Throughout his career, Kendrick Lamar has never been one to relinquish control. He says as much in his verse on Big Sean’s aptly titled 2013 single. On that track, a fiery declaration of rap supremacy, Kendrick’s ability to wrangle personas and sonic textures from his voice made for one of the genre’s most significant guest verses. His layered, intentional delivery would become its own category of viral YouTube video, as fans dissected each of the Kendrick albums that have declared to be classics. Kendrick’s meticulousness is all over the release of his fifth studio album, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, though to a more chaotic effect. Here, he makes an attempt at finally releasing control, or at least his fixation with it. The result is in many ways humbling. Despite literally presenting himself as Jesus on the album’s cover, we find Kendrick in more fallible terrain than at any point in his career.
Released as a double album, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers takes on an ambitious concept, guiding us through Kendrick’s psyche, with his longtime partner Whitney Alford as narrator. The ever jazz-influenced artist is diligent in the sonic progression through his subconscious. The album finds a space between Donda 2-style hurriedness and intentional dissonance. Most songs are cut into one, or three, different beats, giving individual songs the kind of narrative texture you’d expect from a full album.
Opener “United in Grief” begins with Alford imploring that Kendrick tell “us” about what’s going on, just as Kendrick’s voice comes in coolly, “I’ve been goin’ through somethin’/One thousand eight hundred and fifty-five days.” That’s the number of days since the release of 2017’s DAMN. Kendrick couldn’t resist an Easter egg.
The track blooms from there. A shuffling breakbeat rolls beneath a warm piano melody as Kendrick effectively clears his palette, unleashing a stream of conscious flow that, for the first time in his career, cuts through the more guarded sectors of his mind. “I grieve different,” he declares with a subtle time shift, allowing his verse to serve as a landing pad for the quick-footed rhythm. The album features its fair share of beautiful instrumentation. “Crown,” gently resides on warm pianos that Kendrick lets breathe.
Throughout the record, lush, Quiet Storm grooves collide and commingle with bass-y drums and subtle electronic flourishes. The pianos on the Summer Walker and Ghostface Killah-assisted “Purple Hearts” sound like what love feels like, proffering a subtle, sparkling backdrop to sensation. This partially comes from an overabundance of producers on the project. On moments like “Silent Hill,” produced by Beach Noise, Jahaan Sweet, Boi-1da & Sounwave, it works. In the hands of just about any other rapper, the song would read as nothing more than post Playboi Carti-era pastiche, but Kendrick finds new terrain, retracing over unexplored horizons. He tries out about three different cadences before Kodak Black, a perfect guest feature on the beat, arrives to deliver a case study on melodic rap.
Even so, Kendrick has never been one for subtlety, and the vulnerability at the core of Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers brings out moments of his reflexive overreach. “Worldwide Steppers,” takes us back to the earlier moments of Kendrick’s fame and lands admirably on taking stock of the dissonance between his lived experience and his presentation in the world. The song veers, as Kendrick often does when he starts rapping about women, into overwrought territory. There is indeed a convincing enough exploration of race and sexual politics when Kendrick raps: “Sciatica nerve pinch, I don’t know how to feel/Like the first time I fucked a white bitch.” But the implicit misogynoir isn’t far from reach.
The album struggles to balance moments of political inquiry with its tender, emotional sensibility. On “N95” we find Kendrick in a familiar posture, admitting to hypocrisy as if admission were absolution. “What the fuck is cancel culture,” he bemoans, seemingly for no reason other than to check the concept off a box. The same approach muddies an already complicated moment like “Auntie Diaries.” As Kendrick tells the story of a family member’s gender identity, he stumbles in the face of these kinds of inconsistencies. Simply co-opting a family member’s story is not the same as knowing their pain. That Kendrick fumbles through the concept on an album where he spends so much time pointing out the limitations of narratives is a disappointing misstep.
It’s also part of a pattern. “Sing About Me,” from Good Kid, mAAd City, walks us through a narrative of sex work and abuse, but manages to obscure more than it reveals. The same can be said for this album’s Taylour Paige-assisted “We Cry Together.” An addition to the canon of Kendrick mini-operas about the plight that Black women face, the song opens on an almost intellectually insulting preface: “This is what the world sounds like,” Kendrick declares.
The pair deliver a scripted domestic dispute. A barrage of invective comes from both sides, until the fight devolves into the realm of the existential, before coming full circle with sex, as Kendrick again misfires a not entirely bad concept. It is indeed naive to ignore the complicated dynamics of attraction, love, and violence, but so too is proffering them with too much meaning. We end on Paige’s character pleading for sex, a passively misogynistic take on female desire and male aggression.
The same could be said for “Father Time,” which paints too clean a line from one trauma to the next. The song opens with Alford and Lamar debating the merits of therapy before she suggests he “reach out to Eckhart,” as in spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle.
Indeed, Tolle’s teachings inform the entirety of the album — Kodak Black even shouts out the author’s name in what surely must have been a moment plucked from the Atlanta writers’ room. Tolle’s teachings on what he described as the “Trauma Body,” thought to be the result of painful life experiences literally resting within the body, offer a clear window into the framing of Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers.
On the album’s penultimate track, “Mother I Sober,” Kendrick faces his pain in the open. That is to say, he’s facing it with a clear mind. “Ain’t felt guilt until you felt it sober,” he raps. He opens up about generations of abuse in his family and offers his thoughts on the music industry’s hidden demons, declaring “every other rapper sexually abused.”
The nature of the claim is telling. Kendrick struggles with control, a rather normal trauma response. As he slowly unclenches the grip he’s kept on his own narrative for all these years, it feels as though he’s grabbing on to other stories as guardrails. In the end, the traumas fuse freely. Black trauma, Kendrick’s mother, partner, and aunt, the horrors of slavery, all clang together causing you to wonder who, exactly, all of this trauma dumping was meant to serve.