It has now been five years — or exactly 1855 days — since the world was last presented with a studio album by rapper Kendrick Lamar. His most recent release concludes a tremendous wait and a 17-year relationship between Lamar and his signed record label, Top Dawg Entertainment. “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” is the rapper’s fifth studio LP and final project with the label.
The echoing voice of the featured artist, Sam Dew separates the album into two discs — singing a similar verse on the opening songs of disc one and disc two. Vulnerable lyrics smothered with deep percussion trap the listener in Lamar’s confessional, while previous romantic relationships and his most current role as husband and father are the primary focus of the first half. The second half of the album entails childhood traumas and family tales. Leading the journey of the double album is the unique voice of the Compton rapper.
The many voices of Lamar are prevalent from beginning to end. Within the first seconds of the first song, “United In Grief,” he switches from raw vocals to his trademark high-pitched rapping. With every voice there is a change of flow, keeping every song fresh and unpredictable. The unrefined drum break creates a quick swaying tempo and the simple piano perfectly divides each verse in the opening track.
The piano is a recurring instrument in the album and is smoothly inserted into almost every song. Lamar touches on sexual assault and abuse during his childhood, a later sex addiction, as well as issues with his father and his battle with mental health. The rapper’s intentions are not to be depressing — he is simply brutally honest. As his wife Whitney Alford says in the intro, “Tell them, tell 'em, tell them the truth.”
Lamar’s honesty and vulnerability prevail on energetic trap and electronic beats with heavy bass, hi-hat bursts and noticeable synthesizers. They differ from Lamar’s usual West Coast instrumentals — electronic piano, slow snare and kick drums — 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.
Disc one contains more of the vibrant songs of the album. The moment of silence before the beat drops on “Father Time” and the angelic voice of Sampha are godsends. Blxst and Amanda Reifer on “Die Hard” compose a catchy chorus that flourishes mainly through the singing. “Rich Spirit” is suave with calming background vocals that promote Lamar’s confidence. It is an impressive exhibit of Lamar’s singing and ability to make melodic tunes that still tackle serious issues.
The vibrant energy comes to halt as Lamar paints a vivid scene of a toxic couple arguing in “We Cry Together.” The back-and-forth yelling verses are an impressively unique format for a song, while the strain in Lamar’s and Taylour Paige’s voices adds to the reality of the argument. A wave of discomfort settles while listening to petty behavior as they fight over car keys and insult each other. Disc two switches to length verses over mellow beats that bear more in the lyrics rather than the rhythm.
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 record scratches and a background choir. With over 11 features, no artist disappoints.
But Black, who has faced a series of sexual assault accusations and cases, is a controversial choice to appear on Lamar’s album. It is disappointing to see Lamar address his identity as a survivor of sexual abuse while at the same time featuring a perpetrator. Perhaps Lamar decided to feature the Florida rapper on the project as an attempt to reconcile with his trauma and forgive.
Be it the opening lyrics “My auntie is a man now” or the repetitive use of a homophobic slur, “Auntie Diaries” is a song impossible to miss. Lamar speaks of his aunt and cousin, who are both transgender. He criticizes his own early insensitive comments to the transition of his aunt and the Christian church’s hypocritical discrimination of the LGBTQ+ community by asking, “‘Mr. Preacherman, should we love thy neighbor? / The laws of the land or the heart, what's greater? / I recognize the study she was taught since birth / But that don't justify the feelings that my cousin preserved."
Lamar's use of a homophobic slur is another hypocritical attempt to showcase his own growth — “I said them f-bombs, I ain'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 an incident in 2018 where a fan brought up on stage used a racial slur while rapping to "M.A.A.D. City." Lamar said he felt uncomfortable with a white person using the racial slur, and comes to realize it is the same for the LGBTQ+ community when he uses a homophobic slur in the song.
Despite the look into Lamar’s inner turmoil about his family, Lamar’s usage of homophobic slurs and repetitive misgendering are uncomfortable and controversial. His approach garnered mixed reactions — some argued that Lamar, albeit poorly, is attempting to come to terms with his own missteps in learning and growing while others critique the harm he causes through the use of the slurs. Either way, it is clear Lamar still has an immense amount of growth to do in order to adequately respect and support the LGBTQ+ community.
Putting musical analysis to the side, the entirety of the album is a problematic confession. Such honesty — that reflects a personal diary — about sexual abuse and gender identity creates an impact that goes beyond the scope of a music review. Controversial or not, Lamar’s intentions are to sincerely profess his generational trauma to whoever chooses to listen.
The one-hour-and-thirteen-minute symphony comes to a conclusion with spirited violins. Lamar asks his fans for forgiveness for his prolonged absence on “Mirror.” More importantly, he says: “Sorry I didn't save the world, my friend / I was too busy buildin' mine again,” referring to his family and new passion, pgLang — a multimedia company co-founded by Lamar in 2020. The sorrowful lyrics are not an ask for help, more so finding reflection and therapy within his artwork.
As the album concludes, it differs from previous projects and with every listen the project does sound better. While Lamar embarks on new callings, “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” is a beautiful send-off to his time with Top Dawg Entertainment.