Kendrick Lamar is one of the most important and influential voices in his generation and one of the artists who defined the music of the 2010s. Starting with 2011s “Section.80,” Lamar has shaped the sound of mainstream hip hop, earning the Compton-born rapper 14 Grammy wins during his career. Even then, Lamar stands out from his peers with his deeply personal and poetic lyrics as well as his sonic versatility, excelling in multiple genres from the West Coast Gangsta rap of “good kid, m.A.A.d city” to the jazz rap and neo funk soundscapes of “To Pimp a Butterfly.” In 2017, “DAMN.” proved to be Lamar’s most bombastic and commercially successful album, and now, five years later, his newest record “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” proves once more why Lamar is one of the most acclaimed artists in recent memory.
The opener “United in Grief” begins with a woman urging Lamar to “tell them the truth,” setting the confessional tone of the record. And while all his records are extremely personal, “Mr Morale” is perhaps his most revealing work, with the rapper closely dissecting his status as a star and artist, as well as examining how the world and society around him has changed through the last five years. In the second track “N95,” Lamar rails against the hollowness of modern life, such as the overvaluation of wealth and fake wokeness, an idea that he develops on the next track. In “Worldwide Steppers,” Lamar describes both himself and those around him as zombies. In the song “Savior,” Lamar reflects on his position as one of the most prominent Black artists in modern music and rejects his status as an exemplar for others to follow.
Lamar’s family life is another main focus of the album. “Father Time” deals with his broken relationship with his father and how he never felt free to express his emotions to his dad, because “men should never show feelings.” The most powerful song is “We Cry Together,” a simulated domestic argument between Lamar and Taylour Paige. While it's a song that I wouldn't ever put on my playlist, the slur-filled insults and the hateful language presents one of the most realistic depictions of a toxic relationship I have ever seen. This demonstrates one of Lamar’s greatest talents — his ability to put listeners in his narrators’ shoes and understand their experiences. Even though I’ve never been in a relationship like the one presented here, I feel sorry for both these people whose love for one another has degenerated into this sickening screaming match. The other hard-hitting familial track is “Auntie Diaries,” in which Lamar discusses the experience of seeing his aunt and cousin transitioning into men and having to deal with his own and his community’s homophobic and transphobic presumptions, finally concluding that everyone deserves respect regardless of their sexual orientation and gender.
Lamar’s production team also deserves high praise, as every track feels lush and expressive. The trap-inspired beats in “N95” and “Silent Hill” show that Lamar can still produce bangers like he did in “DAMN.” There are, however, a few tracks where Lamar’s writing falls a bit flat. “Crown,” for example, feels like a glorified interlude with repetitive piano passages that don’t seem to build up to anything. “Mother I Sober,” while one of the most emotional moments of the record, disappoints in Lamar’s monotone vocal performance and the underuse of Beth Gibbons of Portishead, who takes backing duty.
Overall, “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” feels like the quintessential Kendrick Lamar album: dark, confessional and emotional, featuring some of the rapper’s most poignant lyrics to date. And while the album does occasionally slip in quality and is probably not his best, it is still a remarkable musical achievement as memorable as his previous records.
Artist: Kendrick Lamar
Album: "Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers"
Label: PGLang and Top Dawg Entertainment
Favorite tracks: “N95,” “We Cry Together,” “Silent Hill,” “Die Hard”
If you like: Kanye West, BROCKHAMPTON, Logic, Run the Jewels
Shamrocks: 4 out of 5