Kendrick Lamar - Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers

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As early as his first official studio release, 2011’s Section.80, Kendrick Lamar’s albums have been intricate and conceptual, constructed more like ambitious theatrical narratives than mere collections of songs. Fifth album Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers follows this trajectory as a double-album’s worth of interconnecting statements that are relentlessly complex, emotionally dense, and sometimes uncomfortably raw. Unlike the lush, spacious sonics of DAMN. or the life-affirming funk of To Pimp a Butterfly, Mr. Morale is scattered both in terms of musical approaches and lyrical perspectives. The album’s first half is particularly messy, with themes of trauma, grief, society, and Kendrick’s own uneasy relationship with fame all overlapping. His technical abilities are stunning and versatile as ever, but the frantic flows and jarring beat switches of “United in Grief” begin an angsty catharsis that runs throughout many of the tracks. “N95” is a seething cultural critique where Lamar spits bile in multiple directions over a bleakly catchy, bass-driven instrumental. Issues with lust addiction and infidelity are put under a microscope on the tense and minimal “Worldwide Steppers,” and Lamar depicts his troubled relationship with his father in painful detail on “Father Time,” which features a gorgeous vocal performance by Sampha on the hook. There’s further exploration of deeply personal family history on “Auntie Diaries,” which chronicles Lamar coming to understand the experiences two of his relatives had with transitioning gender identities. Throughout the album he funnels all of these experiences inward, seeking to grow through his own changes and the changes he sees around him. This shows up as a dismissal of celebrity on “Rich Spirit” or as striving for self-acceptance on “Count Me Out.” The album’s quick musical and thematic shifts can make for an uneven flow. The floating R&B instrumental and tender introspection of “Die Hard” come just a few tracks before cacophonous swirls of piano on “Rich - Interlude” and the jagged cosmic hip-hop of Ghostface Killah and Summer Walker collaboration “Purple Hearts.” The album’s intensity reaches a full boil on “We Cry Together,” a song that sounds like live audio footage of the most vicious couple’s argument imaginable, and reaches the same levels of ugliness as Eminem’s “Kim,” a clear reference point. As always, the production is immaculate and Lamar is joined by a host of industry giants, with contributions coming from Baby Keem, Thundercat, and even a vocal cameo from Portishead’s Beth Gibbons on the stunning sadness of “Mother I Sober.” While not as immediately accessible as some of the work that came before it, there’s value in both the harrowing and enlightening moments here. Lamar puts everything on the table with Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, trying to get closer to his unfiltered personal truth, and creating some of his most challenging, expectation-defying work in the process. While not always an easy listen, the album shows more of its intention as it goes, and ultimately makes sense as the next logical step forward in Lamar’s increasingly multi-dimensional artistic evolution.

1.1 United in Grief 4:15
1.2 N95 3:15
1.3 Worldwide Steppers 3:23
1.4 Die Hard 3:59
     feat. Blxst & Amanda Reifer
1.5 Father Time 3:42
     feat. Sampha
1.6 Rich (Interlude) 1:43
1.7 Rich Spirit 3:22
1.8 We Cry Together 5:41
     feat. Taylour Paige
1.9 Purple Hearts 5:29
     feat. Summer Walker & Ghostface Killah
2.1 Count Me Out 4:43
2.2 Crown 4:24
2.3 Silent Hill 3:40
     feat. Kodak Black
2.4 Savior (Interlude) 2:32
2.5 Savior 3:44
     feat. Baby Keem & Sam Dew
2.6 Auntie Diaries 4:41
2.7 Mr. Morale 3:30
     feat. Tanna Leone
2.8 Mother I Sober 6:46
     feat. Beth Gibbons
2.9 Mirror 4:16