For a long time, the argument about the top five greatest rappers of all time usually fell on the shoulders of around ten incredible artists. For a long time, the only two guarantees on that list were Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur. Now, a third guarantee should be under consideration as Kendrick Lamar drops his fifth studio album Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers. Kenny may have his detractors — those who cite his lyrical acrobats for neat tricks — but in every department, he has delivered some of hip hop’s brightest moments.
On Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers, the rapper stakes his claim for being the most critical voice in music. Often, artists don’t receive the flowers they deserve while alive, we need only look at the other two names on our ‘sure thing’ list. But we are truly fortunate to live in the same era as Pulitzer Kenny. Lyrically, there is depth and nuance bursting out of every pore of the rapper’s fifth album, while Kendrick expertly travels in new territory on his most personal record to date. Rather than pointing the gun at society through his mercurial storytelling instincts, Dot delivers a steaming portion of himself on this album and paints the full portrait of his three-dimensional character.
It’s an album which deserves your full attention and should be listened to in its entirety with no distractions whenever possible. It’s not a record made for background listening or Spotify playlists but what Kendrick Lamar has been incrementally building towards for his whole career.
So far in that career, he’s been the voice of Black America on To Pimp A Butterfly, which he followed up with the boundary-pushing masterpiece, 2017’s DAMN. There was a collective sense of intrigue as to where Lamar would go next. By turning the microscope on himself, Kendrick has shown why every other rapper is insignificant in comparison.
From the opening track, ‘United In Grief’, you feel like you’re listening to a therapy session as Kendrick details his childhood trauma and how all the luxury material things he’s been able to buy with his unfathomable riches but fails to compensate. He earnestly raps, “I bought a Rolex watch, I only wore it once, I bought infinity pools I never swimmed in, I watched Keem buy four cars in four months, You know the family dynamics on repeat, The insecurities locked down on PC.”
‘Father Time’, which features Sampha, sees Kendrick travel to a profound facet of his mind to offer a sense of clarity on life which very few others are capable of expressing so fluently. The rapper discusses how his daddy issues made him the person he is today due to a need to constantly seek approval and gives him a chip on his shoulder which has fuelled him to greatness. “‘Cause everything he didn’t want was everything I was,” he poignantly remarks.
The first half of the record isn’t filled with uptempo moments which you can dance to. However, bouncy tracks like ‘Count Me Out’ and ‘Silent Hill’ offer this in the second half, if that’s what you’re looking for.
It’s the moments when we get to understand the intricate layers that go into making up the man behind the mic that are most nourishing. ‘Savior’ is a dosage of philosophical Kendrick, as he questions the world around him and the unwanted weight of expectation that rests upon his shoulders. ‘Mother I Sober’ features the calming vocals of Portishead’s Beth Gibbons as Kendrick delivers the most personal track of his career, which can reduce anyone with empathy to tears. It’s about acceptance, not allowing yourself to be crippled for life by his family’s tragedies, and most importantly, letting go.
In ‘Auntie Diaries’, Kendrick sticks two fingers up to the transphobes by opening his “auntie”, who is now a trans man and also the first to realise he could rap. He also talks about his cousin, who has transitioned and the hostile backlash from the church. The heartfelt track is bursting with sincerity, and as well as making hip-hop history, it could perhaps alter the worldview of millions.
Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers is an emotional listening experience. Over 18 tracks, and 75 minutes, you understand who the real Kendrick Lamar is and see the conscious rapper in a vivid new light. While eyebrows were raised by some when he was announced as a Glastonbury headliner, this album confirms his superhuman literary gift. Glasto Kenny deserves every ounce of praise he receives.