Lamar returns with new sounds, more social commentary

Mr+Morale+%26+the+Big+Steppers%2C+released+today%2C+is+Kendrick+Lamars+first+album+in+five+years.

Image via Top Dawg Entertainment

Mr Morale & the Big Steppers, released today, is Kendrick Lamar’s first album in five years.

By Sam Tobiczyk, Baldwin High School - PA

By the time Kendrick Lamar released his fourth album, Damn., it seemed like he had accomplished everything a musical artist could.

He won a Pulitzer Prize for his work on that album, becoming the only rap artist to win one. Lamar then got the opportunity to make the soundtrack for Black Panther, one of the highest-grossing movies of all time.

Lamar also had racked up 14 Grammy awards for his albums, songs, and soundtrack work.

Lamar was on top of the world, yet he receded from the public spotlight, like a Greek god retiring to Mount Olympus. He entered a four-year hiatus following his soundtrack album.

He had already made three of the most celebrated rap albums of all time, with good kid, m.A.A.d city, To Pimp a Butterfly, and Damn. all ranking in the top 200 albums of Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums list.

He had already explored varying themes across his musical projects, whether it was the story of a kid growing up in Compton, the prevalent police brutality against African-Americans in America, or a personal reflection on his life.

He had attained the status of a hip-hop prophet, so what was left for him to do?

Having such a high-profile artist pronounce his acceptance of transgender individuals in such an overt way can help combat the transphobia that is still rampant in parts of the U.S. and the world.”

Meanwhile, over the years that Lamar was in hibernation, the world has changed to a massive degree.

America saw the killing of George Floyd and the resulting nationwide protests for the Black Lives Matter movement. It also saw almost the entirety of Donald Trump’s presidency and the election of Joe Biden.

The world went through a global pandemic, killing millions across the planet, and forever changing the way that many interact.

Even Lamar himself went through changes. He had two children.

On his new project, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, Lamar returns to his pulpit to continue preaching his gospel.

He isn’t hesitant to talk about these new issues that face the world.

On perhaps the most important track on the album, “Auntie Diaries,” Lamar brings the struggle and discrimination faced by transgender individuals into the spotlight. He highlights the discrimination trans people face from religion and family members.

He deals with this topic in his own way, describing how his views have evolved to acceptance from his discriminatory naivete. At the end of the track Lamar even recites “the day I chose humanity over religion.”

And this statement is not a light one. Lamar shows his passion for his religion throughout the album. On “Worldwide Steppers,” he proclaims “(I) asked God to speak through me. That’s what you hear now.”

Having such a high-profile artist pronounce his acceptance of transgender individuals in such an overt way can help combat the transphobia that is still rampant in parts of the U.S. and the world.

The project is much more sonically experimental than his previous releases, possibly displeasing some fans that have become accustomed to his sound. But while this album takes many musical risks, it succeeds with most of them.”

Lamar also dives into topics related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

On “N95,” named after the now-famous face mask, Lamar criticizes the social ills that plague modern society following the worldwide virus.

And on “Savior,” Lamar addresses the vaccine controversies stemming from Covid. He talks about the hypocrisy of people who claimed the vaccine was evil, yet yearned for it once they caught the virus.

Lamar even criticizes Kyrie Irving, the high-profile NBA star who became one of the faces of the anti-vaccine movement.

While Lamar isn’t reluctant to address the new pressing social issues of today, he also continues the social criticism from his previous albums.

One of the most striking songs of the album is “We Cry Together.” The song gives a petrifying, detailed description of a toxic relationship, with Lamar and actress Taylour Paige having a brutally honest conversation about their fictional relationship.

This track continues themes from Butterfly, most notably the song “For Free? (Interlude),” which describes a similar fictional conversation, albeit with a much more humorous tone. “We Cry Together” expands on this, with a complete deconstruction of a failing relationship, bringing an intense and graphically sincere tone.

Lamar also continues his personal reflection and self-criticism from Damn.

The opener, “United in Grief,” describes Lamar’s time away from the public eye, explaining his battles with mental health, and most notably, his dealings with grief. The track opens the album with an experimental air that is unlike his usual sonic style.

On “Crown,” Lamar repeats the phrase “I can’t please everybody” during the chorus and outro. Lamar accepts that not everybody will like this new project, and that not everybody will like him or his values.

He might be right: This new album may be controversial. The project is much more sonically experimental than his previous releases, possibly displeasing some fans that have become accustomed to his sound.

But while this album takes many musical risks, it succeeds with most of them.

Throughout the album, Lamar repeatedly employs somber piano as a backing beat to his poetry. This piano gives the album a cohesive, melancholy tone that gives credence to his social gospel.

Also controversial are the societal messages that Lamar distributes throughout the tracklist.

Many may be displeased with the militant tone that Lamar employs. He is unapologetic about his beliefs, not stopping for anyone who might be offended or taken aback by his ideas.

The only blatant issue with the project is the inclusion of rapper Kodak Black on a few tracks. Black has faced a series of charges and allegations throughout his rap career.

While Black has relative musical success on his verses throughout Mr. Morale, his involvement undercuts the potent social themes that the album addresses. It’s confusing why Lamar would include the controversial rapper, who seems to stand in contrast to Lamar’s social messages.

Beyond that, though, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers brings Lamar back to the top of the rap game. He gets right back into the flow of calling out the issues of society, and is not hesitant to speak his mind.

With his high profile status and influence, it is possible that Lamar could actually make a change in the world he is so willing to criticize.

This story was originally published on Purbalite on May 13, 2022.