Kendrick Lamar has released Mr Morale & The Big Steppers and as its first track notes, it’s been 1855 days since DAMN. In those five years, Kendrick and his partner Whitney have started a family, he performed at the Super Bowl half-time show, and notably became the first ever rapper and pop-star to win the Pulitzer Prize.
As teased by Kendrick on his website, Mr Morale & The Big Steppers is a two disc album, breaking in two between ‘Purple Hearts’ and ‘Count Me Out.’ Less than a week before the new LP, Lamar released ‘The Heart Part 5’ as part of his long running ‘The Heart’ series. ‘Part 5’ dropped alongside a sublime music video directed by Kendrick Lamar and Dave Free‘s company pgLang, in which Lamar’s face changes into famous deep-fakes such as Will Smith, Kobe Bryant and Kanye West.
This newest release is a complex and emotional listen. Mr Morale & The Big Steppers is personal, painful and transparent and will have relevance and relatability to you, I guarantee it. As stated in the album’s third track, Lamar was faced with a two year writer’s block which he has clearly annihilated with an hour and thirteen minutes of musical catharsis.
My thoughts on this rollercoaster:
‘United in Grief’
The opening vocals seems akin to a traditional Kyrie or psalm melodically. We hear a high pitch a cappella introduction which is stunted and interrupted by Duval Timothy’s short piano chords and Kendrick’s spoken voice saying “I’ve been going through something…be afraid.” Duval’s minimalist piano plays a huge role throughout this album and ‘United in Grief’ sets the musical tone for the following 17 tracks. As does yet another interruption, this time by fast moving chaotic drums flowing beneath the vocals. “I grieve different” Lamar explains, whilst touching on moments of his own life that have led to grief concluding, “Everybody grieves different.”
Here, the backing is reminiscent of his collaboration with his cousin, Baby Keem in ‘Family Ties.’ This is one instance where we hear Kendrick Lamar displaying some clear Baby Keem-esque vocal inflections. The beat and chorus are undeniably satisfying. Kendrick switches verse tempo effortlessly and you have no idea what to expect next. This feeling of disorientation remains for the rest of the album. “What the fuck is cancel culture?” Lamar exclaims. Check out Kendrick and Free’s video for ‘N95’:
‘Worldwide Steppers’ opens with the clear sound of tap-dancing, something that remains a constant motif throughout the album. The atmosphere is dark and intimidating. The beat paces beneath like a sprinter’s heartbeat until we reach yet another sudden tone switch into a ten second taste of 70s soul, then back into the relentless drum sample of Nigerian band, The Funkees. Lyrics fly by as Kendrick Lamar spills out messy glimpses of his past. Piano chords build and the relentless beat finally ceases.
A much more relaxed tone, ‘Die Hard’ exhibits generally simpler lyrics and a more chilled atmosphere. This track features Blxt and Amanda Reuter and is a welcome RnB style break following the album’s encapsulating and intense opening tracks.
‘Father Time’ (Feat. Sampha)
A combination of lush and quasi-staccato strings introduce this track, alongside a voice saying “You really need some therapy.” Timothy’s piano smooths the transition from strings to yet another bout of tap-dancing which is swiftly interrupted by a reversed sample of Hoskins Ncrowd’s ‘You’re Not There.’ This track is an exemplification of fine production on the part of Beach Noise, Bekon, Dahi, Duval Timothy, Sounwave and Victor Ekpo. Kendrick depicts the world he grew up in, tackling his relationship with his father alongside ideas of being a man and being sensitive. Vulnerability is at the core of this song. The beat and gorgeous piano harmony result in a beautiful song that you don’t want to end. A particular gem in the entire record.
‘Rich – Interlude’
The whole track is underpinned by a locomotive-like fast moving triadic piano. With no percussion, backing vocals enter to fill the harmony as the track reaches its climax; the combination feels rewarding. Running at 1:43 the interlude is over, reaching a calm destination.
An unbelievably smooth track. Immediately the slightly stirring backing is reminiscent of Mac Miller’s ‘Self Care’, unsurprisingly the tracks share the same producer, Dahi. ‘Rich Spirit’ is filled with arrogance, accentuated by the suave nature of the beat and finger clicks.
