Kendrick Lamar’s first album in well over five years.
This is my seventh listen to this album.
Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers came with much anticipation and with the rumor that it may be a double album coupled with “The Heart Pt. 5” that dropped before it. There was no telling what the sound of this album was going to be. Will it continue the string of bangers we got on DAMN.? Would it be a political and cultural statement of To Pimp a Butterfly? Would it be a look into one’s perspective like on Good Kid, m.A.A.d City? Or would it be an amalgamation of all those things?
Does this album really need a long-winded intro? I think not. For the last time, I am about to dive deep into this album. Here we go.
DISC ONE: BIG STEPPERS
1. United in Grief Produced by Kendrick Lamar, Tim Maxey, Duval Timothy, J.LBS, Beach Noise, Sounwave, & BGK
I hope you find some peace of mind
I been going through something
It starts off with just a simple piano and a double-time flow where Kendrick begins questioning life. Halfway through the verse, he unveils seeking therapy and while listening, it’s like we’re his therapist and he is airing his grievances. As the drum kicks in and he becomes urgent in his flow and explains the way he grieved the loss of his friends and while on tour, vices became a coping mechanism, hence grieving differently. It’s a good way to begin the album as it kicks off what is going to be a very revealing album.
2. N95 Produced by Baby Keem, Jahaan Sweet, Boi-1da, & Sounwave The first couple of listens I won’t lie to you, it was a skip for me. There were just so many things going on all at once that at first glance, sounds like it was a mess. Revisiting the song now, it sounds more cohesive than it did at first, having a better grasp of what the concept is.
“N95” sounds like a continuing theme of what we heard on “The Heart Pt. 5.” Kendrick is critiquing the culture, dissecting all its negative traits. The first verse indicates that after you strip away everything that makes the image, everything that makes the character, revealing yourself for what you are, you’re just ugly as fuck. You’re no different than anyone else in or out of your shoes. I can understand people feeling like it’s cringe to combat “cancel culture” as many suppose Kendrick should be above it. However, as a critic, he’s not worried about what I think. It’s not protocol.
3. Worldwide Steppers Produced by Tae Beast, J.LBS, & Sounwave Get ready because this will not be the last time you hear Kodak Black on this record. Save that for later.
In all three verses, Kendrick reflects on everything, involving his son, to writer’s block, to religion to interracial relationships, and how he believes his ancestors may view him. It is a song that is all over the place, but because it doesn’t wear its welcome out, the song kind of just comes and goes.
4. Die Hard Featuring Blxst & Amanda Reifer; Produced by Blxst, FNZ, Baby Keem, J.LBS, DJ Dahi, & Sounwave On first listen, I didn’t care for this song much, it pretty much came and went.
Now I can confirm… I am not really into this song here.
Don’t get me wrong, the Blxst hook is good, but the song doesn’t really go anywhere. It is almost as if this was clearly made for radio because the rest of this album was hardly going to be anything like this.
5. Father Time Featuring Sampha; Produced by Grandmaster Vic, Duval Timothy, Bēkon, DJ Dahi, Beach Noise, & Sounwave I didn’t have a father growing up. Just father figures. My mom had to be both roles growing up. So, when I listen to this song, I feel like I’m on the outside looking in, but the second verse paints the picture more.
Daddy issues lead to us men to bottle up our emotions and lash out by taking it out on our women or through other toxic manners. Coming to a point where you need help to cope with your trauma is growth and Kendrick in the last line calls for us to take that step instead of letting the women do that job for us.
6. Rich (Interlude) Produced by Duval Timothy Now, I know people are having a fit because Kodak Black is on this. And for the record, I wasn’t as shocked yet more intrigued about what Kodak would contribute to this. As far as his contribution, it was fine. It was like slurred spoken word over a piano that swelled and built up until the end where Kodak concludes his rags-to-riches story, going from poverty to owning property.
The larger story that’s going to come from this is people (especially Kendrick fans) in their feelings because of Kodak’s inclusion throughout this album. Why would Kendrick bring himself to invite a rapper who has a laundry list of cases and has said the most out-of-pocket things on this album? To a Kendrick obsessive, he should be beneath a rapper of Kodak’s form. What I took from this is in two simple words.
