It’s been 1,855 days since Kendrick Lamar released an album, as he notes on the opening track of Mr Morale & the Big Steppers. According to him, the last five years have been a rollercoaster. He and his partner started a family (his children are featured on the album’s front cover), he made an acclaimed acting debut, performed at the first-ever Super Bowl half-time show dedicated to hip-hop, and watched as the appreciation for his work grew to unprecedented proportions. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Music, making him not only the first rapper but also the first mainstream musician to do so.
Mr Morale & the Big Steppers makes clear that he struggled with his mental health, sought counselling, and suffered from writer’s block for two years, which he claims was cured when he “asked God to speak through me.”
Clearly, his prayers were answered emphatically: the block ended like a dam overflowing, according to the facts. The album is about 75 minutes long and has 18 tunes. Anyone who learned to be weary of rappers who mistook quantity with quality during the CD era, when every hip-hop album was extended out to a disc’s maximum playing time, would be relieved to hear that there isn’t a single moment of padding here.
Mr Morale & the Big Steppers is chock-full of lyrical and musical inspiration. The album’s first tracks teem rather than play, flitting from one style to the next – staccato piano chords and backwards drums; a furious, jazzy loop with a bass drum that sounds like a racing heartbeat; a mass of sampled voices; thick 80s-film-soundtrack synth and trap beats. Lamar’s vocals tumble out at such a fast tempo on Worldwide Steppers that they threaten to overtake the backing track, a muted, dense, unrelenting loop of Nigerian afro-rock band the Funkees that abruptly flips to a burst of relaxed 70s soul and back.
On N95, his tone of voice changes so abruptly and so frequently that it sounds more like a series of guest appearances than the work of one man. It casts a wide net when it comes to real guest appearances – Ghostface Killah, Sampha, Summer Walker, the singer from Barbadian pop band Cover Drive – and occasionally delights in some strange juxtapositions. A string quartet plays during one interlude, with 74-year-old German self-help guru Eckhart Tolle outlining the dangers of victim mentality alongside Lamar’s cousin, rapper Baby Keem, who has more earthy concerns: “White underwear and minimal condoms.”
We Cry Together, an ill-tempered duet with actor Taylour Paige that drags everything from the rise of Donald Trump and the crimes of Harvey Weinstein to the question of why “R&B bitches don’t feature on each other’s songs” into a heated domestic dispute, continues the album’s tonal handbrake turns, from deeply troubled to lovestruck and from furious to laugh-out-loud funny. Even by hip-hop standards, there’s a lot of swearing: since Peter Cook and Dudley Moore reinvented themselves as Derek and Clive, no one has generated more creative capital out of two people telling each other to fuck off.
Lamar’s lyrical prowess allows him to create gripping rhymes from a variety of issues, including fake news, the projection of phoney lives through social media, and the pressures of celebrity. But it’s his willingness to take risks that stands out the most.
Auntie Diaries is new terrain for mainstream hip-hop, as it is a long, impassioned plea on behalf of the trans community. It admits Lamar’s prior homophobia and, in dextrous, persuasive style, strikes out at the church and his fellow rappers. On Savior, he criticises pop’s moral censorship as a mindless exercise in liberal box-ticking. The song also takes aim at white people who have joined the Black Lives Matter movement (“one protest for you, 365 for me”), as well as the black community and himself.
He hires rapper Kodak Black, who has a long legal history that includes pleading guilty to assault and battery. Some may view this guest appearance as an ethical blunder, but Lamar appears more concerned in how the environment and other circumstances impact behaviour than in moral purity. “Let’s say awful things were done to you when you were a youngster, and you build a sense of self that is based on the bad things that happened to you…” begins the next track, which is telling.
He saves the album’s most devastating moment for last. Mother I Sober is a powerful collection of lines that weave together enslavement and sexual abuse, and deal openly with his mother’s sexual assault and an incident in which a young Lamar denied that a cousin had raped him when questioned by his family. He wasn’t lying, but he claims that the surprise at his response led to feelings of inadequacy, which led to him “seeking manhood” and nearly losing his girlfriend. It’s challenging but intriguing listening, kept together by a frail chorus performed by Beth Gibbons of Portishead.
A piano seesaws between two chords on Crown, a track on which Lamar looks dolefully into a moment when critical praise eludes him and his audience decreases.
“I can’t please everyone,” he says over and over, as if it’s a mantra to help him cope with his inevitable deterioration. After all, every successful artist gets their one-of-a-kind moment in the spotlight, and none of them lasts forever. However, based on Mr Morale & the Big Steppers, an album that leaves the listener feeling almost punch-drunk by the end, it’s not a mantra Kendrick Lamar needs right now.