‘Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers’ is a cathartic therapy session – The Cavalier Daily
It’s now been five years — or exactly 1,855 days — since the world was last presented with a studio album from rapper Kendrick Lamar. His most recent release concludes a huge anticipation and 17-year relationship between Lamar and his signed label, Top Dawg Entertainment. “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” is the rapper’s fifth studio album and his latest project with the label.
The echoing vocals of featured artist Sam Dew split the album into two discs – singing a similar verse on the disc one and disc two opening songs. Vulnerable lyrics muffled by deep percussion trap the listener in Lamar’s confessional, while previous romantic relationships and his most current role as husband and father take center stage in the first half. The second half of the album is dedicated to childhood traumas and family stories. Leading the double album journey is the Compton rapper’s unique voice.
Lamar’s many voices prevail from start to finish. In the opening seconds of the first song, “United In Grief,” he switches from his raw vocals to his high-pitched rapping. With each voice there is a change of flow, keeping each song fresh and unpredictable. The unrefined drum break creates a fast tempo, and the simple piano divides each verse of the opening track perfectly.
The piano is a recurring instrument on the album and is inserted smoothly into almost every song. Lamar discusses childhood sexual assault and abuse, later sex addiction, as well as issues with his father and his battle with mental health. The rapper’s intentions aren’t to be depressing — he’s just being brutally honest. As his wife Whitney Alford says in the intro, “Tell ’em, tell ’em, tell ’em the truth.”
Lamar’s honesty and vulnerability prevail over energetic, electronic trap beats with heavy bass, hi-hat bursts and discernible synthesizers. They differ from Lamar’s usual West Coast instrumentals – electronic piano, slow snare and bass drum – adding a modern sound to his style. Having legendary producers on the project such as Pharrell Williams, The Alchemist and Boi-1da, Lamar reinvents himself in this new addition.
The first disc contains more of the vibrant songs from the album. The minute of silence before the rhythm falls on “Father Time” and the angelic voice of Sampha are godsends. Blxst and Amanda Reifer on “Die Hard” compose a catchy chorus that thrives mostly through vocals. “Rich Spirit” is suave with soothing background vocals that boost Lamar’s confidence. It’s an impressive display of Lamar’s vocals and his ability to create melodic tunes that still tackle serious issues.
The vibrant energy comes to a halt as Lamar paints a vivid scene of a toxic couple arguing in “We Cry Together.” The screaming back and forth verses are an impressive and unique format for a song, while the tension in Lamar and Taylour Paige’s vocals adds to the reality of the argument. A wave of discomfort sets in listening to petty behavior as they fight over car keys and insult each other. The second disc shifts to long verses over soft beats that are more about the lyrics than the beat.
Two artists known for their distinct rapping styles make an appearance in the second half – Baby Keem and Kodak Black. On “Savior,” Baby Keem adds a memorable chorus with a unique cadence, saying, “B—, are you happy for me?” while Lamar raps over a scratch record and background choir. With over 11 features, no performer disappoints.
But Black, who faced a series of sexual assault charges and cases, is a controversial choice to appear on Lamar’s album. It’s disappointing to see Lamar talk about his identity as a sexual abuse survivor while portraying an abuser. Perhaps Lamar decided to cast the Florida rapper on the project as an attempt to come to terms with his trauma and forgive.
Whether it’s the opening lyric “My aunt is a man now” or the repetitive use of a homophobic slur, “Auntie Diaries” is an impossible song to miss. Lamar talks about his aunt and cousin, who are both transgender. He criticizes his own first insensitive comments about his aunt’s transition and the Christian church’s hypocritical discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community by asking, “‘Mr. Preacher, should we love your neighbour? / The laws of the earth or of the heart, what is greater? / I recognize the study she’s been taught since birth / But that doesn’t justify the feelings my cousin has retained.”
Lamar’s use of a homophobic slur is another hypocritical attempt to showcase his own growth – “I told ’em F-bombs, I don’t know any better,” he raps in one section. He draws a parallel between the slur and another word often used in the rap scene, referring to a incident in 2018, where a fan raised on stage used a racial slur while rapping to “MAAD City.” Lamar said he felt uncomfortable with a white person using the racial slur and comes to realize the same is true for the LGBTQ+ community when he uses a homophobic slur in the song.
Despite looking at Lamar’s inner turmoil about his family, Lamar’s use of homophobic slurs and repetitive misunderstandings is uncomfortable and controversial. His approach sparked mixed reactions – some have argued that Lamar, though evil, tries to come to terms with his own missteps in learning and growing up while others criticize the harm he causes through the use of slurs. Either way, it’s clear that Lamar still has an immense amount of growth to do to adequately respect and support the LGBTQ+ community.
Musical analysis aside, the entirety of the album is a problematic admission. Such honesty – which reflects a diary – about sexual abuse and gender identity creates an impact that goes beyond the reach of music criticism. Controversial or not, Lamar’s intentions are to sincerely profess his generational trauma to anyone who chooses to listen.
The hour and thirteen minute symphony ends with spirited violins. Lamar apologizes to his fans for his prolonged absence on “Mirror”. More importantly, he says, “Sorry I didn’t save the world, my friend / I was too busy rebuilding mine,” referring to his family and his new passion, pgLang — a multimedia company co-founded by Lamar in 2020. The painful words are not a request for help, but rather a reflection and therapy in his works.
At the end of the album, it differs from previous projects and with each listen, the project sounds better. As Lamar embarks on new callings, “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” is a nice send-off to his time with Top Dawg Entertainment.