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Review: Kendrick Lamar - Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers

“Kendrick is officially retired”, a twitter user has said, definitely not expecting a response from the man himself just a few months later, marking the beginning of the rollout for one of the most long awaited albums of the decade.

By Jebrzej Borkowski, First Year Politics and International Relations

“Kendrick is officially retired”, a twitter user has said, definitely not expecting a response from the man himself just a few months later, marking the beginning of the rollout for one of the most long awaited albums of the decade. The website contained a link to a message from Kendrick, announcing the release of Mr Morale & The Big Steppers. On the 9th of May, a Spotify notification declaring his return grabbed everyone’s attention, as we tuned into the fifth instalment of The Heart, in which Kendrick tackled the different problems faced by iconic celebrities, sparking theories that this would be the theme of the album. Dropping 4 days later, on the 13th of May, contrary to expectations, it turned out to be Kendrick’s most personal album to date.

The first part of the album begins with the intro track called ‘United in Grief’. This track perfectly introduces the listener to the theme of the album. It opens with Sam Dew’s singing “I hope you find some piece of mind”, as if directed to Kendrick himself. Then, Whitney Alford orders Kendrick to speak his mind by repeating “Tell them, tell them the truth”. This does a perfect job in setting the tone for the album, which is also most notably seen in Kendrick’s refrain, in which he coldly states “I grieve different”. This makes it clear that this album will tackle trauma, grief and Kendrick’s struggle throughout the “1855” days, between the release of this album, and his last album - DAMN.

The next track is ‘N95’. This is definitely one of the tracks which stood out the most throughout my first listens of the album, and I still find myself returning to it, 2 weeks after its release. I believe that this song is a commentary on fake imagery in the media. Kendrick criticises the flashy nature of the entertainment industries, and hilariously insults those people in the hook of the track. I also absolutely love the bridge; It was totally unexpected, and makes the pacing and the structure of the track so much more unique.

‘Worldwide Steppers’ begins with an introduction by Kodak Black, which I find to be a major flaw of the album (more about this later). The track itself does not stand out. The beat gets boring quite quickly, and although it switches in the latter part of the track, it does little to spark attention from a listener.

However, the album picks up the pace with ‘Die Hard’. This track is simply amazing. Both Blxsts and Amanda Reifers choruses put me into a trance-like state, as I bounced around whatever place I was at the time. Kendrick performs sensationally, with energy that matches the other artists on the track. K-Dot talks about opening up and fears of judgement.

Almost overwhelmingly, ‘Father Time’ is just as good as ‘Die Hard’, if not better. Kendrick talks about “daddy issues”, by which he means toxic masculinity and the societal expectations for men, such as not showing their emotions. Sampha’s chorus is phenomenal, and fits the track perfectly. Furthermore, the production on this song is taken to a whole other level, as the reversed sample turns into a groovy, yet soft piano. You cannot help but immerse yourself into the story told by Kendrick.

Unfortunately, I was once again caught off guard by yet another appearance by Kodak Black in a spoken-word ‘Rich Interlude’. I think it is wrong, and hypocritical to provide a platform to someone convicted of sexual assault, especially on an album which foundation is so deeply rooted in trauma.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. ‘Rich Spirit’ has a very Baby Keem-esque vibe, with hard drums, yet a chill melody, which perfect for relaxing vibes.

‘We Cry Together’ is definitely the most experimental track of the whole album. The very short, yet cinematic intro of the song is interrupted by dramatic piano keys. I don’t think anyone going into this album was prepared to hear Kendrick and actress Taylour Paige rip each other apart whilst pretending to be a couple. This track definitely feels like it could have been taken straight out from Marriage Story. Both Kendrick and Taylour perform extremely well on this (maybe even too well, as some may find this song disturbing). Although definitely odd, this track adds a lot to the album, pushing its story forward, as well as further emphasising the years of trauma faced by Kendrick.

