Review by Jonny Wright
Kendrick Lamar Duckworth has made us wait five years since Damn (2017) for the release of his fifth studio album, Mr Morale & The Big Steppers, and damn, it was worth the wait. There are no bangers on this double album, it’s not for the radio, it’s not for the clubs, this is to be consumed as art; as the great man himself says on the track ‘Rich Spirit’ – ‘writin’ testament/ Paintin’ pictures, put me in the Louvre, that’s a definite’. If Damn (the track ‘Humble’ aside) slightly underwhelmed, Mr Morale & The Big Steppers takes off where To Pimp A Butterfly (2015) left off; it is Kendrick’s latest masterpiece.
On the opening track, ‘United In Grief’, Kendrick tells us that in his five-year hiatus (or ‘1,855 days’ to be exact), ‘I went and got me a therapist / I can debate on my theories and sharing it (woah) / Consolidate all my comparisons / Humble enough because time is imperative (woah).’
Woah indeed, they didn’t give this brother a Pulitzer Prize for nothing. The album is peppered with voiceovers from his ‘therapist’ and it helps give the album a narrative structure – of a man working things out in his life and making a breakthrough. If we are to take Kendrick at his word, he tells us in ‘Worldwide Steppers’ that he had ‘Writer’s block for two years, nothin’ moved me / Asked God to speak through me, that’s what you hear now / The voice of yours truly’. It’s comforting to know that even Pulitzer winners suffer from the old writer’s block, but this album shows that Kendrick’s is now well and truly over.
Kendrick goes where others with his commercial reach don’t dare. There’s provocative lyrics like, ‘The industry has killed the creators’ and ‘I don’t know how to feel / Like the first time I fucked a white bitch’ in ‘Worldwide Steppers’. There’s contemplative lyrics like in ‘Die Hard’, ‘I got some regrets… / But my past won’t keep me from my best’) and ‘I get emotional about life / The lost ones keeping me up at night.’ The raw emotion of ‘Father Time’ (complemented perfectly by the soulful voice of London’s very own Sampha) almost brought a tear to my eye:
‘Daddy issues, hid my emotions, never expressed myself
Man should never show feelings, being sensitive never helped
His mama died, I asked him why he goin’ back to work so soon?
His first reply was, “Son, that’s life, and bills got no silver spoon”’
The pandemic was a weird time for musicians, it was a weird time for humans in general. For musicians, our lifeblood is in collaborating, in performing, and at times the pandemic made this impossible. What the pandemic also allowed us to do, though, is gather our thoughts, disconnect from the world and reconnect with ourselves, or with God, and think about what we really want to say and do. ‘I’m not in the music business, I been in the human business / Whole life been social distant’, lines in ‘Purple Hearts’ capture the COVID moment perfectly.
There are so many amazing, layered lyrics, it seems a shame just to pick out a few. ‘Aunties Diaries’ is one of the best pieces of storytelling I’ve heard in years, where Kendrick raps about his auntie and then his cousin’s gender affirmation journeys. The topics Kendrick covers are wide and various, from his relationship with God to cyclical sexual abuse of both males and females in his family and peer groups, to his recent marital infidelities. If the album seems dark, it is in parts. It’s definitely a mature album, and not without joy. Sonically, it’s an enjoyable listen, and Kendrick masters so many different flows and deliveries that you often think there are other rappers featuring on the songs, only to realise it’s only him. Rap is a competitive medium, everyone thinks they’re the best, but as a fellow lyricist, sometimes, you have to bow down to greatness. In his track ‘Crown’, Kendrick sings the refrain ‘you can’t please everybody’, and whilst this album hasn’t got the hits to please everybody, I would implore everybody to listen, because there’s something in here for everyone. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another 1,855 days until the next one.