Over the last 11 years, Kendrick Lamar has become one of the greatest rappers of all time. He has been a model of excellence and consistency; all 4 of his albums to this point have been highly critically acclaimed and are considered some of the best music to come out in this time period. Two of them are considered to be two of the best albums of all time in any genre. Most artists focus on either being cutting edge with the sound of their music, being sophisticated and prophetic with their lyrics, or focus on making music that is simple and fun to listen to. Kendrick has somehow mastered all three of these things in a way almost no artist jas ever been able to do(at least since the 70s when there was so much less music before it to compare to). He has been able to make music that is not only easy to enjoy but also has a deep and enlightened meaning. After releasing four critically acclaimed albums in 6 years(including 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which is considered by many people to be one of the best records of all time, and including 2017’s DAMN, which is the only Hip Hop album to win a Pulitzer Prize), Kendrick went on a five-year hiatus. Considering how socially conscious his music has been, most of his fans have expected and wanted him to release at least one album during the hiatus. From the racial justice issues in our country to COVID, there were a lot of big social issues for him to talk about. But Kendrick has always been insistent on only talking about things he wants to talk about when he wants to talk about them, so he decided to wait until now to say what he needs to say. Because of this long hiatus, the expectations for Kendrick’s new record, Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers, are extremely high. The question is, of course, can he once again live up to these lofty expectations? Here is my review of and opinion on Kendrick Lamar’s new album. Mr. Morale The Big Steppers. Please comment below what your opinion is on this record, and also comment on what your favorite songs from it are.
Kendrick starts the album with a bang with the song ‘United In Grief.’ He is determined to lose no time with this record. The song starts with a slow but sporadic futuristic Jazz instrumental, defined by an off-kilter piano riff and a distorted drum pattern that sounds like a rapid snare beat that has a ton of static over it. About 1:15 into the song, the instrumental transitions; the rest of the song has a breakbeat sound that has a melody that sort of sounds like a sped-up and synthesized version of the one from the beginning of the song. Kendrick starts out rapping with a high level of intensity and vigor during the first section of the song, and he turns it up a notch when the transition happens. It is as if he gets more unhinged and quick with his flow as the song goes on. This song grabs the listener’s attention and draws them into the album right from the jump. On ‘United In Grief.’ Kendrick talks about all of the success he has had in his career, and how it has led to some very high highs and very low lows when it comes to his mental health. He has been able to buy any car, house, or piece of jewelry he could ever want, but he still needs to constantly see a therapist because he is not truly happy. Next, we get ‘N95,’ which has quickly emerged as a fan favorite from the record. It is one of my favorite songs on the record. This track is very brash and high energy; the instrumental meets the emotion that Kendrick raps with. The instrumental has a bit of a Drill and Trap mixture. The melody and beat have a modern Trap sound, but the track has an underlying continuous buzzing bass line that reminds me of Drill music. Overall, it makes for a tough and fierce sound that is almost scary in a way. Kendrick starts the song with a somewhat soft and calm flow, but this quickly changes as the song progresses. Vocally, Kendrick pulls out everything on this song. He sings, he raps with a high-pitched, fast flow, and he raps with his signature nasally flow all at some point in this track. It is like an overload of what he is known for as far as how he sounds. On ‘N95,’ Kendrick is calling out all sorts of people. He calls out other artists for paying to boost their streams, he calls out other artists for wearing weird clothes and jewelry that are out of their pay grade for attention, he calls out the government and media, and he calls out the world’s response to COVID, etc. This song is his opinion on what has been going on in the world over the last couple of years. The third song of the record is ‘Worldwide Steppers,’ and it is certainly one of the stranger and most interesting cuts. The instrumental for this song is honestly hard to explain. It kind of sounds like a background track that would be played during an intense monologue scene of a movie. The melody is provided by an anxious keyboard riff, and there are lots of weird sound effects in the background that enhance the anxiety of its sound. At one point in the song around the two-minute mark, an old-school psychedelic funky guitar melody comes in, but it switches back to the original melody after 15 seconds. As I stated before, this song feels like a movie monologue. It consists of Kendrick speaking with a spoken word sort of rap flow for 3:30. This song feels like a self-reflection and criticism piece. He raps about his two children and how they keep him grounded, his numerous affairs that have ruined his relationship, his opinions on religion, writers’ block, and how he has hurt those around him. It is an intimate look into his life. ‘Die Hard,’ which features Blxst and Amanda Reifer, is a lighter song than the first three. This one is a sort of love track. It is another track that has emerged as a fan favorite that I also really enjoy. Instrumentally, this track is a lot simpler and smoother. It has a light and breezy funk sound that sounds like it came from the Disco era. Kendrick again shows off his diversity in deliveries on this track. There are points in the verses where he sings in a fashion that reminds me of Roddy Ricch, and there are points where he raps with a flow and tempo that reminds me of early 2000s rappers like Fabolous. Honestly, though, the real standouts on ‘Die Hard’ are Blxst and Amanda Reifer. They handle the chorus and post-chorus respectively, and both provide soft and smooth vocals that give the song such a warm feeling. In ‘Die Hard,’ Kendrick and his friends are talking about the hardships of a relationship for Kendrick. He is afraid to open up because he thinks his partner will leave him but ultimately realizes he has to do so for the relationship to blossom as it needs to.
