Personal, ambitious + well worth the wait
Sofie Lindevall
11:34 17th May 2022

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It had been 1,855 days and it turns out that we weren’t alone in counting. “I’ve been going through something / 1,855 days / I’ve been going through something / Be afraid” are the lines marking the return of one of the most influential rappers of our time. Half a decade in the making, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers sees Kendrick Lamar take us through the rollercoaster ride that has been the last five years. Over a double album spanning 73 minutes, Kendrick tells us about overcoming writer’s block, becoming a father, comments on cancel culture and opens up about his struggle with his mental health – it’s personal, it’s ambitious and it was well worth the wait. 

We have come to expect Kendrick Lamar to deliver immaculately-crafted concept albums where every piece of the puzzle fits perfectly: 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly are undoubtedly some of the best of its kind. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, however, is different. Split over two separate discs – Big Steppers (disc one) and Mr. Morale (disc two) – the album stretches in all angles and you never really know where it will end up.

Introduced by an angelic yet somewhat menacing choir, the first track of the album – ‘United In Grief’ – is one of its finest moments. Initially musically driven by London/Freetown-based multidisciplinary artist and pianist Duval Timothy’s distinct piano chords, it takes a rather unexpected turn about a quarter of the way in when Kendrick’s crescendo lands in hurried percussion loops. The contrast between the piano and percussion is strikingly beautiful and the two continue to battle throughout while lyrically Kendrick contemplates consumerism, worldly possessions and reflects on how his successes have changed the way he grieves. 

Duval Timothy is far from alone on the line-up of album contributors. Kendrick is joined by an all-star cast including Pharell, Thundercat, Sampha, Sam Dew, Portishead’s Beth Gibbons and Kendrick’s very own cousin Baby Keem, to name a few. Keem first appears on ‘N95’, the second track on the album. Referring to the N95 face mask, Kendrick uses what can be seen as a symbol of the COVID-19 pandemic and the repetitive use of the phrase “take off” as a metaphor to comment on materialism in today’s America. The accompanying music video sees repeated images of Kendrick crucified on an invisible cross. The crucifixion isn’t the only visual reference where Kendrick positions himself in the role of Jesus however.

On the album cover Kendrick wears a crown of thorns. Worn by Jesus leading up to his crucifixion to mock his claim of authority, it’s a symbol of the suffering endured by Christianity’s biggest saviour. Kendrick makes it implicitly clear that it isn’t him with the lines "The cat is out the bag, I am not your saviour / I find it just as difficult to love thy neighbours” on the track ‘Savior’ though. Although he may not be our saviour he is openly wearing all his worldly sins for everyone to see and Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is almost cathartic at times. 

Also appearing on the album cover is Kendrick’s two young children. Now a father, Kendrick recurringly reflects on his newfound role. On ‘Father Time’ he also opens up about his troubled relationship with his own father, joined by South London’s Sampha delivering soulful choruses as a stark contrast to Kendrick’s dark and deep lyrics. The track is musically one of the album’s brightest and most melodic moments, illustrating the juxtaposition that echoes through the album.

The album is not without a couple of wobbles that don’t go unnoticed. On ‘Silent Hill’ Kendrick is joined by Kodak Black whose recent sexual assault and battery convictions won’t sit right with many of Kendrick’s listeners. On ‘Auntie Diaries’ Kendrick reflects on gender and sexuality in a way that is uncommon in hip-hop. He reflects on his own past homophobia and discriminating values rooted in society and the Christian faith. However, his repeated use of homophobic slurs to get his messages across feel unnecessarily provocative and distracts from the importance of the conversation.

1,855 days is a long time. A long time to wait but also a long time to reflect. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is a lot, does a lot and wants a lot, and perhaps we need another 1,855 days to try to unpick it all. One thing is clear though, few storytellers, if any, are able to deliver a comment on society that is both as observative and introspective as Kendrick’s.

Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is out now.

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