When looking back at the best music of the 2010s, the shadow of Kendrick Lamar is inescapable. “Section.80,” “Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City,” “To Pimp a Butterfly” and “DAMN” each released to increasingly popular and positive critical reception — along with “Untitled Unmastered” and other supporting works — Lamar’s catalog is among the best of the decade, winning multiple Grammys and even a Pulitzer Prize among other recognition. Finally, after a five-year gap since his last album, Lamar has released a new album, entitled “Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers.”
As Lamar states on the first track, “United in Grief,” he had been “goin’ through something,” during his 1,855 day hiatus. During this time, he appeared as a feature on other projects and worked closely with Ludwig Göransson on the soundtrack to Black Panther (2018). He toured and performed at awards shows, but largely receded from the limelight.
With the release of “Mr. Morale,” Lamar makes a dramatic return to the music industry, but the tone of the new album differs greatly from much of his previous work. While “Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City” told a dramatized narrative of Lamar’s youth in Compton and “To Pimp a Butterfly” told a similar story of an individual’s apotheosis in the face of racial and socioeconomic discrimination in America, “DAMN” was more of a personal coronation. With “Mr. Morale,” Lamar is his most vulnerable and personal work yet, splitting the album between the “Steppers” and “Mr. Morale” sections.
The first half of the self-described double album sees Lamar examining his past self, which is the “Steppers” portion of the record. On tracks like “Worldwide Steppers,” Lamar reveals his addiction to lust. “We Cry Together” — a harrowing examination of unhealthy romantic relationships manifested through actress Taylour Paige’s feature — explores Lamar’s past issues with understanding others and the problems left by his largely absent father.
Looking at the first half as a more cohesive mosaic of feelings, Lamar lays his personal issues bare for his audience as a form of his own therapy. At the same time, tracks like “N95” and “Die Hard” allow for more introspection but also serve as more radio-friendly tracks, with more melodic choruses and danceable grooves. In general, much of the album eschews from pleasing a general audience, rather aiming for loftier storytelling and more dramatic lengths.
At the album’s midpoint,“Count Me Out” begins the “Mr. Morale” half of the album, Lamar embraces himself and his family alongside his developing humanistic and Christian beliefs. In the outro of “Count Me Out,” he repeats the mantra “This is me, and I’m blessed,” suggesting a personal apotheosis.
As the “breakthrough” section of the album continues, we see Lamar scrutinize his past experiences with his family, fans and larger society. He rejects the claim that he must be a savior and leader to everyone on “Savior;” rather, he places more importance on his well-being and that of those around him.
Perhaps the most introspective points on the album fall in “Auntie Diaries” and “Mother I Sober.” While some time and further analysis are surely needed to understand the deep trauma and biases that each song addresses, with “Auntie Diaries” serving as a public acceptance of Lamar’s transgender relatives and the “Mother I Sober” speaking about Lamar’s mother’s experiences with sexual assault and their family’s corresponding trauma. The crescendo of emotion on “Mother I Sober” is the climax of the record, serving as an inflection point for the larger narrative of trauma and reconciliation Lamar is telling.
The themes of self-analysis conclude on the aptly-named “Mirror,” where Lamar declares that he “chose [himself]” and that he is “sorry” to his audience, but has seemingly made his decision. To whom this addresses appears up for interpretation, but Lamar is no longer concerned with such ambiguity, stating that he is “Sorry I didn't save the world, my friend / I was too busy buildin' mine again.”
Only time will tell how it stacks up compared to other episodes in Lamar’s discography, but has already broken streaming records and received generally positive critical reviews. We can be sure that the themes presented on “Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers” will continue to resonate as more people listen. The production, as always, is superb, as are the samples and features — even if some are critical of that afforded to Kodak Black given his past accusations of sexual assault. Ultimately, I think that on “Mr. Morale,” Lamar is less interested in these commentaries, using everything at his disposal to relate his experiences of growth from the past five years.
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