Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, the latest album from Kendrick Lamar and his last with Top Dawg Entertainment.
Kendrick Lamar is not your savior. In breaking generational curses on his new album Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, he vows to be his family’s protector. On the album cover of Lamar’s first project in five years, the rapper stands in the foreground, wearing a crown of thorns and holding his first child, while his longtime partner Whitney Alford cradles their second baby on a bed. Although Lamar appears righteous on the album artwork, he doesn’t hide his imperfections, with a gun tucked in his waistband. In a similar vein, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers meanders through Lamar’s high-caliber skill, with strong contemplative storytelling and a cathartic unveiling of his flaws.
Last August, Lamar published a message that his next album, following 2017’s Pulitzer Prize-winning DAMN., would be his final release on Top Dawg Entertainment. In his departure, Lamar has joined his co-founded multimedia company and label pgLang, mentoring Grammy-winning act and cousin Baby Keem, along with the newest signee Tanna Leone. Also in the letter, Lamar partially foreshadowed the basis of Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, which serves as his first double-album, writing: “Love, loss, and grief have disturbed my comfort zone, but the glimmers of God speak through my music and family. While the world around me evolves, I reflect on what matters the most. The life in which my words will land next.”
Channeling his purpose with the invocation of a Higher Power, Lamar remains humanly grounded through narratives of trauma and healing, whether calling for Black men to come to terms with their “daddy issues” on “Father Time” or having a toxic verbal sparring match with his partner (in this case, actress Taylour Paige) on “We Cry Together.” The album opens with narration from Alford, who urges Lamar to “tell them your truth” before he contemplates the ancestral and societal dimensions of grief. Family ties run deep on the distorted “N95,” where Lamar replicates Keem’s flow, with his cousin aptly contributing background vocals. On the third track, “Worldwide Steppers,” the production moves with trepidation over a looped-sample of “Break Through” by ’70s Afro-rock band The Funkees, where Lamar muses that while playing “Baby Shark” for his daughter, he’s also “watchin’ for sharks outside at the same time / Life as a protective father, I’d kill for her.”
In light of the album’s release, some fans reached a discord upon hearing Kodak Black being featured on tracks throughout, first on “Worldwide Steppers,” where the Florida rapper introduces himself along with spiritualist, philosopher and author Eckhart Tolle as narrators. Perhaps Lamar is suggesting that Black deserves redemption, despite his problematic history riddled with convictions and domestic violence allegations. Swelling free jazz instrumentation and aching vocals from vocalist Sampha accompanies Kodak’s reflections as a troubled youth on “Rich (Interlude).” On the track, he asserts that he and his fellow street soldiers were once “a bunch of lost souls in survival mode / It wasn’t no way for us unless we found our own.”
With room for Kodak to hearken back to his past, Lamar follows suit, revealing his violent thoughts in claiming to be “Christ with a shooter” and dropping his egocentrism on “Rich Spirit.” The first half of the album wraps with a group therapy session between Lamar, Summer Walker and Ghostface Killah on “Purple Hearts,” before the remainder of Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is spent with Lamar coming to terms with his inner conflicts. Considering his art to be subjective, Lamar repeats that he “can’t please everybody” on “Crown,” offering to drop the idolized title that dedicated fans have ordained him with.
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is part-chronological, part-confessional with Tolle imparting on “Savior (Interlude)” that identity stems from an individual’s formative years, where their self-belief is based on “bad things” they endure. The track features a soliloquy from Keem about witnessing familial trauma and deeming himself “the new prophet,” learning to overcome his weary upbringing. Under the warping, sobering production on “Savior,” Lamar reaffirms that listeners should be their own salvation instead of looking to prestigious influences, who are mortals themselves.
Kodak returns for “Silent Hill,” where the mellow production glides over sniping sound effects, with Lamar pondering his stress while Kodak flexes being a present father, unlike his own. “Auntie Diaries” shows Lamar being well-intentioned and denouncing homophobia, though he fumbles through misgendering, slurs and deadnaming from a childhood perspective. On social media, some have called out Lamar’s viewpoint on gender identity as myopic, while other listeners have praised him for tackling transgender identity as a mainstream rapper.
Getting to the root of his “past-life regressions” on “Mr. Morale,” “Mother I Sober” is where Lamar softens, with haunting vocals from Portishead lead vocalist Beth Gibbons as the rapper bravely opens up about sexual abuse in childhood. As Lamar unshackles himself from generational curses and refuses to pass them down to his children, he’s covered in the warmth of “Mirror,” honoring his personal growth and breaking free of mental burdens.
On Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, Kendrick Lamar provides a space for Black men to practice vulnerability despite the societal expectations placed upon them. Looking deeply within, he exhibits his consciousness in layers, with lyrical dynamism that has cemented him as one of the greats.
Jaelani Turner-Williams is a culture writer from Columbus, Ohio. With a focus on music criticism, literature, visual art and social issues, Jaelani has written for Billboard, MTV News, Remezcla and others. Vince Staples once told her she was mean.
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