Posted in Album of the Month, New Albums, podcast

May Album of the Month: Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers

For May I was dead set on Pusha T’s “it’s Almost Dry’. It’s pretty impressive and has met all of my expectations. It’s perhaps my favourite album of 2022 thus far. All the stars were aligned, until Kendrick Lamar announced he was releasing new material in mid May after a 5 year hiatus. Sorry Pusha, sometime you need to make a sacrifice and this was an easy decision. 

Before we get into the new album, I think we need to remind ourselves how impactful he is. You would be hard pressed to have missed the evolution of Kendrick Lamar over the last 12 years. Through ’Section.80’, ‘good kid, M.A.D.D. city’, ’To Pimp a Butterfly’, ‘Untitled’ and ‘DAMN’ not to mention a plethora of guest appearances and film soundtrack anthems he’s created a vast catalogue with something for everyone it seems. 

From early 2010 he has been surrounded by hype. Back then, backed by Ab-Soul, Jay Rock and Schoolboy Q (with their Black Hippy supergroup), they started making serious waves with their unique West Coast sound. When Kendrick released Section.80 he had my attention straight away. ‘HiiiPower’ is still one of my favourite songs. Funny enough he reminds me a bit of Pusha T on that track and a few others on the album with his flow. It was only a matter of time until he found himself on a major, and Dr Dre’s Aftermath (through TDE Artists) was a natural home. Differing from other Aftermath artists, Lamar blazed his own trail without the ever present cross pollination of Aftermath artists that we’ve come accustomed to throughout their catalogue. ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ pushed Kendrick into the forefront of not just hip hop but the music industry. ‘Swimming Pools’ became a summer anthem, ‘Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe’ was a radio hit and ‘m.A.A.d city’ set foundations in hip hop that Kendrick was a serious contender as an MC. 

Kendrick teased us with his fierce flow in 2014 with a verse on ‘It’s On Again’ with Alecia Keys from the Spiderman soundtrack. Little did we know that that taster was nothing like what he was working on. He was about to move the nets. When Kendrick released ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ in 2015, it felt like he flipped music on its head. Was it hip hop, or was it a jazz album? It was the most creative album that broke the main stream in recent times and showed the world the layers that Kendrick was able to achieve. Not only musically, but also as a performance artist as he took the presentation of his live show to what felt like uncharted territory for a hip hop artist. The album wasn’t without faults. I still find it his least approachable album. Though it gained acclaim and opened him up to a new audience, it was a far step from his first album. The surprise release of Untitled brought many Kendrick fans back into the fold. We all got it, he still wanted to make the music that we loved, but the tracks on Untitled didn’t fit into what he was trying to do on Pimp a Butterfly. An album of rejected songs that were miles ahead of most albums… sort of insane, and very cool. 

By the time DAMN was released in 2017 Kendrick was an established artist that seemed to have found this nonchalant confidence that made the album arguably his best to date. By that point he had won Grammy’s, the Pulitzer Prize, and almost every other music related award. 

So his new album, where do you start? Well he’s taken a page from Big Thief and released an 18 song, 73 minute album. He starts with the album with the line ‘I’ve been going through something’… has he ever. There’s lots to go at!

I’m still digesting the album. Like many, I’ve spent the last week digesting (what I thought was) the lead single ’The Heart  Part 5’. The lyrics and the video are amazing and so important…. but the track isn’t on the album. This guy sits in a different space!

It’s hard to name an artist that has evolved and pushed boundaries as much as Kendrick, especially within hip hop. On this album we find a rounded Kendrick that musically blends the feels of both DAMM and TPAB. Lyrically his confidence is apparent throughout. His thoughts are honest, complex and at times uncomfortable. He has a voice and he uses it. He faces into some tough subjects; religion, addiction, infidelity, relationship struggles, queerness and so much more. Hip hop gives an artist a platform to delve into subjects perhaps different than other genres and he does this masterfully. 

N95 is the lead single. What a single! I’m trying to figure out what track I would share with someone as a good catchy track on this album to start? It’s tough. They’re all really deep. They all have layers. Sampha laces ‘Father Time’ with a lovely hook, but the song is beautifully honest. Perhaps too honest for some. On the flip side ‘We Cry Together’ is really hard to listen to at first, but also has a beauty to the bleak honesty. Unapologetically honest. Is anyone else like this in music? This is an album of two halves, and it being a digital only release it the moment lets you forget this is a double album. The first half cuts deeper the the second, but needs to be there for the second half to fully work.

I wrote some bullet points the other day about Kendrick when I was listing to his back catalogue: 

  • Kendrick is honest
  • Kendrick lets you into his mind, not just his world
  • I don’t think anyone really knows Kendrick Lamar through his music
  • Kendrick is an anomaly   

… my view still is the same after listening to the album for the first 5 times. 

