A modern great prepares to step up another level
Karl Blakesley
12:01 5th May 2022

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“From the desk of oklama, for immediate release.” On the 18th April 2022, after years of fans waiting and wondering, exciting news had finally arrived from the PGLang headquarters in California. “Album: Mr Morale & The Big Steppers. Release date: 5/13/2022.”

That’s it. Just a short press release with two solitary lines. No teaser single, no tour announcement, not even some artwork or a track list. Just the album title and the date of its release. Most artists wouldn’t be able to send the music world into a collective frenzy with nothing more than a minimal press statement and no further information. But then, Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar isn't most artists.

When it comes to Kendrick, he has made the prospect of new music an event all on its own — a feat that didn’t come overnight. This is the result of a reputation Kendrick has built up over the last decade, garnered from making some of the most essential music ever created. With his albums as commercially successful as they are critically-acclaimed, Kendrick’s body of work arguably stands up to that of any artist past or present, with three genuine classics to his name already. With album number five due next week and a coveted Glastonbury headline slot lined up for June, Kendrick is seemingly right on the cusp of greatness. There is no doubt 2022 is a pivotal moment in Kendrick’s career and it seems everything up till now has been leading to this point in time – so how did he get here?

Well, to understand that you really have to go right the way back to 1995. A young Kendrick Lamar Duckworth was growing up in his hometown of Compton, when one day hip-hop legends Tupac Shakur and Dr. Dre were in the neighbourhood to shoot the video for their now iconic hit single, 'California Love'. Seeing these two larger-than-life heroes of his up close (who would both later go on to influence his career in different ways) lit a fire in Kendrick to follow in their footsteps. Less than a decade later, Kendrick would release his first full-length mixtape at the age of just 16 under the pseudonym K.Dot, leading to him being signed by independent record label Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE).

Having signed to TDE, Kendrick would spend the next few years successfully making a name for himself on the local West Coast rap scene, releasing further mixtapes and EPs, supporting The Game on tour and performing on the local circuit with his supergroup Black Hippy, which consisted of him and TDE labelmates Schoolboy Q, Jay Rock and Ab-Soul. In January 2011, Kendrick would then start writing material for his debut studio album whenever he got the chance, whether that was a spare few minutes on the tour bus or during trips to visit his mother where he was able to note lyrics down at her kitchen table. A few months later, Kendrick’s debut Section.80 finally emerged.

Listening to that album today, although it ultimately doesn’t quite match up to the projects that followed, Section.80 gave a clear insight early on into Kendrick’s immense rap talent and aptitude for rich, socially conscious storytelling. Centred around two characters named Tammy and Keisha, it’s a bold concept album that sees Kendrick exquisitely dissect the 1980s crack epidemic through poignant tales of life in Section 8 (low-income) housing. With standout tracks like 'A.D.H.D', 'Ronald Reagan Era' and 'HiiiPower', it was a solid starting point that established the blueprint for his work going forward.

Despite minimal promotion including no radio or TV coverage, Section.80 still managed some moderate commercial success. More importantly though, it achieved the wider objective of drawing the attention of West-Coast hip-hop heavyweights Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. Many years before all three men would join forces for one of the best SuperBowl half-time shows of all time, August 2011 — a month after the release of Section.80 — saw Snoop and Dre hail Kendrick as the “New King of the West Coast” at their concert in Los Angeles. Dre would then put his money where his mouth is, giving further backing to Kendrick by signing him to a major label deal on Interscope Records and Aftermath Entertainment in March 2012. Dre clearly saw something special in Kendrick, perhaps a little bit of himself – a rapper by trade, but with greater ambitions for wider influence beyond the mic. That said, I’m sure even he couldn’t have imagined the legacy that Kendrick would start forging in late 2012, when he released his sophomore album and major label debut Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (GKMC)

Presented on the album artwork as a "short film by Kendrick Lamar" this was his first masterpiece - a hugely cinematic, vivid tapestry of tough teenage life growing up in Compton. Although Kendrick himself wasn’t affiliated with gangs, his friends were part of the Westside Piru Bloods and his father Kenny Duckworth, part of a prison gang known as the Gangster Disciples. An upbringing afflicted by gang violence on drug-riddled streets is something thankfully many of us can’t imagine, but on GKMC Kendrick was able to transport listeners into that world without it being too overwhelming, guided all the way by his simply masterful storytelling. Songs like 'Poetic Justice' and 'Swimming Pools' were expertly crafted but with huge commercial appeal too, whilst the album’s two-part, 12-minute epic 'Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst' encapsulated everything that set Kendrick and his unique brand of narrative rap apart from the rest.

