Great thinkers throughout history have tackled the question of what it means to be an individual in a society. This discourse is far from new, but when approached by one of music’s most compelling writers ever, during one of the most contentious periods in modern history, we were always bound for a dense record that inspires more highbrow contemplation than playlist rotation.
Kendrick Lamar, one of the greatest artists of our time – the chart-topping, stadium-filling, Pulitzer-winning rapper from Compton – is done living up to society’s lofty expectations.
The auteur spent the 2010s blessing music lovers with some of the most thoughtful and introspective records of all time.
In the last decade, he’s used his nimble approach to songcraft to create self-portraits in a coming-of-age epic (Good Kid, M.A.A.d City), a dizzying portrayal of the Black American experience in all its beauty, pain, and absurdity (TPAB), and used a hip-pop Trojan horse to explore the existential dread that comes with realising even the best-intentioned art can’t change systemic problems (DAMN).
And that’s barely half the subtext his latest release, Mr Morale And The Big Steppers, was born into. The release was destined to inspire Detox-level anticipation.
For a while, we seemed to have lost yet another conscientious Black genius in their prime, the way of Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo, and Frank Ocean (probably). Bar a few sporadic features and appearances; the reclusive artist said nothing for the better part of 4 years since his soundtrack for one of the highest-grossing films of all time.
In that time, he helped break one of the most promising young stars in the game, started his own creative company, and became a father to two children while almost completely disappearing from the public eye.
With the tail-end of one tumultuous presidency followed by another, rampant social discord because of social media, and a global pandemic that irrevocably changed our lives – the only thing fans knew for sure was that Kendrick had enough time and subject matter to deliver a classic.
Yet, that’s not the sentiment fans took away from initial listens.
Mr Morale And The Big Steppers sounds painstakingly well put-together, from the production to the writing. It seems like every variable was considered, and every turn was intentional. The album is generally more understated, and Kendrick trades accessibility with aloofness. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t talk about real things that ordinary people go through.
This album sees Kendrick shedding his saviour complex to better relate to the average person and implores them to let go of projected virtue and false righteousness. He wants to see a world where radical empathy allows us to separate artists and their art – except here, contrary to his last two records, it isn’t about the world but his interiority.
Kendrick Lamar has always had a way of presenting characters. On this album, he seems to be the main one, retelling his journey of processing various traumas using themes of family, love, loss, and redemption.
On standout banger “N95”, Kendrick alludes to the various facades most people hold up for society, asking we do away with them. Elsewhere, he speaks to the toxic survivalist mindsets Black men impart on their sons (“Father Time”) and shows heart-wrenching vulnerability in sharing stories of his mother’s sexual abuse as well as his own sex addiction that led to infidelity.
While sharing these details may paint him in a different light from a saint (as he wants), Kendrick’s artistic decisions in Mr Morale And The Big Steppers, for the first time, feel contrived. From some of his word choices to controversial inclusions, and the profanity of “We Cry Together”, for example, illustrate how songs that are great in concept are laced with abrasive details that annoy as much as they engage.
“Worldwide Steppers” is the chief offender in this regard. While the woozily repetitive loop at least develops, the song offers negligible entertainment value. Likewise, “Rich Spirit” is a pedestrian attempt at a minimal West Coast banger and easily one of Kendrick’s most boring songs to date.
But that’s because the man has set high standards. Yet, knowing that Kendrick made this album for himself, his own enjoyment and liberation from his pain makes it harder to give a definite answer when asked about it. It’s definitely good and has sparked valuable discourse on a range of topics, as good art does, but it doesn’t feel good to listen through.
On the closer, he claims to have chosen himself over the imagined responsibility over the culture – maybe next time, he should choose both.
Listen to Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers below and purchase it in other formats here.
Words by Malibongwe Sicelo Cedric Dladla