Thirty seconds into Kendrick Lamar’s new double album, he says, “One-thousand eight-hundred and fifty-five days, I’ve been goin’ through somethin’.” The significance of this number is that it’s the exact amount of time between Lamar’s last album and this one. You don’t need to have an encyclopedic knowledge of Kendrick Lamar’s life and discography to appreciate Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, but it helps. It also helps to know that when Kendrick refers to Whitney, which he does in more than one song, he’s not talking about the R&B/pop superstar we lost in 2012. The Whitney he’s referring to is Whitney Alford, his fiancée. Again, it’s not critical that you have footnotes in front of you while listening, but they help.
Delivering an album the length of a feature film is brave. Kanye tried it last year with Donda, a record that had a total running time of just under two hours. We all saw how that went. Not great. What Kendrick Lamar gives us in the form of Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers are eighteen songs that span subjects such as: self-help, race, sexuality and gender, toxic masculinity, success, and generational trauma. Lamar is joined on occasion by rappers Ghostface Killah, Baby Keem, and Kodak Black, as well as singers Beth Gibbons, Summer Walker, Sampha and others. Oh, and the German self-help author Eckhart Tolle adds periodic narration. Yes, you read that right.
After Mr Morale’s opener, “United in Grief”, a song in which Lamar recounts his spending habits, questioning his own materialism as it relates to grief with lines like, “What is a rapper with jewelry? A way that I show my maturity,” the single “N95” begins. Although “N95” is a serious song lyrically, in part acting as a criticism of the American government’s often confusing communications in regard to the public’s safety during the pandemic, the song is delivered via a danceable skittering trap beat enhanced with a synthetic electro bass and tense strings, and it may just be the most “fun” the first half of Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers gets.
Kodak Black makes his first of three appearances on “Worldwide Steppers”, introducing the song. The Florida rapper’s presence is awkward initially if only because his pen game can’t hold a candle to Kendrick’s and Kodak has been an outspoken supporter of the United States’ 45th president as late as two months ago. But maybe that’s the point in his involvement. Perhaps his inclusion is Kendrick’s way of trying to demonstrate the duality and inclusivity of hip hop. Sampha appears on the chorus of the excellent “Father Time”, a track wherein Lamar reveals his daddy issues. This is as good a place as any to mention the ever-present piano throughout Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, which is at times used both abstractedly and orchestrally. It works well, providing a dramatic feel at critical moments.
The incredible “We Cry Together” arrives just before the end of the first album. Here, Kendrick and actor/dancer Taylour Paige act out a scene in which a couple viciously argue in rhyme about infidelity, narcissism, and men abusing their power. The six-plus minute song is a jaw-dropper. Paige’s performance is frighteningly believable as the fight devolves into makeup sex wherein Paige says, “Fuck me, n***a,” and Kendrick responds, “I’ma fuck you, bitch.” Then Paige repeats her line, and this time the meaning is different.
Ghostface Killah and Summer Walker appear on the psychedelic soul number “Purple Hearts”. It’s an anomaly among the songs on the album’s first half, but it works well after the emotional pounding of “We Cry Together”. Three songs into Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers’ second album, “Crown” appears. It should be noted Kendrick wears a crown of thorns on the album’s cover. During the song, which is driven by a simple piano melody, Lamar paraphrases Shakespeare and the bible at points during the track’s verses and repeats the line, “I can’t please everybody,” at the chorus and outro. Kodak Black returns on “Silent Hill”, a comparatively laidback number that includes the record’s most unintentionally meme-able moment with the repeated line, “Push these n***as off me like huh.” The beats here are crisp while pretty chimes ring out underneath.
Eckhart Tolle narrates the opening of “Savior (Interlude)” with the words, “If you derive your sense of identity from being a victim. Let’s say, bad things were done to you when you were a child. And you develop a sense of self that is based on the bad things that happened to you.” The recording sounds like it was made crudely, and its presence is awkward. Baby Keem features exclusively here, rapping over a beat-free track that features a gorgeous string arrangement. During “Auntie Diaries”, Kendrick relays complicated anecdotes from childhood, recalling growing up with a queer relative and contrasting that with his use of the F-slur in a jocular way with other children on the playground. The track makes for an impressively fearless moment on the album, one that’s handled with surprising confidence and zero pretension.
“Mr. Morale” opens with a rant culled from a YouTube video of an American football fan ranting just before Tanna Leone’s vocals kick in recalling Björk’s 2004 a cappella album, Medúlla. Portishead’s Beth Gibbons features during the chorus on the beautiful “Mother I Sober”. Kendrick sounds tired here, his voice dry as he raps, “Water watchin’, live my life in nature, only thing relieves me.” Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is concluded with “Mirror”. The song has a distinct retro-soul feel, the most poignant lines arriving during the third verse when Lamar raps, “’Cause all of it’s toxic. Girl, I’m not relevant to givin’ on profit. Personal gain off my pain, it’s nonsense. Darlin’, my demons is off the leash for a moshpit. Baby, I just had a baby, you know she need me. Workin’ on myself, the counselin’ is not easy.”
The very last lyrics on Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers are, “Sorry I didn’t save the world, my friend. I was too busy buildin’ mine again. I choose me, I’m sorry.” Nowhere on the album is the point made more clearly that this is a deeply confessional and exceedingly personal work. Kendrick Lamar’s fifth studio album takes risks that pay off in the present. Whether these gambles are as rewarding in the future remains to be seen. Regardless, while not perfect, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is a worthwhile listen, one that will stand as a considerable achievement in the artist’s oeuvre.