The album was a huge commercial and critical success, going triple platinum and marking the moment Kendrick had well and truly arrived as a star. It would go on to top many 2012 Albums of the Year lists, later featuring on Best of the Decade and even recently on all-time lists too. The album was seen as such a significant work that even just a couple of years later in 2014 it was already being studied at Georgia Regents University alongside other classic literature, with Lamar being hailed as the “James Joyce of hip-hop.” However, the Grammys didn’t seem to get the memo as despite being nominated for seven awards including Best New Artist, Best Rap Song and even Album of the Year, Kendrick walked away completely empty-handed. Controversially, he was snubbed of Best Rap Album, losing out to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. Although this was an obvious howler from the Grammys side, it was also a sign that Kendrick still had work to do if he wanted to reach the next level of superstardom.

Shortly after GKMC was released, Kendrick would take a momentous trip to South Africa where he visited historical sites such as Nelson Mandela’s jail cell on Robben Island. The trip was hugely inspirational, immediately setting Kendrick off to work on his next record. After months writing away, the first single would arrive in September 2014 in the form of the self-empowering 'i' which heavily samples The Isley Brothers’ classic track, 'That Lady'. It would later turn out that this single was a bit of a red herring for what was to come from Kendrick, as this song seemed to suggest a more traditional commercial rap record was on the way. However, what eventually emerged in March 2015 in the form of Kendrick’s third album, To Pimp A Butterfly (TPAB), was anything but conventional.

Ground-breaking, lyrically urgent and sonically experimental, to this day TPAB remains Kendrick’s magnum opus and one of the most important albums of modern times. Over the course of the record, Kendrick tackles everything from institutional racism and inequality to rap culture and his own personal battles with depression. For the sonic backdrop, he uses a dazzling fusion of hip-hop, funk, soul and jazz, adding vibrancy and authenticity to his critical storytelling. Across the album’s track-list, you’ll also find plenty of his most momentous work. The funk-infused 'King Kunta' would go on to become one of his biggest singles whilst 'The Blacker The Berry' certainly one of his most impactful with its genius twist ending. 'Alright' continues to be sung out at civil rights protests across the United States to this very day, whilst closing track 'Mortal Man' sees him engage in an honest and frank discussion with his spiritual mentor, Tupac Shakur.

Topping almost every major music publication’s end of year list in 2015, TPAB managed to be even more admirable and more accomplished than its predecessor. This time around the Grammys couldn’t possibly deny him and he walked away with the win for Best Rap Album at the 2016 awards. In recent years, it has rightfully been heralded as one of the most important records of the 21st Century and indeed one of the greatest albums of all time by several major music publications. Despite its jazz-infused, quirky sound, TPAB was still a huge commercial success too, with even the album’s demos and off-cuts record, Untitled Unmastered, topping the Billboard Top 200 upon its release. However, all these musical accolades almost seem insignificant when discussing the lasting impact of TPAB and the legacy it continues to hold.

Transcending rap music, it became the soundtrack to the modern-day civil rights movement and an essential document for understanding 2010s America. It also pushed Kendrick’s influence as an artist to new heights, not only heavily inspiring David Bowie’s final album Blackstar but also leading him to be invited for a private sit-down in the Oval Office with then US President, Barack Obama. There’s simply no denying that TPAB is a towering achievement and it continues to have an enduring influence beyond music, inspiring a generation of young Black Americans.

