Album Review: Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale And The Big Steppers

The Breakdown

Kendrick has officially stepped into a spot where, when he raps about his personal experiences, feels like he’s rapping about universal experiences. It puts the album in a weird spot, because it’s not always clear if it’s first, second, or third person - but the uncomfortable grey area has always been a good one.

The thing about Kendrick Lamar albums is that they become, in their own way, cultural touchstones. To Pimp a Butterfly immediately became regarded as one of the best albums, certainly rap albums, of all time. Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City became enough of a force in its own right to be recognisable by an acronym. Damn., while it didn’t resonate for me (someone not living in America), its cultural importance to its target market can’t be understated.

That’s all in purpose of saying that a Kendrick Lamar album is one that can’t be properly reviewed in terms of, say, all its themes, moments, standout lyrics in a short time after its release, and certainly, in regards to all of its specific cultural aspects I’m not the person to do it, as a white Australian, but what I can do is highlight the things that stand out and draw some attention to some of the things that are important to the album that might not be so immediately standout:

  • Could listen to this album with a fucken book to try to catch all the intricacies and short appearances can also have it as background music (mostly).
  • Auntie Diaries grabs the headline but the connection between Saviour and Mother I Sober feels more… intentional?

In a way, it feels like an album that’s crying out for a companion book or someone to describe exactly who is where contributing what on each song. The list of contributors who go uncredited is massive- Kodak Black a few times before his credited feature, Baby Keem on the interlude immediately before Savior, Florence Welch on We Cry Together, a song that immediately becomes something you wouldn’t expect her on. Pharrell and Tanna Leone on a song that feels like a career-maker for the latter, and that’s just the ones I caught in two goes.

I think the uncredited inclusions of Pharrell and Welch, particularly, are massive. When you see those names you get an idea of the song that might come up, especially if you see it on the tracklisting, and not including the names subverts the expectations when they do pop up. The same goes for starting We Cry Together with Welch’s vocals, which are immediately recognisable, before transitioning into a song about gender roles and expectations in relationships, a song that’s sure to be a headline grabber. There’s a lot in it- it’s styled as an argument, so it can’t stick too long on one topic, giving it many opportunities to touch on topics before moving swiftly onward.

The album’s big headline grabber, and (just to lead with it) one that I won’t touch too much on is Auntie Diaries. Any other review of this album will, does, and has- but just including a mention to say that it’s the one that generates the discourse and feels styled to.

As above, you don’t get a good grip on the themes in two listens, because you can’t, because that’s how it’s intended to be. Nothing wrong with that. It’s a good album for a casual listen, like having on in the background, but also good for thorough focused listening. Something that Kendrick can do that few other people can? Put on a ‘serious voice’ that indicates when you should be doing that.

Auntie Diaries exists in the album’s second volume and that’s the volume where he adopts a serious voice the most. There’s a clear undercurrent, one that I’m still not sure if it’s metaphoric or intended to be taken literally, and it starts from the opening of the Saviour interlude.

Kendrick samples spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, beginning the interlude with ‘If you derive your sense of identity from being a victim. Let’s say, bad things were done to you when you were a child. And you develop a sense of self that is based on the bad things that happened to you”, which establishes the undercurrent of “bad things were done to you”.

The delicateness of the matter is why it’s so unclear. Kendrick is consistent with the inclusion of “bad things were done to you”, specifically being molested as a child, and that comes up here and on four of the five ensuing tracks. Here are a couple of specifics that stood out:

“I think about Robert Kelly, if he weren’t molested I wonder if life’ll fail him” … “Using violence to cover what really happens, I know somebody’s listenin’, past life regressions to know my conditions” (Mr Morale)

Every other brother has been compromised, I know the secrets, every other rapper sexually abused, I see ’em daily buryin’ they pain in chains and tattoos, so listen close before you start to pass judgement on how we move” (Mother I Sober)

If he doesn’t mean every other rapper has been sexually abused it might just mean that he’s talking about generational trauma, which he also references at the end of Mother I Sober, but on the early listens it’s the clearest theme, I guess. It’s clearest on Mother I Sober, a track about his own experiences with sexual assault, but closes with what feels like a sample of his own children and that they’ve broken a “generational curse”. It’s hard to know exactly what, but clear that it’s something.

Couple of bullet points to close out:

  • Kendrick, his two kids, wife, and family are on the album cover, but also Kendrick’s wearing a gilded crown of thorns and has a pistol tucked into his waistband. Shows themes of family but also what it is to be King Kendrick as well as affiliation with black stereotypes like guns and jewellery, particularly turning the Christ-associated Crown of Thorns into jewellery.
  • Who exactly are Mr Morale and the Hotsteppers, the question that felt pertinent going into the album, is answered on tracks that are placed equidistant within the album. Worldwide Steppers is track 3, while Mr Morale is the third track from the end. Might indicate that Volume 1 is about the Steppers and Volume 2 about Mr Morale.
  • Kendrick has officially stepped into a spot where, when he raps about his personal experiences, feels like he’s rapping about universal experiences. It puts the album in a weird spot because it’s not always clear if it’s first, second, or third person – but the uncomfortable grey area has always been a good one.

There’s gonna be a lot written about this album, but here are the immediate things to look out for as well as a couple of further thoughts that don’t fit as much into the syntax. The best thing you can do is listen to it and pick it apart for yourself because of how dense it immediately is, but this is just a guide to what to watch out for.

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