‘We Cry Together’
I haven’t ever heard a song like this before. Kendrick combines with American actress Taylour Paige for this track and she goes all out in her characterisation. Beginning with the statement, “This is what the world sounds like”, Lamar and Paige engage in the worst, most unnerving and abhorrent argument one could experience with a partner. This is juxtaposed with a calm arpeggiated piano and steady slow beat. With every listen I pick up a new slur or shutdown, it’s entertaining and almost farcical in nature. Though, it ends once again with the sound of tap dancing and an explanation of the metaphor, “Stop tap-dancing around the conversation.”
Featuring Summer Walker and Ghostface Killah, ‘Purple Hearts’ acts as another pleasant contrast to the intensity that has come before. Summer Walker’s feature is a particular highlight and brings some RnB sheen to the track. Ghostface Killah’s vocal style adds a fantastic old school hip-hop nuance to finish Disc 1.
‘Count Me Out’
Disc 2 begins by recapitulating the high pitch vocal style in the first track ‘United in Grief.’ The track is complemented by a great descending female backing vocal but there’s yet another atmospheric switch with a huge bass entry. Kendrick discusses the act of proving a particular individual wrong all the while passing through different phases of his life and tackling pride and ego. “This is me and I’m blessed” he explains, before being interrupted by the now familiar tap-dancing.
This track builds masterfully and effortlessly. It presents Duval Timothy‘s minimalist piano in all its glory, helped by there being no percussion. “I can’t please everybody” and “Heavy is the head that wears the crown” are the resounding messages. The immediate nakedness of this track helps you realise just how incredibly diverse this album has been in its choice of sound. Lamar’s backing vocals here highlight his skilful vocal and tonal range.
The groove on this track is undeniably cool. However, the hook seems becomes slightly mundane and Kodak Black’s feature is not particularly impressive. The track doesn’t contain a great level of development, not enough occurs sonically to make ‘Silent Hill’ stand out or act as a meaningful addition to the album.
‘Savior – Interlude’
This interlude opens with the voice of German Self-help author, Eckhart Tolle. Strings play dramatically alongside Baby Keem’s vocals tackling the way past traumatic experiences inform your being for the rest of your life. Heavy themes crammed into an interlude. Baby Keem, like Kendrick, makes references to asking God for creative help, acting as a messenger.
The album seems to have moments of arrogance, yet Kendrick states at the beginning that you shouldn’t see him as “your saviour.” Perhaps alluding to the previous track’s mention of him and his cousin acting as messengers or “prophets” as opposed to God. Lamar criticises those who view his suffering as an opportunity for performative protest. He explains “One protest for you, three-sixty-five for me.” The production is skilful – reversed drum sounds work incredibly to make up the beat and the incorporation of Sam Dew’s airy vocals result in a lush and interesting soundscape.
This is a huge track for hip-hop. ‘Auntie Diaries’ is a deeply heartfelt message of empathy and alliance with the trans community. Lamar discusses his past homophobia and the understanding of his previous and dangerous prejudice, all the while calling out the contradictions of the church and the homophobia of fellow rappers. The track builds orchestrally like a film score until the very last line that acts as a sudden instance of anagnorisis.
Lamar’s vocals are fast and frantic, matching the dark atmosphere coming from an arpeggiated synth dancing over a massive sub bass. Once again themes of generational trauma arise as Lamar mentions Oprah Winfrey as well as R Kelly. Another snippet from Eckhart Tolle’s speech, this time focusing on identity and unhappiness, closes the track.
‘Mother I Sober’ (feat. Beth Gibbons of Portishead)
We hear the piano taking a larger role again, punctuated by the deep kick of a bass drum. This track is by far the most heart-breaking and emotionally transparent moment on the album. He unflinchingly discusses the sexual assault experienced by his mother and tells an anecdote of his younger self being questioned by his family as to whether his cousin had abused him. He explains how nobody believed his denial of the allegations against his cousin leading him to feel inadequate and “chasing manhood” as the trauma resurfaces. Beth Gibbons’ supporting vocals and chorus provide a suitable atmosphere of delicacy and vulnerability, almost Kate Bush-like in nature.
This is a great album closer. We end with a bit of self-affirming positivity and moments that seem like a film score yet again. The perfect closer to an album that charts a huge emotional journey.
The incorporation of Duval Timothy’s piano alongside the lush string accompaniment make this album seem thoughtful and emotionally driven, even before you delve into the lyrics. You feel like a fly on the wall of every explosive moment in a Kendrick Lamar therapy session, this is him at his most honest and emotionally candid. The tap-dancing motif scattered throughout the album is a clear metaphor that doesn’t feel overworked, but decorous and poetic. It feels an absolute privilege to listen to this creative genius. I derive more and more meaning from the album on every listen.
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