Lamar has stated that ‘he is not the messiah’, but he does have a voice and a message. He has extreme influence on numerous generations, and all levels within those generations. People listen to Kendrick. Kids, mums, dads, grandparents. There is A LOT to digest with this album. And many will take the time to do so. Isn’t it wonderful that someone is making music that is so complex that everyone wants / needs to listen to? 

I look forward to all of us digging into this and everyones thoughts. There’s a lot to go at. Ive not even touched on who is Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers? Nor have I talked about the well thought out and controversial guest appearances? 

4 thoughts on “May Album of the Month: Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers

  1. Well, where do you start with Kendrick? A great write up, brother Nolan. Covers so much of the backstory and his musical history. I am not as deep as (nor ever will be) into hip-hop or Kendrick as you and others, but having been pulled into his orbit when To Pimp A Butterfly came out (and we covered it as album of the month), I was definitely fascinated by a guy that seemed to want to constantly shift what hip-hop is about and how its vast canon is framed.

    I am 100% with you on TPAB. It was an astounding album, musically inventive, like a hip-hop album from a parallel universe. It made me think of all the great hip-hop I love and just wonder if it all sounded a bit old hat. But, while you had the grandstand singles like ‘i’ and ‘King Kunta’ and widescreen stuff like ‘Wesley’s Theory’ and the Prince funk of ‘These Walls’, almost into Parliament territory, there were tracks I didn’t ever really gel with, even as I admired them (Hood Politics, For Free) and I never really listened to it much again after 2017. In fact, I’d never heard a single track from Untitled or DAMN until I knew his new album was coming. It isn’t because I don’t like Kendrick, but with so many others things in my sweet spot, he was an artist I respected, admired but also flinched from and wasn’t truly drawn to. His USP also, at times meant he wasn’t a comfortable listen for me, (even without the ‘when do I listen to sweary hip-hop’ middle class problem?’)

    I did give DAMN a couple of whirls before Mr Morale… landed. I liked it in parts, but it solidified some of my worries about his more recent work, with its trap beats (that big kick, metallic snare and staccato hats) that – no point in pretending – set my teeth on edge. I just can’t get on with it. So while I have a few new tracks for a playlist, I wasn’t sure how I’d find his new record. But that was swallowed whole under the impact of Mr Morale and the Big Steppers first listen. But before that, I think that The Heart Part 5, may be my favourite ever Kendrick track. I wish it was on the album, but I can see why it now isn’t. What a record.

    I can’t remember many albums with such a sledgehammer first listen than this record. And this isn’t just about the more problematic and uncomfortable tracks, this is about its punch in the ears. I know I can’t listen at work. I can’t play it in the house. I had to devote some walking and headphones time. And what an experience, even if it’s dimmed, and shifted in places (and shone in others) since then. It’s hard to describe how full on, musically expansive, lyrically dense and how utterly unflinching it was. It was almost too big to take in, like sitting at the front of an IMAX cinema and not really being able to see the edges of the screen.

    Right from the off, with United In Grief’s choral intro, then jazz-type chords, rasping into this incredible flow and stuttering percussion. It was quite the intro. And was pretty much an intoxicating whirlwind through the next 70 minutes. Some ‘trap tracks’ to struggle with – N95’s lead single, Rich Spirit, Silent Hill – perhaps throwing my enjoyment off each time, but surrounded by some masterpieces – Father Time, Crown, Savior, Mother I Sober, and Pharrel’s beats under Mr Morale – some brutal and almost unenjoyable tracks that while I admired first few times, I wasn’t sure how many times I could listen – We Cry Together, Auntie Diaries – and others I just found to be rich, melodic tracks that made me want to come back for more, like Die Hard and the closer Mirror. All of these shift around as I get to know the album, but I’ll never have a first listen like it, I think. And that’s a statement.

    So where am i now? I’m only 4 full listens in, and I don’t quite know where I am. Listening to it is such a rollercoaster. I am so up and down. You can only wonder at the inventiveness of Lamar, and what he is doing to shift the dial. The honesty, the social commentary, but also the commentary on himself, his position, his hypocrisy, his riches, his depression, his addiction, his abuses and abused. I don’t listen to a ton of hip hop, but NOTHING sounds like this album. It may not be something I can fully listen to over the years – and there are already some tracks I’d consider don’t need to be on the record, for me at least – but as an album, in the truest sense of the word, it’s everything we want music to be: challenging, inventive, futuristic, unique….

