Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is ambitiously imperfect, Kendrick Lamar more concerned with healing himself than being rap’s great savior.
Now an age-old idiom within the English-literary canon, “Uneasy is the head that wears the crown” — later updated as “Heavy is the head that wears the crown” — depicts the burden of pressure that comes with seizing a seismic position within society. Be it a king (like the quote originally aligned with across Henry VII’s reign) or one of the old-guards in the contemporary face of hip-hop, the quote has lived on, now bestowed on one of contemporary rap’s most beloved figures — Kendrick Lamar. And on the rapper’s latest release, Mr. Morale & the big Steppers, it’s clear that he’s found himself at odds with such a responsibility and role within the rap landscape.
Of contemporary rap’s “top three” — Drake, J. Cole and Kendrick — the latter is seen as the torch bearer for the genre’s foundational core elements: lyrical prowess, flow, and quintessential realism. Since breaking through the mainstream with Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, he’s been expected to live up to expectations. To balance poignant storytelling (“The Art of Peer Pressure”) with self-confidence (“The Recipe” or “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe”) and cohesion in only a way that simultaneously satisfies the mainstream, and the rap fanatics who find joy in deciphering the lyrics of a gifted wordsmith. Along the way, he delivered to the masses what is considered his magnum opus, To Pimp A Butterfly, a cultural zeitgeist that became the soundtrack for the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, and became the first rapper to receive a Pulitzer thanks to TPAB follow-up DAMN.
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers finds Lamar foraying into the cauldron of fame once more, tossing his tool-kit to one side in favor of sketching a completely new canvas: one that excludes order or obsession with pretense and coordination while navigating between transparency and hypocrisy, martyr and fallible human.
The album begins with an illuminating introduction, “United in Grief” where Lamar speaks on the luxuries that fame has afforded him — a Rolex watch, infinity pools, a Porsche — and allows him to “grieve different.” Whether different is merely used as a synonym for a heightened form of something (see the colloquial term “hit different”) or in a literal sense, many of us fawn grief away in similar (although likely less luxurious) ways. But the grief is still there; this is why, after the short-lived adrenaline and endorphin highs luxury purchases and sex can offer, Lamar is still consulting a psychologist and therapist to help him process. Getting to the root of healing and locomoting an endless cycle of temporary bliss is a recurring theme on the album, and Lamar does so in a way that’s refreshing, inviting listeners to join him on his journey of retribution.
Perhaps the smartest of all of the songs track listing, the opener sees the former TDE frontman in usual form, drifting between the faster of the flows in his arsenal. He’s sharp, poised — it’s the Kendrick that we’re all used to. But there’s a sombreness in his tone and cadence, his onomatopoeia echoing his troubled soul. Lamar experiments with his vocal delivery throughout the album, especially in regards to singing. Singing is in its highest concentration across Mr. Morale than it’s ever been before. On “Rich Spirit,” it allows him to sit in his thoughts for longer, coasting through his lingering frustrations. On “Purple Hearts,” it allows him to use a phrase — “Yeah, baby” — in a way that adds a levity and playfulness to a song about running toward — and surrendering — to love instead of fighting it (a stark contrast from the track that precedes it, “We Cry Together”).
In a genre where some rappers fight such emotions with deflection and ego, Lamar leaps toward it with conviction, conveying just how much he’s overcome in his romantic relationship.
Lyrically, however, Lamar’s transparency and saying exactly what he wants doesn’t always work on Mr. Morale. Although he aptly addresses the culture of misinformation and gossip that’s come to frame our news and conversations across social media on “N95,” he also stumbles across the often misused cancel culture on the track, too. Often conflated, what people mean when they refer to cancel culture is the transparent conversation about accountability. As Aja Romano reported last year for Vox, debate about cancel culture “obscures” objectives around meaningful conversation about wrongdoing as it’s been weaponized by both political arenas — markedly the right in America and by celebrities at large. In Kendrick’s case, trying to position cancel culture as a binary to which he has to pivot against felt like a misstep, even if trying to shed light on his ignorance or shortsightedness.
Having worked on the project for half-a-decade, some of the terminology (“fake woke” for example) feels dated. It’s clear Lamar is ruminating selfishly here, but with an audience of millions globally, the self-inflicted criticism falls flat in comparison to more harnessed deliveries of yester-year.
The intentional muddying of the waters in his approach also falls short on other tracks like “Worldwide Steppers.” Feeling like a rushed template rooted in Spike Lee-isms or poetry slams, the song finds Lamar messily spitballing everything from his alleged infedelities — and the comparisons to slavery potentially rooted in that — to Dr. Sebi atop climatic grand piano keys in a way that feels bloated. Lamar is clearly distorted from the abandonment issues, doubts about his relationships, and other issues previously mentioned on songs like “Mortal Man,” and “Worldwide Steppers” tries to evoke the same examinations of self. However, it’s simply too clumsy. All the themes are easy to follow but their cross-pollination suffers from a lack of clarity.
