|2022||Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers||Kendrick Lamar||★★★★||82||Hip-Hop|
Whenever Kendrick Lamar puts anything out — a full album, a compilation, a new single, a new feature — it’s an event. It’s something that demands attention beyond just hip-hop fans or those that follow music culture closely. It’s the first thing anyone listens to that day, and then (if you’re me, anyway) you roll it back again, and again, and again until the day is over. Because every record he’s put out since 2012 has been a masterpiece, every single he’s put out has been solid at worst, and almost every song he’s been featured on, he’s spit hot fire.
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is, again, a masterpiece. It’s a masterpiece, because no individual other than Kendrick can weave so many different themes into one record. No individual other than Kendrick knows how to consistently push the boundaries of, not just hip-hop production, but production for all popular music genres. Nobody raps like him. Nobody writes like him. Nobody sounds like him. Nobody demands your attention on a song like him.
Harmonies open the album, before sharp, individual piano chords welcome Kendrick on “United in Grief,” his voice building with the addition of chaotic drums mimicking tap dancing, bouncy staccato strings transitioning to full, smooth chords, and fading out to gentle piano that contrast the opening notes. Similar to the opening moments of To Pimp A Butterfly, it sets the scene flawlessly, sounding like something new that you haven’t quite heard before, and lets you know Kendrick has something to get off his chest.
The second track, “N95,” is the closest thing to a radio hit on the album, and the hard-hitting piano and synth production mixed with Kendrick’s lyrical repetition makes it instantly captivating.
The tap-dancing sounds season the record here and there and connect themes across moments, while that piano is ingrained in the fabric of the record, with almost every track featuring it in some way.
Prime examples of the piano both being used as a driver for the song and as just a texture are “Father Time,” which features a great Sampha appearance (where has that guy been?), as well as “Purple Hearts,” with guest features by Summer Walker and the legendary Ghostface Killah, the almost tribal sounding “Crown,” and likely the most personal, moving, Vulnerable, genuine, heartbreaking song on the record, “Mother I Sober,” featuring the incomparable Beth Gibbons.
My favorite track on the album is “Silent Hill,” which sonically sounds different from the rest of the record. A more standard hip-hip/R&B composition compared to some of the more nuanced production across the album, the song gives off strong driving/chilling at night vibes using a thudding bass underneath soft, dreamy chimes and strings that drag in emotion. Plus, Kodak Black inexplicably gives the best verse on the album.
Another album highlight is “Mr. Morale” featuring Tanna Leone. Produced by Pharrell, his patented bouncy percussion and backing vocal layers build intensity, mixing with haunting chanting in the distance. It stand out as a welcome change of pace near the end of the record and between two of the album’s heaviest songs emotionally.
But, while the album has a lot to praise, it’s the most imperfect of Kendrick’s masterpieces. Partly because we hold Kendrick Lamar to a higher standard than we do most other hip-hop artists, both musically and as a person.
Maybe that’s unfair. After all, as he points out specifically on the album, he is not our savior, he didn’t sign up to be the moral conscience of hip-hop music and he’s never pretended to be a perfect person or someone without demons.
Kodak Black was featured on dozens of records over the past two years before Kendrick got roasted a bit for giving him a feature. Is Kodak Black’s inclusion a fair criticism?
Probably not, but… Kendrick probably should have known better, or at least expected some of the backlash, and maybe could have found someone else to give multiple appearances to, as good as Kodak might have been on the songs.
Similarly, criticism comes from his repeated use of a gay slur on “Auntie Diaries,” a song that’s specifically about sexual/gender identity and how the meaning of the word and how it was used in his youth, when he admits he was ignorant, is different from his view of it today.
Hundreds of classic hip-hop songs, as well as big hits in the not so distant past, used the word and other similar slurs casually with little repercussion, if any at all. Is it fair to hold Kendrick to a different standard and to get up in arms about it, especially when he’s doing it in a way that’s trying to actually discuss the issue?
Probably not, but… there’s no way Kendrick didn’t think at least some people would be offended by it, and the hubris to say it over and over, even if it’s intentionally for impact, probably is worth talking about. After all, if this was a white guy in a song using slurs to prove a point, no matter how smart of a point they might think it is, they’d be canceled in a second.
It is all worthy of criticism, I think, because we have had a decade of Kendrick Lamar proving that he’s the smartest guy in hip-hop, that he understands big-picture political movements and struggles. Whether he signed up intentionally to be a mouthpiece for change and higher thinking or not, that is what he became, and with the years of praise and bowing down in awe of his best works comes a more critical lens when things don’t work as well.
But beyond the few things on the album that got some riled up to pseudo-cancel Kendrick when it first came out, the main issue about the album is, despite the great musical moments and lyrics, I don’t find some of the tracks particularly memorable.
The songs seem more important and deep than 2017’s radio-friendly DAMN. (although DAMN. had some pretty heavy stuff in it too despite the more accessible façade), but the story telling isn’t as fun or vivid as good kid, m.A.A.d city, and the lyrics and metaphors aren’t nearly as poignant as To Pimp A Butterfly and sometimes fall short (as fun as “N95” is, “Bitch, you ugly as fuck” as a chorus is pretty lazy for Kendrick standards).
Although I like most of the tracks, I tend to turn some of them on, sit through a verse or two, and then skip to the next, instead of listening through the whole song from start to finish, something I rarely do while listening through an album I really like.
It could be a product of Mr. Morale being a double album that’s almost 75 minutes long, or that the interludes and beat switches make it feel even longer sometimes than 18 tracks. And while songs like “Worldwide Steppers,” “Die Hard,” “Rich Spirit,” “Count Me Out” all sound cool, they feel like they don’t really go anywhere once you get to the meat of them, and “We Cry Together” and “Auntie Diaries” aren’t really songs I’d want to listen to, although I understand why they’re on the record and their production is solid musically.
Not all great albums are great to run back time and time again, and after that initial rush of the release back in the early summer of 2022, I haven’t found myself going through Mr. Morale start to finish all that frequently. Some songs are for sure in my rotation, others are great — like a highly acclaimed, important movie that you watch once and appreciate, but don’t have to rewatch too often — and some I choose not to listen to. But it is a great record.