    I am still trying to make sense of so much of it. And so much of it is a hard listen and something that as someone so far removed from Compton as you could probably get, feels alien, uncomfortable, and difficult at times. We Cry Together is probably the epitome of this. I can’t decide if it’s grim, horrific and unpleasant, or a masterful and powerful commentary on broken relationships and failing mental health. I wince when it comes round. I think soon I’ll skip. Or Auntie Diaries, which I first thought was a pretty incredible tale of Kendrick’s own family, their transitions and his confronting of his own prejudices as he challenged himself to accept them in the face of societal and religious pressures. But now I’m not sure if – despite good intentions – its clumsy pronouns and f-word chorus just exposes its artist as someone yet to work out what he can and can’t say. Does some of it go too far? I think it does. Is that the point? To invite a view into a world we aren’t comfortable in? 100%. If you put this sort of album out, you will find the rough and the smooth, but I would still rather it exists, even as it rubs me up some wrong ways.

    There are some big themes – racism, abuse, fame, power, misogyny, toxic masculinity, hood culture, the music industry, homophobia and transphobia, therapy, suicide, violence – in here, and in such a lyrically dense and ambitious work there’s so much to unpack. I am not remotely there yet. But two podcasts have helped me get towards that, with differing views that often resonate with me. i’d check them out.

    NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, May 19th 2022: https://www.npr.org/2022/05/16/1099275718/kendrick-lamar-looks-inward-on-mr-morale-the-big-steppers

    Tempo Tribe’s breakdown of the album:
    https://anchor.fm/tempo-tribe/episodes/Mr–Morale–The-Big-Steppers—Kendrick-Lamar-Album-Review-e1ir3gi

    Where I salute Lamar is his ambition. The creativity. The willingness to bear his soul (or his version of it? What is truth? What is artifice? Who will really know but him?) and push things forward. No one does it like him, and I hope he’s around for along time trying to do the same. Music needs him, and, I think, he needs music. Because this album feels like the most hallucinogenic therapy session I’ve ever been to.

    God knows how I’ll feel in a week.

  2. I think it’s easier to write my summary first … the detail is so much harder to get into.

    It’s an astonishing album. The scope of this album is MASSIVE. Sometimes this scope feels difficult to cope with and this challenge is made more difficult as it is coupled with such a singular focus a the same time. By which I mean … that this is an album that is only about Kendrick Lamar … at the same time that this is an album about absolutely everything. There are things that I love and things that I hate about this album. The balance between love and hate changes almost every time that I listen to it. Mr. Morlae is my album of the year, but that does not mean that I want to listen to it all the time.

  3. Being a hip hop fan whilst having any kind of social and political awareness is a complicated existence. It requires you to become comfortable with being uncomfortable and to open yourself up to accusations of hypocrisy, even if those conversations end up being with yourself.

    Nolan had two choices for Album of the Month this month, Mr. Morale by Kendrick Lamar and It’s Almost Dry by Pusha T. The latter is about dealing drugs and killing people, the former is about everything. It probably would have been easier to talk about Pusha’s drug king ping chat than it is to start a conversation about Kendrick Lamar’s latest double album. If we had chosen Pusha T those who would dismiss it could have done so with an easy flick of the wrist. Those who love it can justify it as pure entertainment, character exploration like any crime flick that we see on Netflix.

    But Mr Morale by Kendrick Lamar needs much more consideration, thoughtfulness, compassion, empathy and acceptance. These are attributes that are in short supply these days. This is not how people consume music, video … anything these days. So this album, this double album, is a BIG ask.

    I have so many points to make that to prevent them coming out as undisciplined jumble of bluuurgh I will revert to bullet points … (I could write an essay on each of this points but I am not coherent enough a writer to do this!);

    – I think the album is the perfect length – it couldn’t do what it does if it was longer or shorter
    – Being split into 2 sides is 100% the right thing to do and helps the listener to consume and understand this
    – The album is honest, brutally so. The phrase ‘warts n all’ does not come close to describing the experience of consuming this
    – Kendrick openly talks about all the things that you might not admit to your closest friend – we can judge him for that or commend him for that but I don’t think there is much space in the middle for anyone to sit
    – The album, the message, Kendrick, everything is a massive exercise in exploring contradiction and hypocrisy
    – Some of the most impactful words are captured in interludes e.g. ‘stop tap dancing around the conversation’ is a phrase and a sonic motif that punctuates the album … a constant reminder that this is zero tap dancing going on here
    – There are tracks that are close to unlistenable … but contain some of the most important messages on this album, We Cry Together and Silent Hill being the two most obvious tracks for me – The RZA (as alter ego Bobby Digital) track ‘Domestic Violence’ is an interesting foreshadowing of ‘We Cry Together’ … (recorded 24 years ago !!!)
    – Kendrick is really pushing the boundaries of Hip Hop … like all of the boundaries, all at the same time!
    – Many have talked about this album as a therapy session, the music is the therapy.

    The most important lyric of the album for me is from Auntie Diaries;

    ‘You said Kendrick ain’t no room for contradiction / To truly understand love, switch positions’

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