beat and sweet blend of rhodes and a soulful hook from Sampha.

Kendrick’s lyricism and flow is intriguing on MMATBS, as he oscillates between triplet flows and offbeat half-pulse pockets that sound like he’s constantly trying to catch up to the beat. ‘Rich Spirit’ dons a West Coast beat and these falsetto vocal chops that place the song deep in the club, but similar to the liminal space on The Weeknd’s Dawn FM, not everything is as it seems (“I pray to God that you realize the entourage is dead, I pray to God that you not lackin' when you off the meds”). I think its essential next to talk about We Cry Together, a captivating conversation-rap (similar to 'Both Sides of A Smile' by Dave from last year) which gives us a strikingly dramatic and realistic peer into a pretty devastating lovers' spat. Taylor Paige's impassioned performance leaves a lasting impression, and The Alchemist's Griselda-esc perfection sets the tone production-wise. Lets next discuss some of the features on MMATBS's next track, Purple Hearts. Summer Walker was an unexpected addition, but she adequately fills the shoes of a Rihanna on LOYALTY, with a fresh cadence. And my god, Ghostface SNAPS with a poignant and emotionally cathartic verse to close out this wavy and luxurious neo-soul moment on the LP. Side B of the album keeps the new flows coming, opening with 'Count Me Out', with Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe reminiscent guitars met with an updated, murky 808-heavy trap beat. Kenny’s flow is hypnotizing, and some of his adlibs sound like they were performed whilst doing pull ups during the recording session - I mean he steppin' DIFFERENT. This track feels like the spiritual sister/answer to GOD. off of 2017's DAMN. Also he rounds out the song with more hopeful themes, looking to the light instead of the culture's deep darkness. Kudos to Kodak Black for adding some thought-provoking storybook narration to this album, especially on Rich (Interlude), providing a solid feature to Silent Hill also. Savior opens with a clever commentary on stan culture;

“Kendrick made you think about it, but he is not your savior
Cole made you feel empowered, but he is not your savior
Future said, "Get a money counter," but he is not your savior
'Bron made you give his flowers, but he is not your savior
He is not your savior.”

The 808s on this track are ill, and speaking of ill, yep – this track has Covid bars (it could’ve been worse, but I’d still rather we not date this album instantly with the Pfizer rhymes, brother). The Pharrell produced ‘Mr. Morale’ harkens back to the darker sounds on Keem’s Melodic Blue, with infusions reminding me of the fantastic 2018 album by N.E.R.D. ‘No_One Every Really Dies’ (which has 2 outstanding Kendrick feature verses btw). It’s an easy highlight first listen, with a sweet little moment for Tanna Leonne at the song’s end plus a quotation from Eckhart Tolle’s 1997 book, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. The book centres on a spiritual way of unpacking the need for strong relationships with others, and how our anxiety stems from identification. In Kendrick’s case, I believe he refers to the Black American experience perpetuated by a history of slavery which is passed down spiritually through generations causing a vicious cycle of self-blame. Its this “pain-body”, as Tolle describes it, that leads to the poor mental stability that Kendrick may experience sometimes despite his success. It’s an eye-opening and thought-provoking moment on the album.

BUT WAIT. SWEET JESUS ABOVE A PORTISHEAD FEATURE WHHAAA. Mother I Sober is the highlight of the record for me, no doubt about it. Absolutely incredible, a SOTY contender. Can’t believe Beth Gibbons is featuring on the same album as Kodak Black, but here we are!! And that’s just it, here we are indeed. This was the moment it really sunk in for me, that after 5 years waiting one of music's most talked about philosophers is back in action :) Mirror is a fitting conclusion to the narrative of MMATBS. Its psychedelic-soul, moog bass, and dizzying synths build this powerful landmark. And as the string runs enter and Kendrick echoes “I chose me I’m sorry”, we reach the end of one hell of a therapy session. So is MMATBS everything we hoped for? Well, if anything, you could say Kendrick gives us a lot more gold mines to investigate and ore to obtain, filter and share. I'd argue it is perhaps not as striking or ambitious as his past works. But in 2022, Kendrick feels immediate and as centred as ever. He bids us farewell with the poignant lyric; “sorry I didn't save the world, my friend, I was too busy buildin' mine again”.

Thanks so much for reading!! πŸ‘žπŸ‘ž

~ ~ ~

Fav Tracks:

SIDE A: United In Grief, N95, Worldwide Steppers, Father Time, Rich Spirit, We Cry Together
SIDE B: Savior (Interlude), Aunties Diaries, Mr Morale, Mother I Sober, Mirror

Standouts: Mother I Sober, United In Grief, Father Time

If-it-were-a-film Genre: Political Drama

Album Genre: Hip-Hop | Melodic Rap | Neo-Soul

VERDICT: Loved!

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