REVIEW: Kendrick Lamar self-reflects in emotional return to rap

Kendrick+Lamars+fifth+studio+album%2C+Mr.+Morale+%26+The+Big+Steppers%2C+was+released+on+May+13%2C+2022.

Courtesy Spotify

Kendrick Lamar’s fifth studio album, “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers,” was released on May 13, 2022.

Ava Arcona, Staff Writer

After five long years of radio silence from Kendrick Lamar, widely regarded as one of the most talented lyricists and storytellers in music history, his highly anticipated fifth studio album “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” is here.

All eighteen tracks on Lamar’s most recent album display the growth in character he has undergone since the release of his past albums, as well as overall progression into new sound and continued experimentation with different genres. “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” combines aspects of lyrical rap, trap, jazz and soul that has characterized his music throughout the decades. The album saw a tremendous first week in sales, also breaking the record on Apple Music for most streams on the first day of release.

The most prevalent subjects seen throughout the eighteen tracks are the rappers’ struggles with self-love, fatherhood, and materialism. In typical Lamar fashion, the album also contains many recurring musical themes, such as the melody sung at the very beginning and several times over towards the end. “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” stays true to the classic storytelling of older works while maintaining many of the newer aspects of his music seen in “Damn,” resulting in what is arguably his most personal and genuine album.

United In Grief” serves as a dramatic opening track and introduction to Lamar’s long awaited return to rap. The haunting vocals at the beginning set the tone, and minimalistic instrumentals highlight Lamar’s lyrical and rhythmic talent. 

In a change of pace, “N95” captures the audience with a snippet of vocals before moving into a trap beat similar to that of “Family Ties,” again featuring Lamar’s cousin and fellow California native Baby Keem on the chorus. “Worldwide Steppers” follows, most notable for its storyline, criticism of cancel culture, and name-drop of Lamar’s newborn son Enoch. 

Father Time” describes the speakers’ ongoing struggle with toxic masculinity as a result of a tough upbringing. Despite the difficulty of his childhood, he credits his father with teaching him valuable lessons about life in this fast-paced narrative. On this track and several others, Lamar references going to therapy and his journey to healing from past trauma.

Perhaps the most notable track on the album is the six-minute song “We Cry Together,” telling the story of a mutually abusive relationship in a modern context. Taylour Paige’s rasp is complimented by Lamar’s deep, rich tone in an emotionally captivating dialogue that goes back and forth between the fictional couple. Reminiscent of “To Pimp a Butterfly,” the instrumentals start off slow and daunting with the noise of bottles clinking featured in the background.

The second half of the album offers incredibly important, if not slightly depressing, messages that Lamar has learned throughout a lifetime of highs and lows. In “Crown,” he comes to terms with his inability to make everyone happy and the responsibility that comes with being one of the world’s most celebrated artists. “Savior” covers a wide variety of topics, from performative activism to the anti-vaccination movement, with Baby Keem returning to sing the chorus. The song’s lyrics serve as a reflection of the past five years, both difficult to hear and hard to ignore.

For me, the most valuable tracks on the album come as the closing nears. “Auntie Diaries” is a deeply personal, eye-opening story told from the perspective of young Lamar as he comes to terms with the identities of his transgender relatives. This song marks a groundbreaking point in his career, as well as rap as a whole, considering the lack of coverage for this topic in the genre. Lamar displays an accepting and growth-oriented mindset despite opposition from his peers and his religion, a refreshing departure from the homophobic ideals held by many rappers.

Mother I Sober” is my top choice for the album when it comes to storytelling, in addition to its tear-jerking lyrics and vocals. The listener feels visceral pain in Lamar’s voice as he recounts the trauma of watching helplessly while his mother was attacked, and his own cousin being accused of sexual assaulting him. He goes on to deliver a powerful monologue about generational trauma, rape and the guilt he carries from being unable to protect his mother.

The only criticism I have for this project, and one of the most common grievances among fans, is the extensive presence of controversial artist Kodak Black. The rapper pled guilty to sexual assault back in 2021, and having him on the album was a deliberate choice that seems to go against Lamar’s message on “Mother I Sober.” Lamar likely chose to keep him on the album as a denunciation of cancel culture and a way of fulfilling his promise to ‘set free all you abusers,’ but I’m not sure Kodak deserves a second chance.

Overall, “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” is a masterfully crafted project that offers insight into Lamar’s personal life as he navigates love, violence, self-hatred and healing. He has once again proven himself as a master lyricist and one of the most well-rounded artists in today’s day and age. Whether you’ve been a fan since “Section.80” or you’re completely new to the genre, this album is a must listen.