Kendrick Lamar Unmasks, Relinquishes the Myth on ‘Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers’
“United In Grief,” the opening number of Kendrick Lamar’s latest record, begins with a sung snippet, courtesy of singer-songwriter Sam Dew: “I hope you find some peace of mind in this lifetime.” What follows for the hour-and-thirteen-minutes of Lamar’s ambitious, and at times messy, double album, “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers,” is a soul-searching exercise, a distillation of therapy sessions into music performed in the pursuit of such peace of mind. Lamar mentions the 1,855 days that have passed since the release of his last album, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “DAMN,” and starts rapping at breakneck speed, as if to cram that whole period’s worth of content into one track’s duration. He kicks off with a litany of what if’s — (“What is a bitch in a miniskirt?…. What is a house with a better view?”). Having attained peerless acclaim, success and celebrity, Lamar is now at liberty to pry at the veneer of what one considers happiness as he questions all that comes to his mind. A spacious backdrop of staccato piano stabs frame his inquiries in a moment of stark clarity, where he questions lust and temptation, material wealth and glamour, the jealousy of family members, the corruption of politicians, and more. Frenzied yet cool introspection gives way to impassioned pronouncements. Midway, the backing band takes off in a vigorous Afrobeat stampede, and Lamar locks into a relentless flow. In a flash, we are reminded why Lamar is in a league of his own, and “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” finds Lamar working overtime to measure up to his own gold standard and arriving at his most intimate body of work, in its scope, and his most ambitious, in its scale. The therapeutic explorations that comprise this album continue efforts that began on previous releases. Childhood regressions enhance the autobiographical fare of 2012’s “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City,” while the lessons gleaned from them hint at the community empowerment that was the focus of 2015’s “To Pimp a Butterfly.” “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers’” moments of “enlightenment” come peppered with quotes from spiritual teacher and self-help author Eckhart Tolle. Altogether, Lamar bares himself to the world and leaves us with a hefty dose of incisive social commentary.
“N95” finds Lamar dismantling a modern and privileged society’s facade one element at a time. “Take off the Wi-Fi / Take off the money phone, take off the car loan… Take off the Chanel, take off the Dolce, take off the Birkin bag.” He posits, “Take all that designer bullshit off and what do you have?” In easily one of the album’s most telling moments, Lamar exclaims, “Bitch! You ugly as fuck.” With this taunt, we see Lamar morph into a Mr. Hyde of sorts as he changes tune, adopting the tone of a menacing provocateur, scattering trap triplets and spinning haywire. If the opener suggested a sense of discord, this track sounds the alarm, with Lamar exclaiming, “The world in a panic, the women is stranded, the men on a run / The prophets abandoned, the law take advantage, the market is crashin’.” For good measure, he wraps up the track with a timely question, “What the fuck is cancel culture, Dawg?” The antithesis to the world portrayed on “N95” comes in “Rich Spirit,” which refers to a “universal shift,” whereby Lamar’s consciousness of himself and others takes a more harmonious turn. Having heard “Bitch! You ugly as fuck,” upon the removal of various adornments, we know hear, “Bitch, I’m attractive,” from Lamar as he casts off such frivolities, declaring, “Can’t fuck with you no more, I’m fastin’.”
“Worldwide Steppers” is offbeat in two senses, with Lamar adopting a decidedly underground hip-hop aesthetic over a beat that is merely a pulse, and rapping in cadences that slickly evade rhythmic regularity, in a flow like that of Outkast’s Big Boi. Lyrics assume all the unfiltered revelation of a therapy session as Lamar likens an uncertainty regarding what he ought to feel to the conflicted emotions he felt during sexual encounters with white women. He recalls telling his current partner, “‘I might be racist,’” and elaborates, “Ancestors watchin’ me fuck was like retaliation.” Such lyrics might offer some insight into his 2018 Hangout Fest performance where Lamar scolded a white fan for singing along to his lyrics without omitting the N-word. For better or worse, the free exchange of signs and signifiers is not absolutely free in a world where associations are racially charged and historically informed.
