By Nethan Crew, Assistant Podcast Producer
Kendrick Duckworth, known professionally as Kendrick Lamar, released his fifth and final studio album with Top Dawg Entertainment. Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers became available on streaming platforms on May 13 after a 1,855 day hiatus from releasing his own music.
On August 20, 2021, Kendrick unveiled his plans by creating a new website with a single post, saying “As I produce my final TDE album, I feel joy to have been a part of such a cultural imprint after 17 years. The Struggles. The Success. And most importantly, the Brotherhood. May the Most High continue to use Top Dawg as a vessel for candid creators. As I continue to pursue my life’s calling.” A week later, cousin of Lamar and rapper Baby Keem released “family ties,” featuring a surprise verse from Lamar which includes multiple allusions to the highly awaited album release.
Following an April 18 statement revealing the release date of the album and a picture alluding to the double album aspect of the record, Lamar posted “The Heart Pt. 5,” a consistent freestyle that shows some of the contents and general themes of the album. The video features Lamar appearing as himself rapping followed by edited faces of famous Black men of recent history on top of Lamar’s, including O.J. Simpson, Ye West, Jussie Smollett, Will Smith, Kobe Bryant and Nipsey Hussle. The song alludes to many concepts covered on the album, such as Lamar seeking out therapy as well as providing a look into his relationships with people in his day to day life.
The first thing that Lamar tells the audience is that he’s “been going through something” since his last release, “DAMN,” in 2017. Over the first track, “Untitled in Grief,” layered with powerful vocals, harsh piano tones and loud drum breaks, Lamar muses on the many positive aspects of his 19-year career as well as some of the pitfalls of fame, including his careless spending and the obtainment of his real estate investments, luxury vehicles and jewelry. Lamar also goes into great detail about entering therapy to deal with mental health issues and toxic aspects of his relationships.
On the second track, “N95,” Lamar asks the listener to remove all superficial coping mechanisms such as monetary or interpersonal gain to ask what is left underneath, asking “Take all that designer bullshit off and what do you have?” which is used to claim that there are more important things to him than his own perception by others, and he feels that others should not care about how they are judged.
“Worldwide Steppers” answers a major question for Lamar: What has he been doing for the past 5 years? Over droning piano and drastic beat switches, Lamar speaks about raising his children as well as using religion to lift himself out of a 2-year long writer’s block. Lamar also talks about various interracial sexual encounters that he has had and how he feels that his ancestors would be ashamed of him if they knew about them. In the second part of the song, Lamar regretfully recalls the harm he has indirectly inflicted on his own communities, referencing a food drive TDE held which may have contributed to heart issues among those that attended. This song serves as a piece of self-criticism as well as bringing light to systemic issues in society.
Next, “Die Hard” brings a look into Lamar’s struggles with honesty and vulnerability within his relationships over a poppy Latin style instrumental. This song features some of the most simple writing that Lamar has shown on the album yet from a lyrical perspective which makes the message of the lyrics much easier to understand than some other songs.
“Father Time” opens with Whitney Alford, Lamar’s long time partner, and Lamar debating on his need for psychological help from a therapist. The song proceeds to cover the positive and negative impacts his father has had on his life. He tells the listener to “trust nobody, only your momma n’ em” which can be taken as a powerful statement of distrust between fathers and sons, where the son must go and fight to become his own man. The track also features Sampha, who’s voice bounces off the instrumental beautifully.
On “Rich,” one of the two interludes on the album, rapper Kodak Black discusses numerous struggles that he has gone through in order to become a successful rapper. Although he expresses that he is currently in a much better position than in the past, he fears that his problematic past will eventually lead to his downfall.
Following this interlude is “Rich Spirit,” which depicts an irreverent Lamar speaking about the qualities latent in his character while attempting to stand his ground against criticism against him. He utilizes ethereal melodies and portrays a different side to Lamar’s customary approach to life while also debating heavy subjects such as mortality, loyalty, narcissism and other themes.
“We Cry Together” presents Lamar and actress Taylor Paige taking opposite sides of an ugly dispute between a couple, where insults are thrown back and forth for nearly six minutes. Held together by a stripped down piano-centric backing track created by The Alchemist, one of the most dynamic producers of recent times, Lamar and Paige both take stabs at each other to show systematic toxicity based within masculinity and femininity. The song also references the film “Poetic Justice” which starred Tupac Shakur, one of Lamar’s greatest influences.
To wrap up the first disc of the double album, “The Big Steppers” ends with “Purple Hearts,” which alludes to the Purple Heart, a military decoration for those who have been wounded or killed during their service. The instrumental employs heavy drums and synths to create a lush backdrop for Lamar, Summer Walker, and Ghostface Killah to speak about love, spirituality and drugs.
