Kendrick Lamar Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers pgLang / Top Dawg Entertainment / Aftermath / Interscope
Trauma coils itself tightly around the body, suffocating it — in moments of stress, this causes the body to act negatively. At least, that’s the thesis behind German-born spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle’s work. Tolle, and the teachings from his books, The Power of Now and A New Earth, feature on Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers.
“One-thousand eight-hundred and fifty-five days/ I’ve been goin’ through somethin’/ Be afraid,” Lamar prefaces on opener United In Grief, referencing the elapsed time since the release of his fourth album, the Pulitzer Prize-winning DAMN.. So much has shifted on a global scale, but for Lamar, it’s the human scale that matters – the almost-whispered intro is followed by a burst of propulsive drums and staccato piano that situates the listener amidst the chaos of Lamar’s inner life.
He proceeds to use the next 17 tracks to wrestle with such fraught issues as fatherhood, cancel culture, religion, infidelity, addiction and generational trauma. Lamar calls upon frequent collaborators like The Alchemist, Sounwave and Bekon, alongside new additions such as Duval Timothy and Beach Noise, to provide the ever-shifting backdrop for his spiralling trains of thought. While his wordplay functions like an extended therapy session, the album’s production functions like a jigsaw puzzle, using the spaces between Lamar’s outpourings to add resonance to his omissions. Deep and heady basslines spar with trap trills, 90s R&B piano riffs and jazz inflections. It’s an evocative reflection of an anxious brain’s inner thoughts – skittish, drifting, rarely at rest.
The first half of Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers prioritises radical truth-telling. N95 – one of the most immediately compelling cuts here – finds Kendrick urging us to question a roll call of societal codes and assumptions, including the response to the pandemic, hinting,“You’re back outside, but they still lied”. Father Time sees Lamar unpacking his relationship with his own father: “Daddy issues, hid my emotions, never expressed myself” – the ache of the memory made real through Sampha’s wounded falsetto. Standout track We Cry Together features Zola actor Taylour Paige trading bars with Kendrick. The escalating argument, bracingly natural but pinned to rhythm, feels almost too real, too wrought, even, as if the listener is transported into the couple’s living room.
The second half of the album sees Lamar gesture towards a kind of healing. Mother I Sober – featuring the haunting, brilliant Beth Gibbons – addresses head-on the trauma that suffuses the album. It’s emotionally devastating, with Lamar rapping: “Heal myself, secrets that I hide, buried in these words/ Death threats, ego must die, but I let it purge”. Savior is an outright rejection of the moral burden placed on celebrities, particularly Black celebrities. “Kendrick made you think about it, but he is not your saviour/ Cole made you feel empowered, but he is not your saviour/ Future said, ‘Get a money counter,’ but he is not your saviour.”
Despite the album’s magnificence, there are two glaring missteps in this second act. Auntie Diaries tells the story of two transgender people in Lamar’s family, their stories used as a device to critique himself and wider society. It’s a missed opportunity – the decision to use derogatory slurs undermines the point of the track. Then there’s the inclusion of Kodak Black, most notably on Silent Hill, but his presence permeates the album. A problematic figure, Black pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of first-degree assault and battery after initially being charged for sexual assault in 2017. It’s a disorientating provocation on an album that is otherwise so sensitive to trauma and its consequences.
But perhaps this is yet another knot in an album full of them. There’s no doubt that Mr. Morale is an album to unravel over time, and where loosening one thread will likely pull you deeper into its world. After five years, what did we expect? Simple answers? Meanwhile, closer Mirror gives a tantalising glimpse at an artist newly unburdened from any such expectations. “Sorry I didn’t save the world, my friend/ I was too busy buildin’ mine again.”