‘Father Time,’ which features Sampha, is a song with a sound that sort of reminds me of the one that started the record. This is another track with a funky Jazz piano riff which is put over a weird and distorted drum pattern. ‘Father Time,’ is significantly slower than ‘United In Grief.’ Even though the drums are distorted and sound full of static, the way they are paced give the track an easy feeling. I like the way Kendrick Lamar’s vocals contrast with Sampha’s vocals on this song. Kendrick raps with a loud, anxious tone on this record, and Sampha sings with a sweet and soothing tone. In ‘Father Time,’ Kendrick raps about his issues with his father, as well as the issues with the fathers of a lot of young men. He comments on how so many men are learning toxic masculinity and how they need to respect others more. He also comments on how the absence of fathers for so many young men affects them in a negative way. ‘Rich – Interlude’ is a monologue moment from Kodak Black. Over a crazy, irregular piano melody, Kodak talks about his struggles growing up and how he has struggled to fit into the Hip Hop business. He also talks about how he is grateful to be in the position he is in now and that he is always trying to make sure he never goes back to the way he used to live. Following this, we get ‘RIch Spirit.’ This is a track where Kendrick shows that he can do what mainstream Hip Hop artists are doing today at least as good as them if not better. This song has a modern melodic Trap sound that I would never expect to hear from Kendrick. The melody and pacing have a bit of a Caribbean and Dancehall theme to them, and the song is driven by a low-key and simple fast Trap beat. This instrumental reminds me a lot of what modern Florida artists like Kodak Black, 9lokknine, and YNW Melly like to do. Kendrick’s flow on this record is as smooth as ever. He rides the beat as well as any modern Trap rapper could. In ‘Rich Spirit,’ Kendrick talks about a variety of topics such as unfaithfulness and narcissism. He is seemingly trying to justify these things he is accused of while simultaneously acknowledging he knows he is wrong. ‘We Cry Together,’ which features Taylour Paige, is one of the more unique Hip Hop songs I have heard. It is not that easy to describe; it’s something you just need to hear. This song feels like a very hot-blooded and intimate shouting match and argument that is set to a Jazz instrumental. This Jazz instrumental is uncomfortable and messy sounding; it goes with the energy of the song well. This argument between Kendrick and Taylour sounds like the kind of argument a lot of couples probably have. They discuss topics like infidelity, selfishness, neglect, being aloof in a relationship, not fulfilling each other’s sexual needs, and so much more. The chorus of the song is Kendrick and Taylour Paige screaming “Fuck you, bitch!’ and ‘Fuck you, n****a!’ back and forth at each other(besides for the last chorus, which throws a twist into the song’s narrative). ‘We Cry Together’ is such a fascinating and engaging concept for a song, and it is a track that so many people can relate to.
