The last time we got an album from Kendrick Lamar, the Compton rapper delivered his Pulitzer-winning DAMN. The project was a major one, with K. Dot building upon his previous effort To Pimp A Butterfly while drilling down into the complexities of life and pulling the focus to his nimble lyricism. With the release of his new project Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, Kendrick tackles the conflicts going on inside of him as well as in the world around him — sometimes to great, visceral effect and others in muddy, messy ways that showcase areas where he’s looking for understanding but still has a way to go.
The first part of the double album kicks off with singers wishing he find peace of mind while a female voice urges him to “tell them the truth” on “United In Grief.” Kendrick then warns that he’s “been going through something” and that we should “be afraid.” He gets into all of it with production that, while experimental and interesting, isn’t very radio-friendly (with the exception possibly being the funky groove of “Die Hard” provided by frequent collaborators Sounwave and DJ Dahi alongside others).
He uses the production as the backdrop to work out some serious issues within himself like issues with his parents (“Father Time”) and the toxicity that can be found between the sexes (the jarring “We Cry Together,” which features an award-worthy performance from Zola star Taylour Paige). While he makes pointed observations, he also seems to contradict his own views while holding himself accountable through the other voices woven throughout (including embattled rapper Kodak Black, who is the album’s most controversial presence thanks to his views and legal issues).
The second half of the set gets even deeper as he meditates on the pressures of fame (“Crown” with its refrain of “I can’t please everybody”) while reconciling the contradictions of the public image with the real self (“Savior”). The album’s two most stunning moments come near the end with “Auntie Diaries” and “Mother May I.”
The former finds him reaching for acceptance and understanding of his trans and gay family members and the LGBTQ+ community while owning up to the unintentional harm he might’ve committed in the past (though his use of gay slurs and deadnaming slightly tarnishes the effort’s attempt at being progressive). The latter deals with the trauma of sexual abuse within the Black community and its lingering effects both on his family and the community as a whole.
In addition to the music, Kendrick also released the set’s first music video with a clip for “N95.” He takes a similar approach to the visual for Baby Keem‘s “family ties,” with the video showing a collage of disparate shots that don’t seem connected in theme or to the song. However, they seem to be reflective of the album’s themes as a whole and perhaps speak to the head space of Kendrick Lamar at the moment.
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers might just be K. Dot’s most challenging work to date, but it’s also one that will spark a lot of discussion and maybe even introspection. And, really, isn’t that the point of good art?