7. Rich Spirit Produced by Mustard, Jahaan Sweet, DJ Dahi, Frano, & Sounwave I know a girl where every time we’re at the bar picking music to play on the jukebox, she asks me to play this song. Honestly, better than others on this album, because this is as close to a radio single as you’re going to get outside of a handful of others, including “Die Hard” and “Father Time.” While it feels a bit low-key for what I could expect or prefer to hear over an instrumental like this, I appreciate what is being said where the attachment to our mobile devices and the life/image we create through the vehicles of social media and other similar platforms, leaves us disconnected from reality.
There are other themes mentioned here, but that is the focal point for most of the song. It’s fine.
8. We Cry Together Featuring Taylour Paige; Produced by Emile Haynie, Bēkon, J.LBS, & The Alchemist It begins.
What do I say about this song that has not been said already?
This song is like watching a car crash. It’s horrifying but you can’t take your eyes away. The back and forth shouting match with Taylour Paige playing her character to the point her voice cracks and you don’t know if she is holding back tears or she’s thrown her voice out from all the screaming.
The ego from both ends, going to degrading each other’s sexual insecurities, using cultural pariahs like Donald Trump and R. Kelly to throw off the other’s arguments just to contradict themselves knowing they adhere to the things that give them power to begin with.
And after all of that…they fuck each other’s brains out.
All of us at one time, if not currently, had been invested in a toxic relationship. These are the events that take place. The verbal abuse, if you paid attention to the background, sometimes physical. None of us want to admit, we’d rather tap dance around the conversation. Pretend everything is fine when it isn’t. As men, we look to other outlets to facilitate to the toxicity we begin to exude. When we see these “relationship experts” talk down to women, negate them, we’re feeding into it, because it’s a false sense of power and control we feel over them. Until the conversation becomes this song.
It’s Poetic Justice meets Baby Boy. It’s a John Singleton film in music form.
And people don’t fuck with it, because it’s uncomfortable.
And if it made you uncomfortable…then it did its job.
9. Purple Hearts Featuring Summer Walker & Ghostface Killah; Produced by DJ Khalil, Beach Noise, J.LBS, & Sounwave This is a fine song.
Kendrick’s part is serviceable, while Summer Walker lifts the song out becoming directionless. However, I will never understand the need to equate real love to eating ass. That shit is NEVER cute.
Ghostface Killah’s verse details equating love to love for the man upstairs? Either way, it is just dope to hear Ghost on a record. That’s the song out of context.
Within the album’s context, did this really have to close out Disc 1? I don’t know, maybe it’s me and how I am with cliffhangers, especially the one at the end of “We Cry Together,” but it just felt like more of a natural way to end the first part, “Purple Hearts” sounded more like the music you hear at the end credits of a movie. Still a fine song, I just don’t know if it really belongs here.
DISC TWO: MR. MORALE
1. Count Me Out Produced by Tim Maxey, J.LBS, Kendrick Lamar, DJ Dahi, & Sounwave So, if my guesses are correct, Disc 2, should be where the heading begins or at least the process to get to healing. From what I get, it sounds as though K. Dot is finally acknowledging that he is stressed but as we learn in the outro, followed by the next song, you can’t expect to help the world unless you help yourself, hence the song abruptly ending as he asks the listener how they deal with stress. Once again, while the song is fine and is a serviceable way to begin Disc 2, it’s also another moment where I’m appreciating the message more than the music itself.
2. Crown Produced by Duval Timothy My numerous experiences with this song, led me to the idea that perhaps Kendrick is beginning to recognize that he can’t solve the world’s problems. Whether they are forgetful of your contributions or just don’t accept them at all for whatever reason. Everyone is not going to be as accepting of your help, your advice, or your overall message in general.
You can’t please everybody.
The somberness of the piano, with Kendrick’s vocals feeling weathered, even somewhat defeated throughout the song, makes the track within the album, one of the many examples of Kendrick having a breakthrough.
3. Silent Hill Featuring Kodak Black; Produced by Beach Noise, Jahaan Sweet, Boi-1da, & Sounwave I got nothing from this. If labels are forcing artists to make TikTok shit for their albums, then this song is as “TikTok” as it gets. From the whole “push these niggas off me like huuuuu” thing to the sing-song bouncy flow that makes it sound like a Migos record from 2017. Kodak is obviously in his element here. If there was a song that derails the conceptual momentum of this album, it’s this one. Unless I’m missing something.
4. Savior (Interlude) Featuring Baby Keem; Produced by Sounwave, J.LBS, & Kendrick Lamar Making this short and sweet being that it is an interlude. Songs like “N95,” “Rich Spirit,” and even the previous song. Kendrick’s vocal inflections that you hear on songs like “Count Me Out,” is it safe to say that Baby Keem’s influence is very strong throughout the album?
