Kendrick Lamar Duckworth is one of the most renowned rappers to ever exist. Compton born and bred, Kendrick Lamar goes by a variety of nicknames, ranging from KDot, to Kung-Fu Kenny, and now Mr. Morale. He’s best known for his high-intensity songs like “Swimming Pools” and “m.A.A.d city” where he raps about the violent situations and people with criminal tendencies he grew up around. He also won multiple Grammys, including Rap Album of the Year, for his 2015 project To Pimp a Butterfly, which went in-depth describing institutionalized racism in the U.S. and other pressing social issues like gun violence and religion. His most recent studio album before his 2022 release was the album titled DAMN which came out in 2017. Kendrick fans were longing for another album for five years, some coming to the conclusion that he will never release music again. Then, on May 13, 2022, Kendrick finally released his fifth studio album, named Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers. Consisting of two sets of nine songs, it was easy to see that this was a double album; the first half being Mr. Morale, and the second half being The Big Steppers. Me, being a long-time Kendrick fan, was anxiously waiting in my bed, constantly refreshing my phone, until the album came out. The moment it was released I listened to it through and through, twice in a row. Now, after one month listening to it every day, I feel as though I’m ready to release an unbiased, honest review.
For Kendrick’s entire rap career, he has taken the route of a somewhat social justice warrior. Like many other rappers before him such as Tupac and Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar has tried to use his music to make a positive difference in the world. All of his releases deal with various different topics, but each have their own unique encompassing message. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is no different. Throughout the entire album it feels as though Kendrick is taking the listener into one of his therapy sessions, and spoiler alert: he’s not doing too well.
The first song is titled “United in Grief” and it illustrates this beautifully. It begins with a woman chanting “I hope you find some peace of mind in this lifetime… I hope you find some paradise”. We will not hear this woman chant again until the end of the album, which is an important attribute to this album’s message. Kendrick’s first words are “I’ve been going through something… 1855 days… I’ve been going through something… be afraid.” In this line, Kendrick is explaining how between the time of his last studio record and this one, or 1855 days, he has been dealing with many things in his life outside of music. Following this, Kendrick raps about various issues, from rappers being in the industry just for fame and money, to his powerful conversations with his psychologist. These bars are accompanied by some of the most intriguing drums that I’ve heard being drilled into your head with raw substance. The chorus of the song includes Kendrick yelling “I grieve different!” accompanied by a beautiful piano riff and opera-like chords. This was immediately one of my favorite songs on the album, and it still is after multiple listens. This song explains that while everyone grieves in different ways, we are all united by the act of grieving. It is a human act that should be used to bring people closer together.
The second song on this album is titled “N95”, and in this track Kendrick dials it back a bit in terms of seriousness. A simple trap beat with strong drums and 808s, Kendrick raps about how other rappers don’t care about the impact of their music, and only rap for clout. He exposes them by saying “Take all designer bulls*** off and what do you have? Ugh, you ugly as f***!” describing how most rappers have no substance or personality once they take off their expensive jewelry and clothes. “N95” is a great track to play in the car with friends or at a party.
The third song goes back to the disturbing intensity that “United in Grief” brought. This song is called “Worldwide Steppers”, and Kendrick does not hold back in this track. Taking the less mainstream route regarding the beat and the flow, Kendrick dances with his voice while a simple beat and piano riff plays in the background. Kendrick raps about his sexual experiences with women of different races and how he feels a feeling of revenge when engaging in sex with white women, due to the history of racism in the U.S. This is a very deep, disturbing song where Kendrick feels his own consciousness crumble due to guilt and angst. As he says in the chorus, “I’m a killer, he’s a killer, she’s a killer…”, Kendrick explains how everyone in the world has those thoughts that are evil and wrong, but only real killers and evil people act on those thoughts. The next song, “Die Hard”, includes some serious lyrics, but carries a lighter vibration to it with its airy beat and pop-style features by the artists Blxst and Amanda Reifer. Kendrick explains how he loves so hard he feels like he might die, and how loyalty is the most important part of a relationship. He says how being able to open up to your significant other is crucial to a long-standing relationship. A fantastic track that definitely grew on me over time.
