Kendrick Lamar / Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers / Album cover

After five years, the announcement of a new Kendrick Lamar album entailed debates about expectations. Should we expect another To Pimp A Butterfly? Or should we keep our expectations as low as possible, on the off-chance that Kendrick somehow managed to create a genuinely bad album? How could an artist like Kendrick spend five years fermenting in his own creative juices without producing a masterpiece?

But wait.

“Mr. Morale is, as we should expect from Kendrick at his point, topical, both in the subject matter it deals with directly, and in the debate it has provoked since its release”

Instead, should we be worrying that Kendrick lost his edge in the intervening years, in those “1855 days” between the release of DAMN. in 2017, and Mr. Morale on May 13? – a time in which, on the track “United in Grief”, he says he has “been goin’ through something”. As usual, the answer lies between these two extremes. Mr. Morale is not on the level of TPAB. It isn’t, however, too far off, and it certainly proves that Kendrick’s struggles did not spoil his artistic prowess. Some fans wanted the conscious hip-hop and jazz rap of TPAB. Others wanted the trap beats of DAMN. And, although Kendrick tells us that he "can’t please everybody” on the track “Crown”, this album is, in many ways, an attempt to do just that. While it succeeds in this respect, however, we may wonder whether, in doing so, it fails to forge an identity of its own.

Mr. Morale is, as we should expect from Kendrick at his point, topical, both in the subject matter it deals with directly, and in the debate it has provoked since its release. Kendrick’s choice to feature Kodak Black – who, in 2016, was sentenced to 18 months probation for sexually assaulting a high-school student – on the track “Silent Hill”, for example, was especially controversial. Then there’s the track “Auntie Diaries”, in which Kendrick uses one of his longest-standing conceits – arguing disingenuously from a place of immorality in order to shed light on a better path – and, in doing so, repeatedly uses a homophobic slur, forcing his listenership to consider their own ignorance on such issues. Elsewhere, the lyrics of “We Cry Together” have been condemned by some as misogynistic. The ultimate morality of these instances rests in a given person’s perspective on Kendrick’s self-awareness. Is it worth it to make these important points by example?

“The second disc of Mr. Morale is less consistent than the first, both instrumentally and thematically”

Morality aside, the album boasts an array of unique and beautiful tracks. The opener, “United in Grief”, is a high-octane, TPAB-style banger that serves essentially as our first canon catch-up with Kendrick since DAMN. “Father Time”, perhaps the best song on the album, sees Kendrick dealing with his relationship with his father over gliding piano arpeggios and – of all things – a reversed sample from “You’re Not There” by Hoskins ‘Ncrowd and Kenny Jones. The aforementioned “We Cry Together” is a close contender: the song is a lyrical argument – a conceit borrowed, perhaps, from early Eminem songs like “Stan”, “Kim”, or “Guilty Conscience” – in a dysfunctional relationship: rather than relying on someone in the music industry to play his female counterpart, Kendrick opted for Taylour Paige, an actress who easily outshines Kendrick on the track by impeccably performing one side of a genuinely abusive argument, whilst striking a musically competent lyrical flow.

There are, however, some clear faults with Mr. Morale. The instrumentals on a handful of tracks – “Rich Spirit” and “Crown” especially – are rather stilted, and Kendrick fails to fill this vacuum with memorable vocal inflections or interesting features. The second disc of Mr. Morale is less consistent than the first, both instrumentally and thematically. It feels as though Kendrick could have trimmed a handful of weaker cuts from the second disc and cultivated a more consistent project overall. Additionally, Mr. Morale is hostile to listeners who are unfamiliar with Kendrick’s struggles, relying as it does on an awareness of his history in the industry and his personal faults: chief among these is his saviour complex, a dilemma that Kendrick does his best to convey to an average listener even if they're unlikely to relate entirely. These metatheatrical elements have clear precedent in Kendrick’s previous studio albums, and yet he fails to expound upon them captivatingly in this new project.


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Where does Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers rank in Kendrick’s discography? It’s no TPAB, and, in all honesty, it doesn’t maintain the same consistency as good kid, m.A.A.d city, either. Thematically, it’s a marginal improvement on DAMN., but, as a whole, it isn’t necessarily instrumentally superior to any of his previous studio albums. This should not be taken as a serious critique of Mr. Morale, however. The temptation to rank the output of an artist like Kendrick could lead us to the incorrect assertion that any of this output is necessarily bad. On the contrary, Mr. Morale is one of the best albums of the year so far, and puts the vast majority of recent hip-hop to shame. Even on a meta level, Kendrick proves to be, in many ways, his own worst enemy. The only shadow that could possibly cast him in a bad light is his own.