Kendrick Lamar returns with a soon-to-be classic in ‘Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers’

photo of Lamar performing.
Kendrick Lamar’s fifth studio album was released Friday, May 13, over five years after “DAMN,” his latest body of work. The new project, titled “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers,” features eighteen tracks over two discs (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons).

One month ago, Kendrick Lamar went on Twitter. He found a tweet that read: “Kendrick Lamar is officially retired.” Lamar quote tweeted it with a link that announced an album release date.

Less than a month later, he’s back with his first album since 2017’s “DAMN.” “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” is unlike any Lamar album before. It’s heavy in storytelling at times with raw emotion in “We Cry Together” and sees Lamar unafraid to critique his own views on the LGBTQIA+ community in “Auntie Diaries.”

But, after all, it’s another Lamar album full of messages under blurred lines and standout songs.

King Kenny is back.

Adam Jasper: Where do we start? It’s really easy to be comparative with such an established artist with a discography that places him among hip-hop’s greats. Perhaps the best aspect of “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” is its distinction from Lamar’s previous works. It doesn’t sound too much like anything he’s done before, it was a refreshing first listen. The production is immersive, leaning on the piano as a primary instrument. The guest features, some very unexpected, worked very well in their respective roles — Kodak Black on “Silent Hill” and Summer Walker on “Purple Hearts” to name a few. This album reminds us just how good Lamar is at curating a cohesive and unique project.

Anthony Gharib: I agree that this new project is very distinct from Lamar’s other albums. That’s what makes him so special. You never truly know what you’re going to get, even if he sprinkles in some familiar sounds from past work. The production of this album really stood out to me on first listen. From the intro “United In Grief,” the soft piano keys in the back before the beat switch midway through the track are outstanding. And oh man, that Kodak feature — the beat is so bouncy and Kodak really does a good job of holding his own. I enjoyed the first side of the album more than the second side though.

AJ: To me, the two sides blended together a bit — I didn’t prefer one over the other. Both balanced easy listening tracks like “N95’’ and “Savior” — rap songs with more traditional hip-hop beats and structures — with weighted works like “We Cry Together” and “Mother I Sober.” But Lamar isn’t one to waste time. None of the tracks are devoid of meaning. Much of his time is spent discussing what he perceives to be society’s flaws, whether that be “clout-chasing,” toxicity in relationships or hypocrisy in pandemic times. Along with these critiques are Lamar’s introspective self-criticism. The album serves as his own personal therapy session in that way, and for that reason, it’s a heavy listen.

AG: I’m sure you can agree “We Cry Together” is by far the most powerful song on the album. The track’s raw emotion is overwhelming at times, but it’s outstanding work, something rappers today just don’t do anymore. You can feel every ounce of emotion through the words. Taylour Paige kills it. Her feature is just one of many fire ones on the album. Blxst on “Die Hard” was also outstanding. Hearing the “I hope I’m not too late to set my demons straight” in his voice is so soothing. In the weirdest feature of 2022, Summer Walker and Ghostface Killah actually work together on “Purple Hearts.” I expected more from Baby Keem on “Savior,” but the “Are you happy for me? ” singing is catchy enough to save it. Keem’s performance on “Savior (Interlude)” makes up for it, too. Sampha on “Father Time” matches Lamar’s vibe perfectly and steals the show. That’s my favorite song of the album, hands down. It also has arguably the most memorable lyric — “When Kanye got back with Drake, I was slightly confused.” Yeah, same.

AJ: You definitely highlighted some of my favorite moments on the album. There’s just so much good to rave about. But there’s, of course, controversy to discuss, namely on one of my favorite tracks “Auntie Diaries.” Lamar addresses his past issues with transphobia, telling the tale of an uncle and a cousin who both transitioned (“My auntie is a man now”). To do this, he calls himself out for using the f-slur and draws a parallel by pointing out his hypocrisy of policing the usage of the n-word whilst using the f-slur (“‘F—-t, f—-t, f—-t,’ we can say it together / But only if you let a white girl say ‘N—a’”). Yeah, it’s a lot to unpack. While I don’t agree with the use of the slur to demonstrate his point, it’s important that Lamar addressed transphobia, a pertinent issue in hip-hop circles. Characteristically, he doesn’t shy away from controversy on the album.

AG: And that’s what makes Lamar one of the greatest rappers of all time. He’s not afraid to address controversial topics while making songs you can jam out to. There truly aren’t any rappers like Lamar anymore. On “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers,” you understand why because of his strong storytelling and radiant rapping. A tendency of Lamar is that his albums almost always sound better over time. So, if you find yourself disliking it after a few listens, return after two or three weeks. There’s too much to unpack for someone to enjoy it after just one listen. But, I can speak for so many when I say it was refreshing to listen to Lamar again. Let’s hope this isn’t his final album.