However, the problem Kendrick gave himself with TPAB was setting expectations at seemingly insurmountable levels. How could he possibly follow it? Thankfully fans didn’t have to wait long to get the answer, as in March 2017 he dropped The Heart Part 4, a standalone single that acted as a prologue for his imminent new project. It’s a song that often gets lost when talking about Kendrick’s history, but it importantly signified the confidence he had in himself and his work at that time, featuring lines like “Drop one classic, came right back, 'nother classic, right back - my next album, the whole industry on the ice pack.” This may have seemed arrogant at the time, but just one week after dropping the brash and brazen The Heart Part 4, Kendrick unveiled the now iconic video for his global smash hit single, 'HUMBLE'.

That song and video officially sent Kendrick into another stratosphere, becoming his first number one on the US Billboard Hot 100 and his highest-charting single as a lead artist, with only his Taylor Swift collaboration 'Bad Blood' for company. It would also go on to be certified 7x Platinum in the US, cleaning up at the Grammys in the Best Rap and Best Music Video categories, as well as charting in the Top 10 in the UK and several other countries across the globe. It was everywhere, and if Kendrick had somehow averted your attention up until that point, his music was suddenly inescapable.

Before the fire surrounding 'HUMBLE' could even get close to being extinguished, Kendrick struck whilst the iron was hot and released his fourth studio album DAMN just a couple of weeks later. Another absolute stroke of genius, DAMN sees Kendrick combine the commercial appeal and strong narrative nature of Good Kid, M.A.A.D City with the political and social awareness of To Pimp A Butterfly, to deliver a record that is both highly accessible but also has something very important to say. It is the sound of Kendrick taking his pulpit to the masses, making for another scintillating and mind-blowing listening experience. Outside of 'HUMBLE', there are also many moments on DAMN that rank amongst Kendrick’s very best work, with the rapper revealing the full extent of his lyrical prowess as he spits nuanced bars over trap, R&B and pop infused hooks, with songs like 'DNA', 'FEEL' and 'FEAR' standing out as particular highlights.

Possibly what’s most impressive about DAMN though is the fact that it is palindromic: you can play it front-to-back or back-to-front, and the album’s narrative is engineered to still work even if you play it in reverse order. This detail is a testament to Kendrick’s intricate craftmanship, as he is seemingly always looking for ways in which he can astound the listener to keep them coming back for further plays and to unlock potentially more hidden meanings and treasures within his music.

DAMN was another massive commercial and critical success, becoming the most acclaimed album of 2017 and getting certified triple platinum in the US for albums sold. However, possibly the album’s biggest honour was the fact it became the first non-classical and non-jazz album to be awarded the highly prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Music. This is a literary achievement that only Bob Dylan from the music world can compete with, well and truly signifying that Kendrick is indeed ready to be put in that upper echelon of respected musical legends. 

In the five years since the release of DAMN, Kendrick has certainly kept himself busy. From world tours, to curating the Black Panther soundtrack, to setting up his multimedia company PGLang with frequent collaborator Dave Free, to headlining this year’s spectacular SuperBowl half-time show with Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, 50 Cent and Mary J. Blige, he’s rarely been out of the spotlight. 

Which brings us full circle back to May 2022, and the imminent arrival of possibly his most important work to date – Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers. As already mentioned, we don’t know much else about the album, except for the clues dropped this week. A mysterious photo appeared on the Oklama.com website, showing someone holding a book bearing the album’s title and two CDs with MORALE on one and STEPPERS on the other – suggesting his next work could indeed be a double album. 

The other fact we know is that the intriguingly titled record is set to be his final release on Top Dawg Entertainment, and who knows...maybe even his final release for good? Given what he has achieved already throughout his career, Kendrick could easily retire tomorrow and leave behind a legacy most musicians could only dream of having. However, as a natural born innovator who seems to be constantly searching for ways to evolve and progress, not just himself and his music but the whole of society and humanity, I have to feel Kendrick isn’t quite done just yet.

As it stands right now, Kendrick is on the precipice of true greatness with this next album and his highly-anticipated Glastonbury headline performance, which itself is two years in the making, surely marking a career-defining couple of months. If he delivers on both like he has proven time and again he can, it will surely cement his legacy as an all-time great. If he doesn’t — well, as he says himself in The Heart Part 4: “My spot is solidified if you ask me. My name is identified as "that king."

Mr Morale & The Big Steppers arrives 13 May.

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