I’m not sure there’s any concise way to take on this album. I say “I” to very consciously abandon any pretension of “this writer”: Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers simply defies anything but a visceral, personal reaction.
From the get go, it’s clear things are different. “I’ve been goin’ through somethin’ / One-thousand eight-hundred and fifty-five days,” Kendrick Lamar says at the opening the album. That’s the exact number of days between the release of DAMN. and his latest. For all the impatience we’ve experienced as fans, it’s rapidly clear Lamar was taking his time very consciously, even suffering through two years of writer’s block as he mentions in “Worldwide Steppers” – though that’s the most minor of his confessions.
For an artist that’s known for being personal and opening himself up to the listener, the narrative here is still by far the most he’s opened the doors to his innerworld. Nearly every moment seethes with contradictions, expulsions of trauma, and crippled humanity. There are portions that are overtly problematic, particularly the inclusion of accused rapist Kodak Black, but even his presence feels like an intentional thorn in a complex, endlessly interwoven tapestry. If To Pimp a Butterfly found Kendrick in potential savior mode and DAMN. saw him intentionally backing away from that role, this album finds him entirely stripping away any facade that he’s anything more than an individual as damaged as the rest of us. It veritably drips with pain and confusion, a double album lost within itself. When Lamar utters, “I got some regrets,” on “Die Hard” (a sentiment he revisits on “Count Me Out”), you can tell he’s more than putting it lightly.
Every stand-out on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers ranks among the most pained of the storied rapper’s career. There are stark revelations regarding his father’s distance, intensity, and cruelty on “Father Time”, which are tempered by the soothing tones of Sampha; then there’s the monumental “Mother I Sober” alongside Portishead’s Beth Gibbons, which delves into generational trauma as well as his own family’s painful history in more ways than this review can even begin to hope to address. It simply must be heard. “We Cry Together”, meanwhile, borrows from early Eminem, right down to its cadences, for a brutally honest insight into a relationship. However, unlike Mathers’ brutally harrowing “Kim”, Kendrick’s update takes the form of a far more domestically toxic argument between a couple, with the woman getting more of a voice and more agency, played to perfection by Zola star Taylour Paige.
Elsewhere, he’s dissecting his every demon, and, alongside his consistent reference to seeing a therapist, the album itself plays like something of a session, albeit for the rapper himself. His wife Whitney’s voice is a consistent presence, urging him both to tell his truth and get therapy (an idea which he accepts to and rejects by turns). There are moments of lucidity, from the yelps of “I grieve different!” on the opening track to the bold confrontation of his own sexual addictions (“Ask Whitney about my lust addiction / Text messagin’ bitches got my thumbs hurt”).
This also leads to moments of harsh honesty, from his thoughts on sleeping with white women, which feels fully realized, to thoughts that feel more dashed out, such as his rapid aside, “What the fuck is cancel culture, though?” which is left more unexplored – Lamar’s content to leave the listener to contemplate his exact perspective. It’s Kodak Black’s presence that seems to lend the most context to the remark, an undeniably talented artist who’s received support from other major hip hop figures, yet one that’s consistently and continuously proved (to put it lightly) problematic. Given Lamar’s propensity of using controversial angles to illustrate a point, it’s fully possible that Kodak’s presence is consciously employed as a commentary on the historical abuse and trauma of Black Americans, or perhaps Lamar and his shared Black Israelism demands forgiveness, or perhaps Lamar simply feels camaraderie with the younger artist: it’s never truly clear, and certainly stands as one of the album’s more confusing, frustrating aspects.
Then, of course, there’s “Auntie Diaries”, which is sure to remain a central conversation piece from the album, as well as surely its most controversial moment (even given Kodak’s multiple appearances). Lamar attempts to come to terms with his childhood homophobia (“we ain’t know no better”), to support transgender people via tales of family members. It’s meaningful and outright clumsy by turns (the consistent repetition of the f-slur, however well intended, feels overplayed), but even in this regard it feels as if it adds to the layers of imperfect humanity that Lamar is consciously putting on display across the LP. It’s received a variety of reactions, and will surely more than continue to, but at the very least it’s an open-minded conversation starter in a world still depressingly full of Rowlings and Chappelles.
Musically, the album straddles multiple worlds, as well, with portions as experimental as anything on Butterfly while others, such as “N95” stick to the blistering raps of DAMN.. There are others such as “Count Me Out” that split the difference, while the juggernaut “Mr. Morale” finds Pharrell continuing his hot streak coming off Pusha T’s It’s Almost Dry, back in his pocket of providing rappers with hard hitting, sizzling beats.
In the end, the entire narrative boils down to closer, “Mirror”. To the unfocused listener, it might even seem a bit slight as a conclusion, particularly following the deluge of “Mother I Sober”, but the words of his wife and daughter leading into the track aren’t to be discounted: through all his experiences, and weaknesses, Kendrick has bested – at least what he sees as – a generational, historical cycle, and is now carrying his family towards a better future. It lends great weight to his words on the closing track: “I choose me, I’m sorry.” In a few words, he deconstructs the entire double album’s tortured, strenuous journey. The man who has inarguably established himself as one of the greats of his genre – forget that, one of music’s greats – is, at the end of the day, just that: a man.
Rather than exaggerate some accident à la Dylan, Lamar is telling us openly – all but shouting from the rooftops – just how flawed and lost he is: as lost as the rest of us. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is a lengthy yet sinewy affair, pulling its creator apart, limb from limb, cell by cell. It points to a greater truth: he doesn’t owe us anything. Yet, instead, he’s chosen to rip out his innards as entertainment, to drop his seething, hypocritical heart into our laps. While the artist was previously known for perfecting his each and every move before making it, with this is album he’s tearing off in an entirely different direction. He’s willing to stumble, befuddle, and outright offend – it’s all part of its creator’s flawed self, which is all but stripped starkly naked in front of us. It’s far too complex, far too searching to be wrangled in a simple review. I know this much: we’ll be talking about this one for a long, long time.