On the cover of his very long-awaited new album mr. Morale & The Big Steppers – his first solo album since the Pulitzer Prize-winning DAMN. from 2017 – rapper Kendrick Lamar stands with his back to the camera, his child in his arms, a gun tucked into his waistband and a crown of thorns on his head, watching the bed on which his partner breastfeeds their baby.
The gun and the crown of thorns are visual details that disrupt and tilt the basically warm and intimate image, as Lamar regularly does in his layered raps full of literary techniques. He is one of the greatest storytellers in the history of rap, who constantly shifts perspective in his lyrics, evoking powerful emotions, scenes and images with small details and is rarely unambiguous.
mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is an intimate album by a rapper who has sought peace of mind in recent years. Strong inward-looking, with a sharp focus on his personal traumas, doubts and contradictions. An album on which he shows his vocal versatility, regularly ingenious in his rhythmic interpretation – from driven spoken word to impassioned melodic vocals and from raw explosive to controlled, emotional and intense, sometimes all in one song.
On first track ‘United In Grief’ his words burst out on a quick raucous drum break, with briefly shaky piano tones and strings, while Lamar raps about a Rolex he’s worn once and pools he’s never swum in, trying to hold back tears. sweep away with prosperity. On the trappy snare drums, rustling hi-hats and deep, gritty digital bass line of ‘N95’, he calls on listeners and himself to free themselves from the yoke of superficial luxury and insecurity and fear in a world full of unnatural messages and caricatural clickbait.
Read also this 2012 interview with Kendrick Lamar along with Nas
Lamar names severe traumas that shaped him. The abuse of his mother when he was little, and the lasting oppressive guilt for not taking action then. The violence and sexual abuse he witnessed at a young age, relationship crises, the loved ones he lost, and transgender relatives who were humiliated by his community, his church, as well as himself when he was young.
In ‘Father Time’ he broadens the subject to toxic masculinity that keeps men from showing their feelings
He links these themes with a larger social context, and also constantly questions his own role in it. At the beginning of ‘Father Time’ about the complex relationship with his father, his partner says that Lamar needs therapy, and Lamar reacts like a tough man who really doesn’t need it. But in the song, he broadens the subject to toxic masculinity that keeps men from showing their feelings and hiding their insecurity under misogyny and gangster poses.
In the penetrating ‘Mother I Sober’, with Portishead singer Beth Gibbons, Lamar draws a line between sexual abuse in his family and the intergenerational pain and deep traumas of a black community that has historically been long-lasting psychologically. has been abused and physically raped to modern rappers who hide their own abuse scars under their tattoos. In ‘We Cry Together’ with Taylour Paige, around a sample of ‘June’ by Florence + The Machine, a man and a woman fight an ugly and humiliating argument, full of drama in their voices, to ghostly piano tones and slow drumming.
Doubting out loud
Lamar makes several references to self-help author Eckhart Tolle, and the references to the need to wrestle oneself from the ego, the telephone and the superficial aspects of modern society are jaded. And in the emphasis on orchestral elements and moody piano tones, musically it lacks some spice here and there, as in the substantive urgent, but musically very slow ‘Auntie Diaries’ along the way.
On the other hand, there are plenty of beautifully rich, melancholic productions in which a doubting and teased out loud Lamar takes the listener into his complex and restless soul, as he tries to heal from his traumas, and considers that of the world around him. He’s an empathetic superstar who doesn’t want to be a “savior,” as he emphasizes in “Savior.” A master storyteller whose images and thoughts, sentences and scenes, and references to his own and other work, we will chew on for a while.