5. Savior Featuring Baby Keem & Sam Dew; Produced by Rascal, Mario Luciano, Cardo, J.LBS, Sounwave, & Kendrick Lamar One thing about the response to this album is how divisive it is. There are those praising this album for how revealing it is and how it strays away from what we are typically hearing and getting, but the side I am going to focus on are the people who have absolutely no idea what they wanted from this album. Even the people are proclaiming Kendrick fell off because first week sales aren’t as “high as they thought they’d be or wanted them to be” or his fans that act as if Kendrick can do no wrong and place him on this pedestal that Kendrick never asked to be placed on. This song is calling out those people.
It is the tipping point for this album and for Kendrick as an individual. Recognizing he can’t please everybody on “Crown” and hammering in the point that underneath his celebrity is a flawed human being just like the rest of us. The difference is he makes music. I felt like “Crown” was the centerpiece of this album with its overall statement. Maybe this is?
6. Auntie Diaries Produced by The Donuts, Caloway, Rappy, Bēkon, Craig Balmoris, & Beach Noise First off, I just want to say, I’ve seen some responses to this song, regardless of whether you like this song or not, to be off-putting. This has been an issue that goes way before this song.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Kendrick’s critique on his relationships with the transgendered people in his family and how it compares to how the Hip-Hop culture views the LGBTQ+ community is poignant, however, I’m afraid people (especially fans) are going to see this song as a conversation starter when truth be told, the conversation has been going.
7. Mr. Morale Featuring Tanna Leone: Produced by Pharrell Williams I don’t know why people acting brand new like Pharrell hasn’t been making off-kilter shit for decades. The instrumental fits perfectly for K. Dot’s performance as throughout the song, he seems to be heading into conflict with himself.
It is like watching someone’s mental breakdown first-hand and when the walls finally crash down, you get the following moment…
8. Mother I Sober Featuring Beth Gibbons; Produced by Bēkon, Sounwave, & J.LBS So, when I first heard this song, I was in the car with my girlfriend, and with her being a Portishead fan, she really wanted to hear this song. We’re driving home and that piano comes in. I’m laser-focused on the song and as the song builds to its climax, I break into tears. The last verse, Kendrick describes how he coped with watching abuse in his family and later projecting that abuse in his own life to his loved ones. This trauma is deep-rooted and hearing him describe how this cycle perpetuates, is heart-wrenching. I’m probably not doing this song justice, but this song just hits me in a way his songs haven’t before and he has a lot of powerful moments throughout his catalog. My favorite song on the album.
9. Mirror Produced by Pharrell Williams, Tim Maxey, Caloway, Bēkon, DJ Dahi, Craig Balmoris, Rappy, & Sounwave At the end of the previous track, the last three words come from Kodak Black.
I choose me…
Once again, it is the same thought I had when “Purple Hearts” was on. I feel like this didn’t need to close the album as “Mother I Sober” was more of a definitive closer and statement. At this point, I am mentally and emotionally exhausted.
I don’t know what to think of this album anymore. I don’t even know if I can truly give it a score, but for the sake of the review, I will.
I have discussed this album so much. On my podcast, with friends, with family, with strangers, with haters and I am TIRED. I don’t recall ever being this tired discussing an album since maybe DONDA. I’m going to say this and be done with it…
I can appreciate Kendrick finally realizing that he can’t be what the people expect him to be. I understand people looking to him to be a “voice of the voiceless,” to say the things that we are all thinking when it comes to the Hip-Hop culture, societal issues, domestic issues, etc. But there is only so much you can say before you can look in the mirror and realize you need to deal with your own issues.
However, this is an album that I respect more for the content than I do for the music. Mr. Morale is an album that was made for his own therapy. Understanding where he is, how we got here, and what to do, in order for the mistakes he made will not be repeated through the next generation of his family. To a casual listener looking for something to add to their playlist for the weekend, this album doesn’t scream “replay value” and to be honest, it doesn’t have to be.
This album is long, flawed, problematic, and dense but at the same time, it is gripping, revealing, heart-wrenching and powerful. So however you enjoy and listen to music will depend on what this album is for you. For me, this is an album I will enjoy when the time is right. When that is? I don’t know, but it won’t be any time soon, because I need a break for real.