But the album’s most notable misstep is surely “Auntie Diaries.” Positing himself as an ally and a person who “understands now” the challenges queer — and particularly trans — people face, he chronicles his upbringing not knowing how to address his aunt’s transitioning. Whether deliberate or not the f-word is used 10-times; he also mis-genders both his family member and Caitlyn Jenner. Even with the justifications (mostly made by fans outside of the trans community) made on the grounds of both artistic expression and an honest display of his ignorance, the song can be seen to endorse the explicit use of derogatory terms and misgendering in particular scenarios. Lamar seemingly meant well — even employing the n-word analogy among the song’s closing remarks to reinforce his intent — but came up short. Hip-hop (and music at large) has to do better at highlighting allyship in this terrain, and Kendrick’s attempt, while significant, shouldn’t be seen as the standard for solidarity as some have touted it as.
In his journey of self, Lamar enlists a handful of guest features, employing the next generation of R&B, soul and hip-hop talent to aid in his admissions. Songs like “Die Hard” posits itself as a commercial, club-friendly anthem for 2022’s looming summer and autumn shindigs, partly thanks to both Blxst and Amanda Reifer’s catchy and melodic choruses. Sampha makes a welcomed appearance on the stripped back “Father Time,” his unorthodox vocal delivery grounding Kendrick’s self-induced spars with his ego (while also making calls for therapy and addressing toxic masculinity).
But Lamar’s most prominent feature is undoubtedly his cousin Baby Keem, who pops up as both a feature and producer on the album. You can tell that there’s a mutual bond between the two, Keem injecting a youthfulness into his older cousin’s music in both subtle and overt ways. Even his distinct, high-pitch vocal delivery adds to that, his constant repeated question of “are you happy for me?” on “Savior” made that much better by the way he says it. It adds a shrewd form of cynicism that captures Lamar’s perceptions of reality on his ascension to fame, all while functioning as a memorable hook, too.
Mr. Morale also happens to include two notable — and surprising — features in Taylour Paige and Black Kodak. The Zola star’s appearance on “We Cry Together” is a harrowing display of a fermenting abusive relationship, reflecting to the masses how disturbing and telling these situations can grow to be. Paige goes bar for bar with Kendrick throughout the track in a way that really hones in on the danger of harmful cycles in romantic relationships (despite the track’s cringeworthy heights).
Then, there’s Kodak. The most irksome of all of the features, Kodak acts as one of Kendrick’s figurative marks of imperfection. The Florida rapper — who plead guilty to battery and assault last year in relation to a larger sexual assault case from 2016 — has faced something of a redemption arc in hip-hop recently, having collaborated with artists like Latto, Lil Durk, French Montanna and, now, Kendrick. On Mr. Morale, Black first pops up on “Rich (Interlude),” which finds him speaking on his institutional, social and wealth-based struggles. It appears to act as a mark of solidarity from Kendrick Lamar in shared experiences from turbulent social circumstances, as well as their mutual identities as flawed Black men.
Kodak is a front-facing feature across the two discs, most notably on ‘”Silent Hill” where he raps alongside Kendrick. While Black is able to display his talents vocally across the project and proves to be a diverse act able to succinctly convey his experiences (sometimes better than Lamar himself), the fact still stands that his presence — likely to women moreso — is a decision that listeners could’ve done without. It sets a precedent, yet again, about solidarity with victims (alleged or proven), even if Lamar was trying to highlight imperfection — and the nuances that come with it — in that terrain.
Ultimately, as Kendrick continues to hone in on himself, the deity striving for a neat, redeeming portrayal of himself is buried. What becomes more prominent than ever to fans is that the rapper wants out of the rat-race. He’s achieved it all: the Pulitzer Prize, the Grammys, being crowned as the apex of rap — and yet he still finds it more redeeming to cash out of expectation. Amid all of the tribulations and missteps, the most coherent message of them all on this album is when he squarely tells us about himself and his approach to artistry (and the industry as a whole) going forward. Songs like “Count Me Out,” for example, embodies who Kendrick is — and wants to be — in May 2022: a man trying to accept himself in more ways than the one, blessings, flaws, mistakes and all. It’s this side of him that he’s thought the most about, and as he leaves TDE with this release it presents two important questions: will he offer the world more releases and if he does, will they follow a similar hue of imperfection?
What Mr Morale & The Big Steppers does is present a myriad of thought starters. Some are fleshed out; others suffer from a lack of overarching perspective in delivery and platforming. There’s a hastiness to it that, whether intentional or not, reflects the complexity and messiness of what it means to be human. Albeit the frustration of dissecting the mind of Lamar, he is able to shine mirrors back onto ourselves in his own struggles, making for an album that is ambitiously imperfect, Kendrick more concerned with healing himself than being rap’s great savior.
Nicolas-Tyrell is a freelance music and culture journalist and podcaster from London with bylines at HYPEBEAST, NME, Paper Magazine and Clash Magazine. Follow him @iamntyrell