After 5-Year Hiatus, Kendrick Lamar Returns With His Most Personal Album Yet in Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers

Farooz Khan-Trunnell, Contributing Writer

Rating: 4.5/5 Falcons

There are few musicians like Kendrick Lamar who have achieved such massive mainstream and critical success. Lamar’s vivid storytelling and explosive performance style have made him a beloved figure in music since his debut twelve years ago. Unfortunately, factors like COVID-19 and writer’s block recently left fans without a new Kendrick album for five years. While some artists would lose their relevance, the anticipation for him to drop only grew. Finally, after some cryptic social media promotion, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers (MM & TBS)—Lamar’s fifth studio album—was released, and fans received the rapper as they never had before. Raw and conflicted, MM & TBS might just be Lamar at his most human.

Lamar works to free himself from the burdensome savior complex placed on him by fans and critics.

Though the album isn’t quite as conceptual as some of Lamar’s past records, there is a loose narrative tying it together, structured as a series of therapy sessions. A double disc LP, Mr. Morale begins with “Big Steppers,” the more vulnerable side. On “United In Grief” and “Worldwide Steppers,” Lamar touches on the dangerous vices humanity (AKA the titular “steppers”) use to “grieve” or cope with pain, and how this only breeds more. Expanding on the effects of trauma, “Father Time” is a poignant reflection on Kendrick’s father’s flawed teachings on masculinity. Going forward, Lamar will continue to face his demons like this in order to heal. “Die Hard” and “We Cry Together” detail relationship troubles, the latter to an outrageous extent with a fiery argument acted by Lamar and Taylour Paige. Meanwhile, “N95” and “Rich Spirit” lash out externally at modern culture. After letting it all out, it’s now time for Kendrick to grow.

The “Mr. Morale” side of the album is a series of breakthroughs, beginning with the cathartically explosively “Count Me Out.” On “Crown” and “Savior,” Lamar works to free himself from the burdensome savior complex placed on him by fans and critics. “Auntie Diaries” is a story of Kendrick growing to accept and support transgender family members, despite societal pressures. While using the f-slur for storytelling purposes was definitely shortsighted, Kendrick still makes a powerful statement as a respected straight, cisgender artist allying with the trans community. Finally, the album’s climax, “Mother I Sober,” is a heart-wrenching piece touching on how trauma and abuse are passed down in the African American community, ending with Kendrick’s wife declaring that he has broken a generational curse. After coping in all the wrong ways on the “Steppers” side, Kendrick breaking the cycle is a beautiful end to the album’s arc. “Savior” closes the album with the encompassing mantra that Kendrick has finally chosen himself.

While not necessarily experimental, Mr. Morale might be Lamar’s most challenging release. It’s blunt and unfiltered, lacking the metaphors and parables Kendrick often writes through. Though there are recurring motifs like pianos and background vocals, the album is quite jumbled musically, and Kendick’s singing can sometimes be painfully unrefined. This is certainly one of his more flawed albums, but also one of his most emotionally vulnerable, and that’s where its true beauty lies. So while this drop might mean another half decade hiatus from Lamar, fans certainly have much to digest while they wait.

This piece also appears in our June 2022 print edition.