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Thursday, May 30, 2024

‘Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers’ is a beautiful mess of an album

The story of Kendrick Lamar’s personal journey over the past five years is tangled, complex and worth the attention.

Kendrick Lamar’s last three studio albums were all instant classics that defined their respective generations of hip-hop. On May 13, we, the humble masses, were finally able to experience his fourth studio album, “Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers.” 

His two side projects, “The B side album” and the “Black Panther” soundtrack, were good albums to listen to for their respective purposes, but they did not have the same effect as an official studio album like this most recent release.

To say people were excited about it would be the understatement of the year. After a couple of listens through the album, I’ve come to the conclusion that “Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers” is a beautiful, double-sided mess of an album. 

The album has 19 tracks with nine on each side but runs only 73 minutes long — short enough to be one-sided. It’s double-sided because Lamar says so, and who are we to question the creator of “DAMN.”, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2018. 

The album cover shows Lamar with his family. He wears a crown of thorns, an allusion to Jesus Christ. With the inclusion of this imagery, he is referring to himself as a Jesus-like figure in the hip-hop community. On the first side of the album, Lamar discusses his external struggles.

1,855 days have passed since his last studio album, “DAMN.” Lamar — as well as us listeners — have changed due to external forces over that period, including the COVID-19 pandemic. He talks about how he used money and sex to suppress negative emotions in songs like “United in Grief.” 

In “Worldwide Steppers,” he discusses how having sex with white women makes him racist and is a form of retaliation for his ancestors. This side culminates in “We Cry Together,” a five-minute song in which Lamar and actress Taylor Paige shout at each other as though they're in a toxic relationship. The words are so vulgar, so brutally real, that you forget the lyrics rhyme, have rhythm and work together as an actual song.

Lamar is telling the audience about his struggles, whether they are from his relationship with his partner or with the fans and hip-hop community at large. 

As good as these songs are, the album's first side has nearly no replay value. Tracks like “N95,” “Die Hard” and “Purple Hearts” are the exceptions. These songs send impactful messages, ranging from topics such as cancel culture and love, yet are still catchy and fun to listen to. In other tracks, such as “Die Hard” and “Rich Spirit,” Lamar sacrifices deeper themes as part of making the songs more catchy for mainstream audiences.

If the first side was about external forces, the second half is about the internal. The first side mentions this struggle in songs like “Father Time.” Here, he compares himself to other artists — such as Ye and Drake — and tells the story of how those men were able to settle their differences. If they can do it, so can Lamar, right? This is what the second half of "Mr. Morale" is about. 

Lamar keeps his beats simple here to ensure the listener focuses on the lyrics. In songs like “Crown” and “Savior,” he recognizes where he stands in the hip-hop community, stating that he cannot please everybody. He cautions that your favorite figures — J. Cole, Future, LeBron James — can inspire but can’t save you. 

The second half reaches its high point with “Auntie Diaries” and “Mother I Sober.” 

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In the former, Lamar sheds his transphobia by telling the story of his uncle who is transgender. Before accepting his uncle for who he was, he was ignorant and did not understand transgender people. He learns his lesson of using slurs in the past and realizes the hypocrite he was being by using the anti-Black slur — a slur his white fans can’t sing along to — while using the homophobic slur on his uncle, a trans man. 

On “Mother I Sober,” Lamar uses the story of his mother’s abuse to illustrate how toxicity is passed down through generations. Lamar's mother was a victim of sexual abuse and he always worried he would become the type of person that would hurt his mother given his lust addiction. His mother was raped and he never wanted to be like his mother’s abuser and hurt women through sex. His lust addiction culminated in him cheating on his partner. Ultimately, Lamar realized this trauma, which impacted him at a young age, and has affected him since the beginning of his life. 

As for other highlights on this side, songs like “Count Me Out,” “Silent Hill” and “Mr. Morale” are great songs that have replay value, are catchy and send great messages; messages that have to deal with self-doubt and the pressures of being famous and deal with the struggles of being Kendrick Lamar. 

The second side ends with the track “Mirror,” where Lamar talks directly to the listener and himself. He tells us and himself to let go of the past and allow ourselves to be free, to be human and to realize it is okay to make mistakes. 

Throughout the album, Lamar criticizes the insincerity and performatives of cancel-culture, fake wokeness and fake feminism. Given the widespread use of social media as a tool to disperse social justice messages, Lamar attempts to show listeners that users are not thinking for themselves on these platforms. He is trying to show listeners that it is easy to follow the crowd and difficult to think for yourself, and that by thinking for yourself you begin to see what is really real and what is fake.

Ultimately, in my view, it is important not to let the prevalent use of slurs distract from the intrinsic goals of the album, as well as Lamar’s reasoning for their inclusion. This album is written for people who Lamer used to be like — whether they were young, black, homophobic or transphobic boys or men. Using these slurs, while understandably difficult for some to hear, is an action Lamar felt necessary in helping those young men learn and grow, just as he did. 

As for the features on this album, most are well warranted. Baby Keem’s features on songs such as the “Savior Interlude” are nice to listen to. On “Die Hard,” Blxst & Amanda Reifer create an amazing sound reminiscent of Frank Ocean — making for a perfect summer track I will be playing on repeat. 

A convicted abuser, Kodak Black, is featured on the track “Silent Hill.” He has great verses, but his participation has been controversial. Lamar’s reasoning is that he sees himself in Kodak. Both Lamar and Kodak do great off the beat on “Silent Hill,” which had a good rhythm and a catchy flow. Fans were quick to judge on social media, saying Lamar should not have had Kodak on the album to begin with. 

In a similar case, Ye recently included Marylin Manson on his most recent album “Donda.” The artists see themselves as providing chances for their guests to redeem themselves. 

This sentiment ties back to Lamar’s central message about social media when "Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers" was released. It is easy to follow the crowd on social media — repost what others say without formulating one’s own thoughts.  

Ultimately, I’m glad Kodak has Lamar as a mentor.

After weeks of listening to this album on repeat, I don’t think this is Lamar's best album — nor is it his most replayable. However, I do think this is his most personal album. We are listening to all of his shortcomings and hardships as he deals with both the external stress of being one of the best rappers of all time and the internal struggles of being a person working to grow. 

“Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers” is a beautiful mess of an album — and understandably so. His thoughts over the past five years are complex, tangled and, yeah, messy. This does not at all make the album unwelcome in his discography. In fact, I am quite glad this story now exists for the world to hear and learn from. 

While this is not the album anyone, myself included, was expecting — and offers very little of the traditional measures of album quality — it is great to be listening to a new Kendrick Lamar for the first time in five years.  

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