Label: Top Dawg
Released: 13th May 2022
Sometimes the release of an album transcends mere “event” status. When Kendrick Lamar releases anything, it’s always a seismic cultural moment. ‘Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers’ is the sound of a generation-defining artist at the top of their game with something to say. The whole world is going to listen.
Kendrick has arguably made his masterpiece three times over now, but what do you do when you’ve already scaled such enormous highs? On a double album exploration into Kendrick’s soul, he goes deeper, reflecting on his life and everything that’s changed, both good and bad, since he ascended to superstar status.
Musically, lyrically and spiritually, it’s a tour de force that reaches a level few others can. Daring, ambitious and supremely confident, it’s also a very insular and personal album – probably the most personal statement he’s ever made. There are none of the widescreen socially conscious empowerment anthems found on ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ or the more commercial sounds of ‘Damn’. Instead, there’s a brooding shade of melancholy, the spectre of fame and adulation hanging heavy. This pensive sense of dread reaches its peak on ‘Mother I Sober’. One of Kendrick’s bleakest and heaviest songs yet, it reflects on childhood trauma alongside vocals from Portishead’s Beth Gibbons. Indeed, side two of the double album is almost relentless in its enveloping feeling of trepidation and fear.
Throughout the record, Kendrick is constantly questioning. Questioning his fame, his life, things he has done in the past and things he hopes to do in the future as a father. It’s not all straightforward. It’s not all good. He’s endured hard times, and he’s offering every part of himself out to the world, laying bare his emotions. He knows that any notion of him as some sort of messiah is a fallacy. ‘Savior’ details how it’s foolish to look to artists for any kind of salvation. Sure, it’s impossible not to see Kendrick as an inspiring figure, but here he isn’t shielding any questionable aspects of his personality. The album details his periods of therapy and battles to overcome grief and pain, as he accepts that people will make their own judgements about him.
Musically, ‘Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers’ doesn’t push any boundaries. Despite arriving perfectly realised, it’s not experimental or challenging. Every sound is there to complement Kendrick’s words. Instead, the ambition and daring quality that has defined his music is mostly present in his desire to say things other artists would shy away from. Nowhere is this more explicitly represented than on ‘Auntie Diaries’ in which Kendrick talks compassionately and lovingly about two of his trans relatives. It’s a beautiful moment.
The last 12 years have seen an incredible rise for Kendrick Lamar. ‘‘Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers’ sounds like the culmination of a journey. Maybe, as his final album for Top Dawg, it’s even a full stop altogether. “I chose me, I’m sorry,” he says mournfully as the last words on closing track ‘Mirror’. If it does mark the end of something – or simply offers a postscript to an incredible chapter in a career that might take a new direction – then it stands as another stunning landmark for a once-in-a-lifetime artist.