So far on this record, it has seemed like Kendrick has tried to push his sound and style of making music to limits and places that he has not ventured before. That sentiment continues with the song ‘Purple Hearts,’ which features Summer Walker and Ghostface Killlah. This track has a 90s R&B feeling to it. The instrumental has a light and twinkling sound and an old-school beat. It honestly reminds me of some music by artists like Mariah Carey or SWV. At points in this song, Kendrick is singing and at other points, he is rapping. I like hearing him go back and forth like this because it once again shows how diverse he is. This track has a sound that Summer Walker has excelled at in the past and the 90s is the era that Ghostface KIllah comes from, so these features also fit in well. ‘Purple Hearts’ is a song that is about love and drugs. It kind of compares and contrasts the two, and shows that the way they make people act and feel is not so different. In the next song, which is called ‘Count Me Out,’ Kendrick once again goes against what people would expect from him. This is another moment where Kendrick shows he can do what modern artists are doing better than them. .’Count Me Out’ has a light and airy Cloud Trap sound which is very smooth and breezy. The production on this song reminds me of artists like Young Thug, Lil Uzi Vert, Sahbabii, or Lil Keed(R.I.P.). I love how the melody is supported by what sounds like a choir in the background, as it adds a lot of texture to the track. Kendrick kills this instrumental with this flow; he hits it as hard and clean as any other rapper could today. On ‘Count Me Out,’ Kendrick is rapping about a relationship he used to have that he still thinks about constantly. He knows that he has outgrown this person and loves to prove them wrong with his success, but he can not let go of the good and bad ways this person used to make him feel. The next song, ‘Crown,’ may be the most polarizing song on the record. I have seen very mixed opinions about this song online so far; there are people that think it is the coolest song on the record, and there are people that hate it. The instrumental for this song has a bit of a Folk-Pop sound to it. It honestly kind of reminds me of Simon and Garfunkel in a way. Even though the song has a Folk feeling to the instrumental, Kendrick still “raps’ on this song. It is interesting to hear him try to keep a rap flow on this kind of instrumental. Even though it does sound a bit awkward at times, it seems like it works. On ‘Crown,’ Kendrick shows a vulnerable and intimate side to himself that he typically keeps guarded. He opens up on how he knows that so many people look up to him and see him as a hero of sorts, but there are still so many people he can not please. Because he is on this pedestal, so many people expect so much from him. The fact that he can not please all of these people makes him struggle with pleasing himself. Following this, we get ‘Silent HIll,’ which features Kodak Black. This is another one of my favorite songs on the record. Sonically, this song is a lot closer to what one would expect to hear from Kendrick. The instrumental reminds me of some of his biggest hits from back in the day. It has a modern G-Funk mixed with Trap sound. It sounds like a lot of the funky old-school-tinted California Trap music that Kendrick and Schoolboy Q made popular in the early 2000s. I love Kendrick’s flow in this song. He uses one of his signature high-pitched tones on ‘Silent Hill,’ and adds a lot of vocal sound effects throughout the song that enhance this vocal tone and flow. Kodak Black’s flow and energy match with Kendrick’s in a big way and they compliment Kendrick well. On ‘Silent Hill,’ Kendrick and Kodak rap about their lives and how successful they are compared to where they came from. They also talk about how with this kind of success comes people that want to take advantage of them and use them.
‘Savior(Interlude)’ is another break in the record provided by another artist. This time, the interlude is provided by Kendrick’s very own cousin Baby Keem. In this powerful verse which is diverse in its lyrical content but still feels succinct, it is easy to hear how much Kendrick has influenced the way his younger cousin raps. ‘Savior(Interlude)’ is a 2-minute verse(which comes in after a brief intro from self-help author Eckhart Tolle) that is rapped over a classical music style instrumental that is driven by violins. In this verse, Baby Keem raps about some of the struggles he had while growing up(such as his mom being a heroin addict and him getting into drug dealing at an early age), as well as some of the problems he is currently facing now that he is a budding star. As so many people say, money may get rid of your old problems, but it usually just ends up creating different problems. The next song is called ‘Savior,’ and it features Baby Keem and Sam Dew. This is another song with a very interesting instrumental that is tough to explain. It sounds futuristic and retro at the same time. The way the song is paced reminds me a bit of 90s Boom Bap and the melody has a powerful Gospel sound(mixed with a bit of R&B) to it, but the buzzing bass in the background and the way the drums are incorporated have an ultra-modern feeling to them in my opinion. I feel like it is a song that old school Hip Hop lovers and new Hip Hop lovers could potentially love because of how the beat and instrumental can appeal to both parties. On this track, Kendrick and Baby Keem rap with a high pitch and a high level of intensity that matches the energy of the instrumental very well. ‘Savior’ is a song about how people become obsessed with celebrities and artists and see them as idols. Instead of people gravitating toward famous people and hanging on their every word, Kendrick believes people should turn to God for help. One of my favorite things about this album is sonically we never know what we are going to get. This once again proves to be true with the song ‘Auntie Diaries.’ This track has a sound that is reminiscent of 1970s psychedelic Funk and R&B music. This instrumental is honestly straight out of the Disco era. One may expect Kendrick to sing or have a melodic quality to his rapping tone, but he does not. Instead, he raps with a fast, low-toned, and low-pitched flow that seems like it would not fit into the song but somehow completely works. ‘Auntie Diaries’ is a song with a deep and important topic and meaning that so many people need to hear. It discusses his community, the Church’s, and his own opinions on LGBTQ matters while telling a story about two transgender people. He eventually tells the story of how he let a white girl on stage one and let her say the “N” word; he disapproved of her doing this and she got kicked off stage. He goes on to say that if people are allowed to call gay people the “F” word then white women have to be able to say the “N” word. It is an interesting point that I am sure has and will provoke a lot of important conversations.