The fifth song, “Father Time”, is my favorite track on the album. Kendrick dives deep into his issues with his father, explaining how his father not being there during his childhood built him into the man he is today. He gained independence and emotional strength without his father, but not without struggle, as the beautiful feature by artist Sampha illustrates how alcohol was a coping mechanism for Kendrick’s loneliness. Kendrick’s raspy voice and older 90’s style rap delivery was absolutely the highlight of the album. “Father Time” is most definitely one of the best rap songs to come out in the last few years.
After this, I began to notice how the overall vibe of this album is very scattered. Instead of keeping songs of similar tone in one part of the album, Kendrick seems to be flip-flopping between the intense, almost disturbing topics and the lighter, more mainstream styles of rap. It made me slightly confused, but after the end of the album, I realized why Kendrick ordered his songs the way he did, and I’ll explain that at the end.
The next song on this album is an interlude called “Rich”, where fellow rapper Kodak Black basically tells a poem over a piano riff. It is interesting to see Kodak narrating Kendrick’s album, especially considering how different they are in terms of their music, but after some research I found that Kendrick said that he sees Kodak in his younger self, which is why he wanted to include him in his album.
The seventh song on this album is called “Rich Spirit”, a track where Kendrick is truly feeling himself. Rapping about how good he looks and feels, “Rich Spirit” is an anthem for anyone who has self-esteem issues. “Aye, b**** I’m attractive, can’t f*** with you no more, I’m fasting” Kendrick says in his chorus in front of an airy beat. A great trap song on the album, and like “N95”, this is a good track to put on in the car or at a party.
The next song is definitely a highlight. Called “We Cry Together”, this track features a choreographed argument between a couple, that couple being Kendrick Lamar and artist Taylour Paige. Definitely one of the harder tracks to get through in terms of intensity and depth, “We Cry Together” is a battle of toxic masculinity and femininity as both artists absolutely destroy each other with hurtful statements. One accusing the other of cheating, laughing at the other and taking their car keys, and saying horrible things like “I should’ve [had sex] with your cousin instead”. Kendrick is describing his younger self and how arrogant and misogynistic he was, but also how much he’s grown since then. Taylour Paige’s raw emotion and strain put into her voice during the argument is what made this track so unforgettable. Just like almost every toxic relationship, the song ends with the couple making up and making out.
Up until here, every song on this album has been a highlight I felt I needed to dissect. However, the next three songs on the album are a bit of a lull for me. “Count me Out”, “Crown”, and “Purple Hearts” are not bad songs by any means, but if they were removed from the album I wouldn’t have any issues. Dealing with topics like self-acceptance, and the concept of control, and love, these songs are strong in their lyricism but weak in their deliveries. However, that is very much just my opinion and shouldn’t influence others’ judgements. The first of the double album ends at the ninth song, which was “Purple Hearts”, and the second begins with “Count Me Out”.
The album picks back up again on the track titled “Silent Hill”, a trap banger that yet again features Kodak Black. In this song, Kendrick attacks other rappers again explaining how he is in fact the realest rapper out right now, and how his realness is stressing him out. “Pushing the snakes, I’m pushing the fakes, I’m pushing them all off me like huh!” Kendrick raps on the chorus, showing how no other rapper in the game can touch him. Kodak Black’s feature is also a great addition to the song, as Kodak raps about his recent rise to success after facing jail time. “Silent Hill” falls into the same category as other trap tracks like “Rich Spirit” and “N95”, a great party song.
