Review Summary: My brain hurts a lot
Five years. Hip-hop's most illustrious artist absent. Five turbulent years. Years defined by tension, violence, disease, insurrection, and an unshakeable sense of unease.
Rap’s most prophetic figure is but one person pushing through the market square, yet there persisted a childlike expectation in this five year interim that a visit from Uncle Kenny would set the world spinning a little more uniformly, straighten out some of the bullshit. Every feature, every exuberant dance move, every public appearance was talked about. Tracks leaked, theories circulated. People were desperate to fill in the blanks — what was he working on? The expectation was clear: another haunted masterpiece, another broken mirror to be held up to the horror and corruption that we're bombarded with daily, and a signpost pointing us toward some obscure salvation we haven't dreamed up yet.
That doesn't seem a fair burden. Why couldn't Kung Fu Kenny just be sitting in an ice cream parlour, drinking milkshakes cold and long with Eckhart Tolle? Wait, he was?!
Kendrick Lamar returns in 2022, fully-therapised and bearing messages grounded and profound. Let's take a tasty slice of the thematic meat here and just lay it right out on the table. Careful, she's juicy.
I am not your savior
Oh boy, this should be fun. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers
excels in the same realm that Daddy Duckworth always excels in: the conceptual. 'United In Grief' makes this clear from the jump — at the behest of his wife Whitney, Kendrick vomits forth rapid-fire tales of his recent history, the grief that he's attempted to patch up with materialism and lust, the therapist he’s been seeing. Over a frenetic drum loop, these first paving stones are laid down. To follow the path to its conclusion will take one hour and thirteen minutes. Bring covered shoes, a good attitude, and a vulnerability borne of any personal problems that you’re too cowardly to confront.
Many frustrations are vented during Disc One, the outer core of ego picked at like an ugly scab. Perhaps some or all of these tracks bear resemblance to topics covered in his early therapy sessions. Disc Two sprouts from seeds planted in the front-end, showcasing genuine growth and adept critical thought from Mr. Dot as his album blooms into a carefully curated wilderness, scored by slowly unfurling and deeply personal breakthroughs. This thematic throughline is thoughtful and thorough. Kendrick's decision to walk his own path and reject the role of savior is courageous and powerful. His attacks on culture are deliberately provocative, bereft of anything resembling virtue-signalling and more than a little difficult to untangle. In all its richness and density, listeners are granted freedom to interpret and experience at their leisure. Even his flagrant provocations require some serious brainwork to (perhaps rightly) criticise: Kodak Black’s controversial appearances lead into a broad discussion on generational trauma and forgiveness, while Kendrick’s forthcoming tale of his experiences with trans people is designed to be considered against his background and his audience, not as an authoritative and bulletproof treatise on a topic far larger than himself. Chalk up another point to the lil man; he’s thought this shit through.
Who saw the “but” coming? Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers
is a frustrating album to sit through despite its lofty ambitions and intentions. Some may consider this a win; after all, the subject matter itself is frustrating. Unfortunately, the frustrations that persist are of a different order and do not align with such holistic optimism. Let's just punch this fucking shark right in the nose: there simply aren't that many fantastic songs
on this double album
. oh no.
It's odd, really. The writing is great. The vocal performances are unique and fun. Many ideas that drive the songwriting are creative and coherent. Yet, somehow, the instrumentals rarely serve the performances they exist to enhance. 'United In Grief' provides a glimpse into the disconnect between these elements right off the bat, stopping and starting and adding bell or whistle seemingly at random, teetering on the edge of an engaging structure without ever creating one. 'Worldwide Steppers' may be the worst offender in this category, underscoring Kenny's vitriol with an inert loop that dominates the song. 'Crown' and 'Auntie Diaries' are the most unfortunate victims of this conundrum, languidly dragging their asses across the floor, teasing sonic developments that barely, if ever, come. This leaves two of the album's most emotive messages flaccidly flapping in the breeze.
Truthfully, the first disc at large is pretty rocky. It's not until the fifth track ('Father Time') that subject matter and production collide in a truly coherent way; other tracks deliberate over whether to be musical or lyrical and the wild alchemy we have learned to expect goes largely unpracticed. But then! Who but The Alchemist enters the fray alongside the impressive acting chops of Taylour Paige, and 'We Cry Together' explodes upwards with violent energy, dwarfing everything around it. Paige and Lamar have an animated argument lasting almost six minutes that creatively implements cadence to balance immersion in the drama, utilises humour to break the tension of an ugly confrontation, has the characters swap venomous one-liners while sharing flows, and ends with them about to get their fuck on. This track is the goods, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a gaslighting fool who needs the Blu Cantrell treatment stat. Whitney's post-argument imperative to “stop tap-dancing around the conversation
” acts as an observation of the nature of most quarrels (that their root cause is often ignored in the exchange of ad hominem and finger-pointing) and signposts the confrontation of self that Kendrick actually fucking has
in the second half of the album.
There are moments during the second disc of Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers
that feel larger than life, artistically bold, and unmistakably King Kendrick: the abrupt and comical acapella closing lines of 'Auntie Diaries' sabotage the glorious ascension of the track's sermon with little ceremony and big payoff. The Pharell beat that drives 'Mr. Morale' toward its revealing second verse is an absolute trunk-rattler. Thundercat's arpeggios flow along with the flood of forgiveness poured forth at the end of 'Mother I Sober' in a moment of pure magic. The album closing out with the simple and empowering statement of “I choose me, I'm sorry
” encapsulates with bittersweet earnestness the finality of this album's themes, of the transformation we are privileged to witness. Speaking as one of those insipid people that has drunkenly lectured many a disinterested acquaintance on the significance of Kendrick Lamar’s various successes as an artist, I wish that this could be my main thrust here.
Instead, the listening experience is defined by languorous stretches between big moments, and becomes more of an exercise in patience than an engaging and enlivening journey. If it were more cohesive, more palpably moving in a musical sense, had less fat to trim, I could see myself fawning over Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers
in fanboyish frenzy. As it stands, I think that in another five years I'll be wading back through this flawed masterpiece like a pig in shit, smearing myself with the heart-on-sleeve imperfection that defines it in anticipation of an inevitably arresting next chapter.