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  • Writer's pictureRyan ANTIART

ALBUM REVIEW: Kendrick Lamar, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers

Updated: Jun 28, 2022

Grade: B

It has been 1,855 days since the general population has heard a Kendrick Lamar album. Since that time, I graduated college, worked a job for three years and quit it to start AntiArt. I’ve been through two serious relationships, lived in six different apartments and got a tattoo. It’s been a long fucking time is my point. We went through a whole presidential administration alongside a nationwide pandemic that is still going strong, unfortunately. It came out before the dawn of “SoundCloud Rap”, and comes back into a world where that term is completely obsolete. While the likes of J Cole or even Vince Staples have been mostly content to frequently drop while riding waves, Kendrick is an AntiArtist. He does what he wants to do when he wants to do it, bitch he’s got the bag to prove it. His new album Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is the evidence for his independence in the form of a genre-spanning double-album. While still bowing ever so slightly to commercial appeal in the way DAMN. did with songs like “LOYALTY”, his newest effort is decidedly experimental.

Structurally and narratively, this is his most loosely defined project yet. There are no “I remember you was conflicted” or parental voice skits to guide the story, or even a central genre like jazz-rap to ground it all. As a long-time fan of his art, I have the patience and vision to weave through some of the convulsion going on here. I could see some more casual listeners getting turned off pretty quickly though. Take the opening stretch of tracks, for example. “United In Grief” is half-stage play, half-Portishead avant percussion fest, and I love every minute of it. It sets up the duality of the record as a search for peace and a confrontation of severe anger. While the choral vocals kick it off with “I hope you find some peace of mind”, the first words out of Kendrick’s mouth are “what is a bitch in a mini skirt”. It sets up motifs of misogyny, therapy and grief (“I GRIEVE DIFFERENT”) without being too heavy handed. “N95”, by comparison, is much more mild for Kendrick standards. It comes as no surprise to me that Baby Keem had a hand in the production, even the chorus (“you outta pocket”) sounds Keemish. Other than the weak hook, Kendrick fits surprisingly well into this formula, spouting off great bars like “Take off the fabricated streams and the microwave memes”.

On the first disc, there is a back and forth between commerciality and classic Kendrick tinkering. While “Die Hard” is out of place, overly contemporary and simple, it’s sandwiched between two weighty complex personal statements. “Worldwide Steppers” has this consistent upright bassline that’s a dead ringer for “Rebirth Of Slick” by Digable Planets, and the subject matter regarding his children and his infidelities matches the consciousness of that track. Like the rest of the album, it wantonly swerves between past and present. There are concrete tales about “fucking a white bitch” in Copenhagen matched with modern jealousy and insecurity. “Father Time” brings Sampha back from the dead for a compelling track about daddy issues, continuing the parental character development that began famously on good kid, M.A.A.D. city. Then we get a career-defining interlude cut from Kodak Black, but a J Cole copy-cat track immediately following, do you see what I mean by this album being loose? An album like DAMN. felt like a self-sustaining journey that continued to reinforce itself sonically and with the throughline curse narrative. This album has great and boring songs, one’s that have nothing to do with the self-improvement narrative, immediately followed by a masterpiece like “We Cry Together”.

Goddamn, “We Cry Together” is a masterpiece, one of two 10/10 cuts on here. It needs no explanation, it’s the most talked about song on the entire album so if you’re reading this, you’ve most likely heard it. With production from Eminem’s old producer The Alchemist, the Shady inspiration is clear, this is a domestic abuse back and forth that feels like a microcosm of society’s issues. “This is what the world sounds like” a disembodied narrator says, before Kendrick and newcomer Taylour Paige go off on each other. Little dick this, dumb bitch that, raggedy ho this, it’s a tough listen in the same way that Midsommar is a tough watch, shit is COMPELLING. It devolves (or rather evolves) into commentary about R Kelly, Harvey Weinstein and Trump, connecting to the current climate in the way that Kendrick does best. “Purple Hearts”, the follow up, is pretty disappointing considering all the features, Ghostface Killah has not a single good bar.

