Kendrick Lamar shows a new side of himself in ‘Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers’

By: Owen Black, Columnist

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

In the wake of Kendrick Lamar’s final Top Dog Entertainment (TDE) release, “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers,” much remains uncertain. 

The album’s, which was released on May 13, 2022, place in his portfolio is far from determined. The jarring and unruly soundscape of the album will either be deemed instantly classic or failed experimentation as the year progresses. 

Only time will tell if these are the final words listeners will ever hear from Lamar. 

One aspect of “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” should be crystal clear to longtime fans: this is Lamar at his most vulnerable. Throughout his past work, there’s an unmistakable prophetism and an authority to Lamar’s artistic voice. 

On “Mr. Morale,” that veil no longer persists. The album’s first critiques of materialism arrive just after Lamar’s opening confession of the materialistic coping mechanisms that plague him. This is only the tip of the iceberg. 

Lamar leads by example on this album more than ever, and the early line “I’ve got some true stories to tell,” cannot even begin to indicate what is yet to come. 

From this point onward, Lamar does what he wants. There is not a single moment on this entire LP where Lamar raps, sings or performs to meet expectations.

The result is mixed, as classic hip-hop instrumentals clash with a new sound in the vein of Lamar’s previous collaborations with his cousin, Baby Keem. The sound is endurable, but upon first listen, it’s not nearly as infectious or captivating as his previous work. 

This note only applies musically, though. Thematically, Lamar throws more at listeners than any album they may have heard so far this year. 

It’s indeed captivating. In addition to materialism, Lamar devotes entire tracks to abusive fathers, an ugly relationship fallout and transgender discrimination, all while including tap dancing sounds that echo Minstrelsy, voices of a therapist and an intriguing double album format. 

The standout feature undoubtedly belongs to Taylour Paige, whose part in the visceral “We Cry Together” seems to be an early fan favorite, and a career-defining moment for the burgeoning artist. Kodak Black and Sampha shine as well, with Baby Keem taking up the figurative torch on “Savior (Interlude).” 

While the sheer volume of the content at hand is impressive, its organization is still in question, though a cohesive narrative structure may very well reveal itself over time. 

As the impact of the album solidifies, there’s one part that sits strongest with listeners. Revealed in the final tracks of the record is a strong narrative that calls back to the original thesis of truth and vulnerability.

Lamar reveals to listeners that he has struggled lifelong with a lustful addiction, resulting in chronic unfaithfulness and the subsequent separation from his longtime partner, Whitney Alford. 

On the same track as this confession, Lamar bares his soul to discuss the impact sexual abuse has had on his mother, his relatives and himself. Connecting the dots while never dodging blame, he elaborates on the plight of generations of Black families suffering through the consequences of rape and abuse, and praises women for their strength. 

At the track’s ending, Lamar personally thanks Alford for starting him down the path of therapy, and for breaking his “generational curse” of sexual fixation and pain. 

Hands down the most impactful divulgence from Lamar to date, this second-to-last track, titled “Mother I Sober,” redefines the entire album as a series of personal tales in his search for healing. Lamar’s personal growth now seems to matter far more than any social commentary, and he thinks so too. 

Upon relistening to the track “Savior,” it’s apparent that Lamar wants out. He wants to be real, raw and humanized. 

He no longer wants the prophet role, the authority, the crown bestowed upon him by his listenership all those years ago.  

With this preparation, listeners receive Lamar’s final words in the form of his final track: “Mirror.” Double-meanings and standout lines persist, as they do the entire album, but the raw emotion accompanied by beautiful strings is the undeniable focus. 

The words ring sincerity, piercing the soul of fans as they hear Lamar cry out to his listeners “I choose me, I’m sorry.” 

The album’s abrupt conclusion did not keep these words from echoing in the heads of listeners  for days to come. There is still much to unpack regarding themes, lyrics, individual tracks and even the album cover. 

Yet none of these pursuits will overpower the weight felt, a heaviness that comes with a king tossing aside his crown and the burdens that come with it. “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” may not appeal to everyone, but for those invested in the person that is Lamar, it serves as a tearful end to an era.  

Editor’s note: The columnist, Owen Black, decided not to provide a rating for this piece. Black said:

No rating. Some art cannot be pinned down by a number. I abstain from rating this album and others as not to box in the reader’s own perception, and to leave room for original interpretation.

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