‘Mr. Morale,’ which features Tanna Leone, keeps the Funk theme that the last song had; it is not the same kind of Funk or era of Funk music, though. The instrumental for this one almost has a French House or modern Disco sound to it. The Beat has a bit of a Trap quality to it, which also gives the song a modern quality. It almost sounds like some weird and experimental instrumental that Daft Punk made in collaboration with some new DJ who loves to make Melodic Trap. Kendrick raps with a high-pitch and high level of intensity that feels similar to the song that precedes it. Tanna Leone stands out in the chorus; the way his vocals are glitched matches the chaotic energy of the song. On ‘Mr. Morale,’ Kendrick raps about going through trauma and trying to overcome it. After rapping about his trauma, he raps about R. Kelly, Oprah, and Tyler Perry respectively, touching on how they were all abused as youth and how they were(or weren’t) able to overcome this and become good people. It puts an interesting perspective on the cycle of abuse and how it affects certain people. Following this, we get ‘Mother I Sober,’ which features Beth Gibbons of Portishead. This track almost feels like Kendrick’s version of Baby Keem’s ‘Savior(Interlude.’ The instrumental has a theatrical and classical feeling to it, and it mainly consists of a sweet and soft piano melody. Instead of it being about 2:30, though, this song is 6:46. ‘Mother I Sober’ does have a chorus which is provided by Beth Gibbons, but it is almost an afterthought because of how powerful the verses are. This is one of the most raw and dark songs Kendrick has ever put out. In ‘Mother I Sober,’ Kendrick touches on a variety of touchy subjects. He discusses the trauma he went through as a kid as he knew his mom was getting sexually abused. He feels like seeing this happen to his mom eventually led to his toxicity and it is one of the reasons he has been so unfaithful to his partner over the years. He discusses how he has never been dependent on drugs and has avoided substances, but his form of depravity ended up being lust for women. In other words, instead of doing drugs, he cheated on his partner for that rush. He discusses the large amount of sexual abuse of children in the African American community, and how this directly affects how they end up as adults. They do not have a sense of self-worth, which makes them not respect others. He thinks the only way to break this cycle is for everyone to be open, honest, and positive; he wants people to talk about their abuse and trauma, hopefully getting them to love and respect each other more. This song has such a strong and important message, and it is something that so many people needed to hear. The album closes out with the song ‘Mirror,’ and I do not think there could have been a better way to end it. I mean, the song starts with Kodak Black saying ‘I Choose Me,’ and the chorus consists of Kendrick saying ‘I Choose Me, I’m Sorry.’ The instrumental for this track is unlike any other on the record. It has a Neo-R&B sound that reminds me a lot of artists like Frank Ocean, SZA, or The Internet. The melody is driven by some other-worldly sounding synths, the drum pattern has a tempo and sound that give me a modern Disco feeling; the tempo for this track almost has a Deep House feeling to it. Kendrick shows off multiple deliveries on this track, at some points singing and some points rapping with different flows and vocal tones. On this track, he talks about being a new father, living lavishly(despite the more modest image he tends to have), and putting his happiness and well-being over everyone and everything else besides his family. He discusses how therapy has helped him get over a lot of his shortcomings, and that he thinks he is now finally on a positive path. ‘Mirror’ wraps this album up well, as it shows that though Kendrick may not have every answer that every random person wants, he is doing the best he can do for himself.
In the introduction of this review, I stated that it would be tough for Kendrick to live up to the extremely lofty expectations that so many people have for this album. In my personal opinion, he somehow passed these expectations. Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers may not have been anything close to what I expected, but I do think it is near perfect for what it is. I saw a youtube comment about this record that stated this is not necessarily the album the general public wanted and needed, but it is the record that Kendrick needed. While Kendrick did provide a lot of guidance in this record and he did address a lot of the currently important social topics that most listeners wanted him to address, this was not the main focus of this album. Instead, the record almost felt like a therapy session for Kendrick himself. He discusses a lot of the shortcomings and problems he has that have caused harm to those he loves, and he discusses a lot of the trauma he has gone through that has affected who he is. He also compares what he has gone through to what so many black youth have gone through and still go through today, trying to give advice to people so they can break this cycle. Sonically, this record has elements that are similar to Good Kid, Ma.a.d City, and To Pimp A Butterfly. It does have a storytelling quality that makes it comparable to the former, and it has a teaching quality to it that makes it comparable to the latter. I feel like this album has a lot more of a raw feeling than anything Kendrick has made to the point, though. He takes a lot of risks on the record and he goes in directions that he would have never been expected to go in, and he nails it pretty much every time. I could see this record being polarizing for some of his fans, as it is pretty far from what a lot of people anticipated. I think that although it may not be the favorite Kendrick album for some people now, it is going to age super well. People will look back on it and see what Kendrick was doing and appreciate it more than they do now. I, however, think Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers is excellent. I could not have wanted more from this record. Kendrick has once again proved that he is still the best in the game, let alone one of the best Emcees ever.