Kendrick Lamar – ‘Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers’ review: a cathartic, soul-baring autobiography

The rapper's first album in five years sees him overcome "writer's block" to triumph with a collection on which his observational skills go into overdrive

Over the last five years, since his last album, the Pulitzer Award-winning ‘DAMN’, Kendrick Lamar has been missed by the rap world. Revered for his vivid storytelling since his emergence in 2011, Kendrick has become a reference for all in the rap game on how to make seminal music and how to carry yourself while doing it. The man of mystique’s elaborate imagination is what has drawn us in year on year – and on his new double album, ‘Mr Morale & The Big Steppers’, he serves up two nine-track discs of contemporary philosophy and fun.

Every Kendrick Lamar album has had a theme: 2011’s ‘Section 8.0’ saw him tackle systemic racism; 2012’s ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ was Kendrick relaying his childhood; 2015’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ was Kenny rebelling and empowering his community (be that Black people or Compton residents); and 2017’s ‘DAMN’ was all about Kendrick battling internal and external battles as Kung-Fu Kenny. Here, Oklama – Kendrick’s latest form – excavates societal and communal issues within the black community.

On the surface of his latest record, Kendrick Lamar comes off as a sort of hood messiah. Just look at the thorny crown he sports on the artwork, the endless prophetic verses about change or, most explicitly, when he describes himself as “Christ with a shooter” on ‘Rich Spirit’. But on ‘Savior’, which features his younger cousin Baby Keem, he reminds the world that he’s not perfect enough to be seen this way: “The cat is out the bag – I am not your savior / I find it just as difficult to love thy neighbours”. On this choppy tune, Kendrick grapples with cancel culture, and capitalism and COVID: Seen a Christian say the vaccine mark of the beast / Then he caught COVID and prayed to Pfizer for relief.”

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The penultimate track, ‘Mother I Sober’, featuring Beth Gibbons of Portishead, finds him playing with the messiah concept once more. Peeling back the layers of his family life, he truly tries to free himself, his family and others of their trauma. Telling the dark tale of his own mother’s sexual assault and the overarching systemic weight Black people have to carry, the track pulls at the heartstrings of any Black person listening. It is an emotional experience between Lamar and his community.

As with ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, Kendrick taps into his knockout theatrical skills here. On ‘Auntie Diaries’, he opens up about coming to terms with his auntie being transgender, embodying the immature attitude he had about everything as a child. As he questionably throws around the F-word, as he used it then, ‘Auntie Diaries’ is a polarising track – but an important one on this album.

But it’s not all serious. On the first disc, ‘The Big Steppers’ definitely has fun. Take ‘N95’, the most high-octane track on the album, on which we get a plethora of zippy one-liners and humour, which you might not expect sandwiched between piercing commentary on materialism and society: “Take all that designer bullshit off and what do you have? / Huh! You ugly as fuck / You out of pocket”. He might be a mature 34-year-old man, but it’s still good for Kendrick to cut loose and have some fun between the philosophising – particularly since, atop a muffled, ‘90s-style instrumental on ‘Worldwide Steppers’, he reveals that he had “writer’s block for two years; nothin’ moved me” and that he “asked God to speak through me – that’s what you hear now”.

Overall, ‘Mr Morale & The Big Steppers’ might exude a moodier, more melancholic sound than Kendrick’s previous albums, but there are other pop gems on the record too. ‘Count Me Out’, for example, sees Lamar utilise his understated melodic rap tone over dark guitar gargles. Sometimes he splits the difference between the two moods: ‘Die Hard’ might be a redemptive track about it never being too late to right wrongs and chase your dreams, but the clinks of cowbells in the background remind you of chinking glasses in the summertime.

The Kodak Black-assisted ‘Silent Hill’, too, sees Kendrick draw on Keem’s loose rap style to have some fun, as he relays a lyrically simple tale about how his life is now. The refrain harnesses that animated Kendrick voice we all love, as he’s “pushin’ the snakes, I’m pushin’ the fakes / I’m pushin’ ’em all off me like, ‘Huh!”.

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At the same time, though, ‘Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers’ is a record outlining the Black plight and is created for his community. In this sense, it’s one of the deepest cuts we’ve had from Kendrick. While ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ showed the world what it’s like to grow up as a kid in Compton, his fifth album serves up vignettes about what it’s like to be a Black adult whose trauma still haunts them. In laying his soul bare, he hopes we realise how we can set ourselves free from generational curses too. This album is as much about struggle as it is freedom, and what a beautiful sentiment that is.

Details

Release date: May 13

Record label: PgLang / Top Dawg Entertainment / Aftermath / Interscope Records

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