The next track on the album is an interlude titled “Savior”, where rapper and cousin of Kendrick, Baby Keem, raps about his childhood and how his parents weren’t there to raise him as much as he would’ve liked. This interlude flows straight into the next song on the album, also titled “Savior”. In this track, Kendrick, accompanied by Baby Keem, raps about how many people idolize false prophets and how people should look up to themselves more than others. Kendrick calls out many current rappers like Jcole and Future in the chorus saying “...but he is not your savior”, and explains how many people in the industry are only happy for others’ success when they are successful themselves. “Are you happy for me? You smile in my face, but are you happy for me?” Baby Keem sings in regards to people only liking him in hopes of helping themselves, a social struggle many rising artists have early in their careers.
The next song on this album is titled “Auntie Diaries”, and this is where Kendrick returns with emotion and depth. In this track, Kendrick raps about his acceptance of transgenders within his life. As a child, Kendrick didn’t understand why his aunt transitioned into a man. He resented her for embarrassing him at school, because children at that age can’t grasp those types of concepts. Now, as an adult with children of his own, Kendrick raps about how he now understands and loves his aunt-now-uncle. While this track is beautifully written and explores topics that the rap community is usually intolerant of, the enjoyability of this track was low for me. Long and drawn-out, I believe this track is similar to “Crown” and “Purple Hearts”, as in they’re written fantastically but weak in their delivery.
The third-to-last track on this album is titled “Mr. Morale”. This hard-hitting song features a classic Kendrick flow accompanied by a haunting synth-heavy beat, where Kendrick raps about the weight he carries from having so much responsibility at his position. One of my favorite lines in the album is delivered in this track, where Kendrick says, “Watching my cousin struggle with addiction then watching her first born make a million”. Kendrick is referring to Baby Keem and how Keem’s mother fought a battle with addiction while raising him. Fantastic writing once again, and beautiful production by Kendrick and Pharrell Williams on this track.
It seems as though Kendrick never slows down with the profound song-writing, because this next song, “Mother I Sober” is probably the most powerful track on the album. Kendrick dives deep into his childhood trauma, and explains how sexual abuse was always an issue in his family. He points out how he was never worried about becoming addicted to drugs, but instead feared a lust addiction. Along with a mesmerizing chorus by Beth Gibbons that will make a grown man tear up, “Mother I Sober” is one of the best songs on the album.
We made it. The last track on the album is called “Mirror”, and this is definitely a solid song to end an overall amazing album. “Mirror” is a funky, spaced-out track that feels as though it could be straight out of To Pimp a Butterfly. In this track, Kendrick preaches about how he feels free from a lot of his problems, as if he’s finally made a breakthrough with the therapist. “I choose me, I’m sorry” he repeats throughout the song. I thoroughly enjoyed this track, however Kendrick’s delivery on the chorus sounds slightly off-beat, which was probably intentional. Either way, by the end of this track, you feel as though you’ve made it through the struggle right along with Kendrick. It is clear that at the beginning of the album, Kendrick had some things to get off his chest. “I’ve been going through something,” he says, and when Kendrick Lamar says that in the beginning of an album, buckle up. He did not disappoint.
I would like to further address the pattern I found towards the middle of the album. I believe Kendrick’s flip-flop between different themes and tones throughout the album is an intentional representation of “looking in the mirror”. The first of the double album, assumed to be Mr. Morale, actually has a lot of references towards the second album, The Big Steppers, and vice versa.. The song “Worldwide Steppers” is on Mr. Morale, and the song “Mr. Morale” is on The Big Steppers. This was confusing for a bit, but then you look at the last song titled “Mirror”. It appears as though Kendrick made it possible to change the listening order of the album in order to deliver different perspectives of stories. One can listen to the album in numerical order like I did, or one can behave as though the album is a mirror, and begin at the ends and make your way to the middle. Only Kendrick can do such a thing.
Overall, this album is fantastic. My favorite songs were “United in Grief”, “Father Time”, and “Mother I Sober”. With awesome trap bangers like “N95” and “Silent Hill” as well as hard-hitting, powerful lessons within tracks like “Worldwide Steppers” and “Mother I Sober”, Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers is a certified instant classic and one of the best albums to come out this year.
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