Childhood regressions are among the expected fare in a therapy session, and we find Lamar looking back to both of his parents. On “Father Time,” he at once credits his father’s brand of masculinity for fostering his competitive edge and criticizes it for forbidding the showing of vulnerability. UK artist Sampha succinctly sums up such a no-nonsense approach in a refrain of “Neat, no chaser” that makes for one of the album’s most memorable hooks. A more chilling familial retrospective comes in “Mother I Sober,” in which you can hear Lamar’s voice trembling as he recounts his mother’s paranoid anxieties about sexual abuse, born of her own experience as a victim. Portishead’s Beth Gibbons appears in the chorus to deliver more of a meager utterance than a hook, the frailty of her wispy vocals befitting the song’s content.
“Auntie Diaries” is the type of track that makes “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” an album for the ages. Lamar confronts his own prejudices and references his misguided behavior at 2018’s Hangout Fest, as he tells the stories of two transgender relatives, one the titular figure, recognized in a refrain of “My auntie is a man now.” He recalls “back when it was comedic relief to say, ‘Faggot’… We ain’t know no better / Elementary kids with no filter / However…” The song’s message is a natural outgrowth of this “however,” a statement of transgender acceptance that comes across as a monumental precedent in hip-hop. On the jarring “We Cry Together,” Lamar pairs with actress Taylour Paige in the simulation of a toxic relationship’s heated domestic dispute, with both Lamar and Paige putting on chilling dramatic performances, and offering an alarming glimpse into the thinly veiled gender preconceptions that might reveal themselves in moments of compromised civility.
“Count Me Out” begins the album’s second half and finds Lamar shifting the focus to himself. He cheekily asserts his self-worth in a sarcastic refrain of “I love when you count me out” over a rippling rhythm and woozy, amorphous bassline. In the end, he sings, forcing his melodies out as one might in some sort of seance, ending his utterances through pursed lips. “Crown” follows with a piano locked into a two-note repetition as chord sequences unfold around it, fitting the track’s sentiment about locking into a groove and holding one’s ground. Lamar notes, “One thing I’ve learned, love can change with the seasons,” and sings a refrain of “I can’t please everybody,” in a sort of player’s falsetto, to be accompanied with a rhythmic dusting off of shoulders. The voicings escalate into full gospel proportions, and the track assumes a curious sonic universe that evokes an overlap of Outkast and Radiohead.
Having now acknowledged that he can’t please everybody, Lamar proceeds with the Kodak Black-featured “Silent Hill.” Lamar is already being criticized for extending a platform to Kodak Black in light of sexual assault charges and allegations surrounding the latter. While Kodak pled to a lesser charge, the message from Lamar here seems to be that artists are not reducible to their actions, criminal or otherwise, and Lamar has already let us know what he thinks of cancel culture. Kodak raps with his characteristic laid-back swag over a mellow groove of spastic snares and DJ scratching, on a track that celebrates pausing for clarity. On “Savior (Interlude),” Lamar’s cousin Baby Keem takes the spotlight and raps with theatrical flourish, drifting in and out of sprung cadences with an unabashedly “hood” delivery to match his lyrics, over an instrumental of strings that strikes like a rather avant-garde juxtaposition of high and low art. “Savior” is a sonic standout, with plaintive piano, tap dance rhythms, and angular harmonies crafted from backwards breathy vocals. The song finds Lamar relinquishing the savior designation, reminding fans that he is merely mortal, and reserving the right to some personal space. “Mr. Morale” rings like a rallying cry, with a marching drumline, a driving synth riff and operatic voicings. Having looked back to learn how to conquer his own shortcomings, Lamar raps, “Past life regressions to know my conditions / It’s based off experience.”
It’s telling that “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” ends with a track titled “Mirror,” as the album is altogether the result of Kendrick Lamar taking a long, hard look at himself — the experiences and forces that shaped him, and at the circumstances that surround him. In the emergent portrait, Lamar dispels the mystique around notions of him as a savior, yet in the process displays some of the qualities and charisma that inspired such notions. The songs are unsparing in their excavations, revealing a psyche shaped by a racist history, stifling standards of masculinity, and communities plagued with abuse. To look within, Lamer unmasks and disrobes in order to free himself of frivolities that characterize mainstream hip-hop, shifting his focus to the cultivation of a “rich spirit.” On “Mirror,” he reflects, “Maybe it’s time to break it off / Run away from the culture to follow my heart.” As it turns out, the man in the mirror is part of the culture, and his heart is trying to help lead the way.
“Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” releases May 13 on Apple Music.