Before going through Disc 2, I’d like to briefly comment on something that bothers me a lot about 2022 Kendrick. He has entirely too much respect for J Cole, to the point that this album has bad hints of The Off-Season. “N95”, “Rich Spirit”, “Count Me Out” and even “Savior” (which I like), all sound like they could easily have been rapped by him instead. I’m drawing a line in the sand, Kendrick Lamar is 10x the rapper that Cole has been or will ever be. To see him indulge in that stupid rap Instagram oversimplification of “Kendrick made you think about it…Cole made you feel empowered” bothers me so fucking much. Using statues as a reference point, Kendrick’s art and discography is Venus De Milo in the Louvre, Cole’s is that golden horse statue outside of PF Chang’s. Someone like Kendrick shouldn’t be influenced, he should be creating the waves. For the most part on this record, he goes his own way and I appreciate that. There are just a select few songs where the guests take the spotlight (both interludes), and others where he is leaning too much on other peoples’ sounds.

Now the elephant is out of the room, I want to spend the rest of this review giving this album the praise it deserves. While disc one was prone to harsh emotional outbursts with no conclusion, disc two sees Lamar finally going to therapy and confronting his demons. “Crown” brings back that TPAB motif of post-fame emptiness and responsibility, with the conclusion being “you can’t please everybody”. The beat is minimal, sounding closer to Fiona Apple than contemporary or throwback rap. “Mother I Sober” is also backed by a simple piano beat, and deals with regret stemming from inaction. According to the track, his mother was sexually and phyiscally abused when he was too young to stop it. As a result, he deals with secondhand trauma and suicidal thoughts, backed by a ghostly chorus from Beth Gibbons of Portishead, “I wish I was somebody/Anybody but myself”. Without therapy all these years, his frustrations and pain turns outward towards his wife through cheating and inward to himself with addiction. Just like on “We Cry Together”, he ramps this scenario to a larger-scale, talking about how black people at large have been deeply abused for centuries.

Disc 2 is slightly jumbled, but it’s way more kempt and filled with highlights. “Mr. Morale” connects personal struggle to celebrities like R Kelly, Oprah and Tyler Perry back to a deeper racial struggle. “Silent Hill” is the lone banger, with excellent silent pistol-sampling production and Kodak Black again, fucking killing it. “Auntie Diaries” is the most controversial song here by far, with many people online arguing about the LGBTQ referencing elements. F slurs, “deadnaming” and misgendering are accusations lobbed, and he does all three. It seems like the majority of people protesting this song saw the complaints first and heard the song second, because it’s really all that offensive. Without a visual medium to tell the story, and without actors to stand in as ignorant, how was he supposed to talk about this subject matter? It’s a deeply personal story about his relatives transitioning, and he uses his understanding of the world as a child to convey it. Why? Because he was a child when this all happened, and rather than re-write history like so many modern writers and artists are prone to do, he confronts the ugliness head on. Everything from the line “my auntie is a man now” to his defensive of his uncle as “not gay” shows a former lack of understanding AND THAT IS THE FUCKING POINT. I’m tired of this circular conversation, the man is essentially in a therapy session on this disc, why does everyone want to forget we are in the middle of a narrative arc just to get recreationally offended? Fuck, enough. Stop letting your sensibilities and subjective reality overshadow art. It’s fucking annoying and leads to beige, bland, smooth products. If you’re non-cis or non-straight and you’re offended by this you have the right to be, but just be honest about your gripes and pick it apart as a specific statement, that’s all I ask. Be a critic like I’m being a critic of this album. Let people grow or everyone is going to regress out of spite.

The album’s cover is striking and to me concludes that this is his last album. There are five spots on the wall for Section .80, GKMC, TPAB, untitled, unmastered., and DAMN. It’s like he is clearing house, getting rid of his musical babies for the actual ones. The final track seems to confirm all of this, ending with “I choose me I’m sorry”. I like how ambiguous this statement is, it’s both selfless (being there for his family) and selfish (doing for himself). If this is to be taken as his final effort, I completely understand. It’s not easy being the greatest rapper on

Earth and the voice of a generation, Kendrick has become such an institution over this last decade. He sounds like he is just shy of running on empty on this new album, but gave the world Baby Keem and Kodak Black 2.0 as a consolation prize. Like FKA twigs, Charli XCX, Earl Sweatshirt and Mitski this year, Kendrick reduces his impact and increases the healing. These artists have given us so much already, we don’t deserve every single piece of their soul in order for them to remain relevant. This is probably the worst album in his studio discography, but we’re talking about an exceptional run here. The three albums before are all masterpieces, even DAMN., this one just simply isn’t. It has flaws, unnecessary features, generic beats and too much J Cole influence. It also includes a few of his best ever songs, his most personal bars of all time and incredible performances, it’s a balance. This is a good time for him to duck out and if this really is the last we hear of Kendrick the rapper, I have no qualms. Go in peace broski.

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