‘Purple Hearts’ is the last song of this section of the album. What stands out the most on this track is its production. The bouncy beat, the distorted bass and the synths which contrast it create a great, full sound. Kendrick’s words are emphasised by Summer Walker, who at first provides backing vocals then takes over. In my opinion, she makes the track what it is. That is to say everyone contributes to the track. Kendrick’s flow is great and creative, and Ghostface KIllah’s verse at the end creates an uplifting feeling, which he raps over a stripped back beat allowing you to really feel the weight of his words.

The second part of the album begins with ‘Count Me Out’. Similarly to ‘United in Grief’, Sam Dew and Whitney Alford return to narrate the beginning of the song. This track’s production is grandeur and complex and the beautiful backing vocals work perfectly with Kendrick’s voice. However, I am not the biggest fan of the hook as it does get a bit repetitive.

‘Crown’ is a very heavy track. It’s very personal and intimate. The production is very stripped back, an artistic choice, which I think works perfectly with the subject matter. I imagine sitting in an empty bar, with Kendrick telling this story on the stage. Kendrick realises that he “can’t please everybody”, which he repeats many times throughout the track. This shows him trying to convince himself of this, as Kendrick, who seems himself as a leader, wants to be there for everyone. The song ends with a beautiful harmony, showing off Kendrick’s amazing vocal range, as he repeats “I can’t please everybody” in different patterns and tone - a portrayal of a racing mind.

In ‘Silent Hill’, Kendrick brings out Kodak for yet another appearance. Overlooking the fact that Kodak is on it, the song is okay, but it is definitely a bit basic with simple trap drums and distorted 808s. This one is definitely more on the chill side, but feels slightly out of place, especially going into it from ‘Crown’.

Saviour Interlude is performed by Baby Keem, who raps about his life struggles, and at the end introduces Mr. Morale. The song itself - ‘Saviour’ is a criticism of society. Kendrick says that prominent figures of culture are not “saviours”, and later talks about how people should speak their mind. This criticism of morality is the reason why Kendrick called himself Mr. Morale. The lyricism on this track is great, to the point that it demands your attention when listening, even when the beat is so full. Baby Keem’s hook is simple, yet effective, but it does get a little repetitive.

‘Auntie Diaries’ has caused quite the controversy. The topic of this track is intolerance, as Kendrick talks about his aunties and cousins transition, and the abuse that came with it. The controversy comes from Kendrick using the ‘f-slur’ throughout the track. Some say that this was done to show the homophobia embedded in society, whereas others say that Kendrick could have done this in a different way.

‘Mr Morale’ is quite a forgettable track. Pharrell's production is good, but the beat is downgraded by the use of a VST choir, which distracts you from the lyrics and makes the song sound quite cheap.

‘Mother I Sober’ is a very difficult track to listen to, not because it is bad, but because of its subject matter. Lamar tells a story in which he feels guilty for not using a gun to help his mother. The track also tackles the fears of abuse, and how Kendrick was asked if he was abused by his cousin, and later realising that this is because his mother was “violated in Chicago”, and was worried that this happened to him too. Kendrick’s anger turns into passion, as he releases it at the end of the track. Beth Gibbons sings a short chorus, with a message of wanting to be someone else. The track ends with a voice telling Kendrick that he “did it”, and that he “broke a generational curse”, the voice thanks him for opening up, as difficult as it was, and asks his child to thank him too.

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‘Mirror’ is a cathartic ending to the story of Mr Morale & The Big Steppers, in which Kendrick decides that despite all the expectations, he will choose himself. He wants to focus on family, and his baby, leaving “the culture” behind. However, Kodak appears briefly for a single line at the beginning on the track, which I find to be out of place, considering the subject matter of ‘Mother I Sober’ - the previous song.

I can understand why this album might have put some fans off guard - it can at times be uncomfortable, in some ways making the listener feel like they are invading Kendrick’s privacy. However, I believe that this is what the album aimed for. Kendrick faces his trauma, and we are the people on the other side of the room, listening to him vent. As many listeners have said, this is a therapy session. Even though the subject of this album is serious, it still does not miss out on having some AUX-safe songs, such as ‘N95’, ‘Die Hard’ and ‘Father Time’.

Featured image: Top Dawg Entertainment, Interscope

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