Kendrick Lamar’s all by himself, in more ways than one. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is extraordinary; another masterclass, providing an agonising look into, and outward from, the psyche of one of the 21st Century’s greatest artists.
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Among mere mortals, perhaps. More sincere, and most unnerving, is realising you could simply never come close. Realising not only that you couldn’t do what is being done – that should be fairly obvious to most – but that you couldn’t remotely conceive it.
Kendrick Lamar now resides in a realm where, both technically and conceptually, he has no peers.
Everything about his return has been handled with precision and executed to perfection. It had to be. After five years away, each minute detail was going to be scrutinised: from the letter on oklama.com last year, to the album announcement on Twitter, to the album’s name, to ‘The Heart Part 5’ single, to ‘The Heart Part 5’ video, to the album artwork, and now, most importantly, the substance and sound of the music itself.
That Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers succeeds in living up to impossibly high expectations is one thing; that Kendrick Lamar manages to innovate and astound, whilst still passing this most stringent of tests, cements his position as the number one rapper in the world.
Though there are some sonic surprises – the first disc’s accessibility and the hat-trick of Kodak Black appearances likely the two biggest – the subject matter of Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is most startling. It’s all about Kendrick. Forget talking about the culture or Compton. Forget talking about history or the future. These topics appear when they intersect with Kendrick’s life, but this album is relentlessly told through his own personal lens, even when that view is embarrassing or controversial. This allows him to explore societal issues in a way nobody else – neither musician nor writer – can.
And, it turns out, Kendrick’s viewpoint can get difficult to look through, particularly over the last few years. He’s allowed us deep into his psyche before, but rarely, if ever, has that landscape been so consistently disturbed. You could argue To Pimp A Butterfly’s ‘U’ remains the lowest we’ve publicly seen Kendrick go, but Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers bares all.
The three song run of ‘Auntie Diaries’, ‘Mr. Morale’ and ‘Mother I Sober’ might be the best three consecutive songs on any Kendrick album ever (TPAB’s ‘These Walls’, ‘U’ and ‘Alright’ the closest competition by my reckoning).
‘Mother I Sober’ is seven minutes of spine-chilling poetry, exploring the cyclical nature of generational abuse and childhood trauma. Unlike the opening verse of ‘FEAR.’, written in parts from the perspective of abusive parents and touching on a similar theme, ‘Mother I Sober’ makes no mention of Compton or the surrounding neighbourhood. This song just lays out what Kendrick went through with the painfully personal detail that makes Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers so alarming. I’ve never heard anything like it. The outro, spoken by his child and partner, brought a tear to my eye.
‘Auntie Diaries’ explores the way the black community, the rap community and the church look at the transgender community. That Kendrick can make it sound as good as it is poignant is remarkable. The final verse muses over a notorious incident when Kendrick kicked a white fan off stage for using the n-word when rapping along to ‘m.A.A.d city’, yet him not holding people to the same standard over homophobic slurs, particularly the word f***** (also referenced on ‘Mother I Sober’).
‘We Cry Together’ and ‘Father Time (feat. Sampha)’ are another two deeply personal songs with broader societal implications. The former is an argument between Kendrick and a woman, with absolutely nothing held back. You can feel the disdain. You feel the f-s in the “Fuck Yous”. It’s actually really quite uncomfortable listening – two people being as vile to each other as they possibly can – but it’s an unflinching look at toxic relationships and prevailing gender prejudices. The female part is narrated by Taylour Paige, while Whitney Alford – Kendrick’s real life partner and the mother of his children – is also given a narration credit.
‘Father Time’ talks about daddy issues. Yet again, the daddy issues are his own: “I COME FROM A GENERATION OF HOME INVASIONS AND I GOT DADDY ISSUES,” the verse begins, but really he’s speaking on behalf of a cohort of men who don’t acknowledge their own daddy issues, with the phrase typically reserved for young women in a derogatory sense. A Florence + the Machine sample opens the song and Sampha’s two hooks are fantastic – that he was chosen to appear on this song, on this album, shows just how revered he has become.
Apologies, I’m making this album sound a lot less fun than it is.
All of the above songs are sensational, and for all the heavy going, there are moments of genuine hope and some banging tracks as well. ‘Count Me Out’ is fantastic – the final 45 seconds arguably my favourite moment on the whole album on first listen. ‘N95’ and ‘Worldwide Steppers’ are another two catchy songs, with the latter packed with amusing one liners. “First time I fucked a white bitch I was 16 in the palisades” cracked me up.
Kodak Black’s repeated presence will annoy some, but that’s by design. Purists may object to his distinctive sound, but on production this good, it works well. It’s fun. His verse on ‘Silent Hill’ slaps. Idgaf. Then there’s those who will object to Kodak’s presence because of his well-publicised prior criminal and political controversies. Cancel culture is an issue that Kendrick comes back to time and again on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers and it turns out he couldn’t care less.
Let’s end with ‘Crown’. There’s no doubt King Kenny reigns supreme – a position he has spent his career working towards and claiming as his own. He doesn’t need to anymore. Any mention of his undisputed supremacy on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is preceded or followed by a caveat that Kendrick has found with power. The album cover shows him wearing a crown of thorns and ‘Crown’ seems him repeating “I can’t please everybody” again and again.
Perhaps not everybody, but, for now, he’s still got the vast majority. He’s in a league of his own. The bravery, shown like never before on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, is what’s keeping him there. Vulnerability so unwavering that this album stands right up to his, and hip-hop’s, magnum opus, To Pimp A Butterfly, and everything else Kendrick’s released so far.
It’s an instant classic. A day isn’t enough to fully digest an album this complicated, but its quality is already clear.