The ”Mr. Morale” half of the album begins with “Count Me Out” which begins with the same vocals from the beginning of “Untitled In Grief” while also introducing the voice of his therapist, voiced by Eckhart Toile. The track focuses on Lamar calling out a past significant other that he loves to prove wrong. Eventually, by the song’s outro he realizes that he is better off without this person in his life.
“Crown” gives the listener a view into Lamar’s psyche over raw piano chords, portraying a normal life while being dissatisfied internally. Lamar struggles to find a balance between being a leader for his community and practicing self care which results in Lamar realizing that he “can’t please everybody” while also alluding to Shakespeare’s Henry IV, saying “heavy is the head that chose to wear the crown.”
“Silent Hill” allows for Lamar to show off his trap style rapping ability along side Kodak Black, where they rap about their money, life problems and fake friendships. The instrumental features heavy hitting trap drums as well as interesting ornamental sound effects such as silenced laser sounds and the comical “huh” adlibs that Lamar includes in the chorus.
“Savior (Interlude)” is introduced with another spoken word section from Toile being followed by a long dynamic verse by Baby Keem, cousin and regular collaborator of Lamar. Keem speaks about his problems growing up and his family and then delves into recent issues, overcomings, and his reaction to fame all over a violin centered classical instrumental.
The next track “Savior” beckons for the listener to realize that famous people are still just as much people as everyone else, where Lamar claims that he “is not your savior” as he deals with the hardship of being a leader to his community and family while also being able to take care of himself. Baby Keem asks the audience in the same vein “Are you happy for me?” to further ask for the grace from the audience, who often have much higher expectations of the celebrities they follow just because they are celebrities.
Lamar makes some controversial choices within the construction of “Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers” to shed light on discrimination that many people, including Lamar, have experienced. One glaring example of this is in “Auntie Diaries” where Lamar speaks about his experiences with two transgender family members. The song includes the use of the f-slur, which Lamar references that in the past he used the word because “we ain’t know no better” as “elementary kids with no filter.” Lamar utilizes the word within “Auntie Diaries” attempting to bring up the larger issue of discrimination that members of the LGBT+ community face, but it does come off as slightly tone-deaf. Some have judged Lamar for the use of the slur, but others have claimed that the use of the slur within the song, under the freedom of speech, actually calls out homophobia and transphobia within hip-hop.
Lamar also includes features from Kodak Black, who has had multiple crime charges such as sexual assault and illegal possession of weapons. The cycle of abuse that Lamar talks about calls for the realization that many perpetrators of hateful acts were once the victims of similar situations. This beckons the question of how to right the wrongs of this cycle of abuse as well as how to morally forgive the individuals responsible enough to help them be better people. To further speak on this topic, R. Kelly, who is a famous rapper who has been cancelled by the media for multiple sexual abuse and rape charges, is referenced many times throughout the album.
Kelly, as well as Oprah Winfrey are referenced because of their proximity to abuse on “Mr. Morale,” the sixteenth track of the album. The track features chopped up vocal parts as well as heavy hitting bass and drums while Lamar covers various topics such as generational trauma and excess, closing with a quote from Toile.
“Mother I Sober” immediately begins with piano backing as Lamar opens up with heartfelt and personal lyrics, starting by saying “I’m sensitive, I feel everything, I feel everybody. One man standin’ on two words, heal everybody.” He then covers a variety of hard topics to face, such as finding out that his mother was sexually abused, his struggles with cheating, and the need to break away from the generational curse of abuse within the Black community. Lamar, by healthily seeking out help for his mental health, breaks the generational curse, as we hear Alford and Lamar’s daughter tell him and thank him for at the end of the track. This all relates to the theme Lamar is constantly reasserting throughout the project: He is human, and he too is prone to make mistakes.
The album ends with “Mirror,” where Lamar discusses the pressures of fame as well as the struggle of living for himself and his family while maintaining a modest image. The track features a bouncy bassline as well as resonant synths and heavily layered auxiliary percussion. After coming to terms with not being able to fulfill the outlandish expectations put upon him by others, he decides to choose himself.
“Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers” shows Lamar’s talent as a rapper and artist as well as showing how he thinks about the issues of day-to-day life. The album is split into two discs, with the “Big Steppers” side of the album being the first half and the “Mr. Morale” side being the second. The title is based on the idea of avoiding the harder topics covered on the album, where Whitney Alford tells the listeners to “stop tapdancing around the conversation.” Overall, Lamar’s “Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers” is a dynamic listening experience covering a variety of harsh topics that Lamar has had to deal with head on while also providing an unfiltered conversation about systemic issues and traumatic experiences to try to put an end to the generational curse.