By Andrew Dunbar
On “Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers,” platinum-selling rapper Kendrick Lamar – like millions of others after the events of the last two years – finds himself in therapy. And, like many tasked with voicing their greatest weaknesses and insecurities, he finds himself “tap-dancing around” his actual issues, going on tangents and distracting himself from the real reasons he’s there.
Over the past decade, Kendrick Duckworth, known professionally as Kendrick Lamar, has steadily risen to the top of the hip-hop scene by delivering socially conscious rap with the ability to appeal to mainstream listeners, managing to sell millions of units on his albums no matter what direction he takes his music in.
It is difficult to overstate Lamar’s influence on hip-hop culture. His 2012 breakout record, “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City” set the tone for how rap would sound for the rest of the 2010s. His 2015 followup, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” not only cemented his place as a top musician of the decade but also proved he has a mind to be reckoned with – approaching topics like gang violence, drug use, and fame with layers of complexity unheard of in other music – all over hypnotic jazz and funk beats. Returning to a more traditional sound for 2017’s “DAMN,” Lamar found the balance between mainstream and experimental – and went triple platinum in just over a year.
This tug-of-war between Lamar wanting to make art and simultaneously appeal to the mainstream is palpable on “Mr. Morale,” and he makes these juxtapositions in sound intentionally jarring for his listeners. “I went and got me a therapist,” Lamar says on the opener, “United In Grief.” Over the course of the following seventeen tracks, he attempts to get to the root of his own issues and those of his community, but instead finds himself searching for distractions from the real sources of his pain. This is intelligently portrayed by flitting between heavy jazz-piano driven songs with quiet bass and steady drums to upbeat, punchy, romantic pop rap tracks.
The compositions, mixes, and masters are clear, detailed and organic. Beautifully textured piano fills the record from front to back; Lamar’s vocals are always crisp and balanced and sit naturally within accompanying tracks. The kick drum and bass on “N95” and “Rich Spirit” will fill up the listener’s room and induce inevitable head nodding. This record truly sounds like it took five years to make, and the dedication of Lamar and his team should not go unnoticed.
With a confident runtime of just over 70 minutes, Lamar, as usual, demands investment from his listeners. Half of the 18 tracks are some of the best songs of 2022; several would be better art had they been poetry instead of music, and a couple would improve the record by their absence. Standouts include “N95,” “Father Time,” “Rich Spirit,” “Purple Hearts,” and “Mother I Sober.” Self-indulgent tracks like “We Cry Together” (which wastes a glorious beat produced by Alan “The Alchemist” Maman—former personal DJ to Eminem), both interludes, and “Mr. Morale” border on tedium. When Lamar is exploring the soundscapes of jazz-rap that he helped revive on “To Pimp A Butterfly,” his music is uniquely his own; when he jumps back into pop-rap, the results are intentionally reminiscent of his contemporaries – “Die Hard” could be a Post Malone single. The title track “Mr. Morale” sounds like a slightly toned-down copy of “Black Skinhead” by Kanye West. Although these decisions are intentional, they still bring down the album from classic territory, which Lamar strives for on every record.
While sonically inconsistent, Lamar is at the top of his game as a writer and storyteller on every track of “Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers.” His ability to tell compelling narratives through rhymes remains unmatched. On “Worldwide Steppers,” he describes his feelings about engaging romantically with his first white woman – whose father was the sheriff who had put his uncle in jail – “She drove her daddy’s Benz / I found out that he was a sheriff / That was a win-win / Because he had locked up Uncle Perry / She paid her daddy’s sins,” Lamar raps. “This is what the world sounds like,” Lamar says in the opening to “We Cry Together,” before he and Taylour Paige trade verses back and forth in an imitation of a vicious fight between a couple. “Disregardin’ the way that I cope with my own vices / Maybe it’s time to break it off / Run away from the culture to follow my heart,” Lamar raps on the closer, “Mirror.”
Although one of the more mediocre listens on the record, the lyrics of “Mirror” represent a stunning moment in Lamar’s growth – he no longer feels the need to save the world, as he did on “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City” and “To Pimp a Butterfly.” He knows this is futile, and only betrays a savior complex; Lamar understands now that it is simply enough to take care of himself and his family.
The writer is an audio engineer, freelance writer and lover of music.