Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale, Album Review

'Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers' is hip-hop's most celebrated emcee's final album on the TDE imprint.

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Kam Jenkins Music Writer
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Be aware. Kendrick is one of my all-time favorite artists. Although giving his previous full-length LP high praise upon release, I have come to this conclusion. Despite the mainstream mastery of 2017’s Pulitzer Prize-winning album DAMN., it is my least favorite Lamar project. As time went on the sounds across that record dulled for me. Tracks I once loved such as “GOD.” and “LOYALTY.” grew tiresome and slightly redundant. I prefer fully introspective K-Dot. Nevertheless, even Kendrick’s pop records shine a light on his deepest fears and regrets. For this he deserves the utmost respect from an artistic vantage. When he finally dropped the release date for Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, it gave me butterflies. No pun intended. After countless listens of this record, I am greatly pleased.

Kendrick Lamar at Barclays Center in 2017 | P Squared

Over five years have passed since he delivered DAMN. Hip-hop remains in an uneasy place. Facades run rampant. Beef, death, and arrests within the culture circulate faster than ever before. As the world waited for the wise words of Kung-Fu Kenny, he appears to have suffered behind closed doors. What Mr. Morale lacks in pop appeal it makes up for with transparent truth. Right from the jump we are greeted with jazz-like sonic progressions and an impassioned vocal performance from Kendrick.

“United in Grief,” safe to say, is one of the best hip-hop intro songs I’ve ever witnessed. To me it is a perfect barometer for what exactly listeners are about to experience. Lamar partitions this 73-minute affair in two. I believe the first nine songs relate to “The Big Steppers.” And the final nine relate to “Mr. Morale.” Personally I prefer the first half to the second, if I had to choose, although it’s basically neck-and-neck.

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Allow me to be straightforward here. Would it please me to give Kendrick Lamar a perfect ten-out-of-ten score? In theory, yes. An artist such as Lamar, whose honesty, craftsmanship, and authentic approach takes center stage, is more than worthy of perpetual public support. He understands the assignment every time. Give more and you shall receive more. Lamar’s messages of self-reflection and unapologetic vulnerability matched with a hood-based perspective afford Kendrick essentially unlimited relatability.

However, it irks me just a tad when reviewers listen to his album once or twice and pump out a perfect-ten review the same day the album drops. I’m sure some of them gained early access. And perhaps they listened to Mr. Morale a hundred times. I’ll never know for sure. Yet I believe this behavior devalues the world of music critique. Many writers take the safe route of what looks good for their brand. Of course, if someone deems this album as perfection, that is their choice. Though as much as I love Kendrick Lamar (and trust me, I DO), this album in particular, while beautiful, tasteful, and poignant in its own right, does not top his discography for me.

Kevin Winter | Getty Images for Coachella

Yet that is not to say this record isn’t a wonderful human expression. Because no matter how you cut it, it most certainly achieves artistic brilliance. Here Lamar blends artful bangers like “N95,” “Silent Hill,” and “Savior” with strange bops (“Worldwide Steppers”) and emotional outbursts (“We Cry Together,” “Father Time”). Piano motifs serve as coping mechanisms upon which Lamar bares his heavy heart. I value strong starts and strong finishes. Mr. Morale indeed features both. A large majority of contemporary emcees fail to give the album format the respect it deserves. Meanwhile, Kendrick Lamar paints vivid pictures via the album almost exclusively. He is my type of artist.

However, this also means that I have high expectations for hip-hop’s most celebrated modern artist. Yeah, yeah, Kanye is highly celebrated too. Let’s be honest, though. Today’s version of Ye distracts himself from his art to make way for his marketing money machine. Kendrick stays true to his soul’s mission. Additionally, I value top-to-bottom cohesion. While the general sonic palette heard here meshes well, there are forgettable moments for me. Firstly, the double-album execution underwhelms a bit. The two halves don’t present distinct differences in my view. Secondly, some of the sounds here overlap one another. Tracks like “Crown” and “Mother I Sober” accomplish too similar of a vibe for me. I’m all about trimming the fat.

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So as much heart and truth as Kendrick portrays on “Crown,” or even “Count Me Out,” I can’t help but get a little bored with them. These songs along with “Die Hard” I believe could have been left off this tracklist. They are not bad songs from a musical standpoint. “Count Me Out” is catchy and replayable for sure. The beat, outro bars, and background vocals resonated with me most nonetheless. Some of these hooks felt underdeveloped to me. For instance, Blxst’s performance on “Die Hard” gives me a specific visual. Remember when Will Smith was teaching Kevin James how to two-step in Hitch? Anytime I hear this hook I visualize a singer blankly two-stepping with shackles on. Dude sounds uninterested to be on a Kendrick song. Despite the song’s breezy soundscape, I felt it either needed a rework or exclusion.

The stripped-back piano instrumental on “Crown” doesn’t go over as well, in my opinion, as “Mother I Sober,” which includes Kendrick’s wife and kids as well as a more memorable vocal performance from Lamar. Again, the sentiment on “Crown” is great. Not being able or desiring to please his myriad of fans exists as a pertinent realization. However I feel like this album had a chance to shine bright for decades to come if not for a few hiccups. I must say, for an album focusing on trauma, coping with grief, and self-transmutation, the selection of Kodak Black confused me. Kodak’s feature verses stand out within this tracklist. He ate his opportunity up, and I’m happy for him. Yet I would’ve loved to hear him come to grips with his guilty plea to raping a minor six years ago.

Kevin Winter | Getty Images

Just sayin’. I imagine Kendrick is very aware of Kodak’s past. And personally, I would’ve appreciated him imploring him to bare his soul and bring closure to an extremely hot-button issue. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers includes some polarizing themes and bars. I’m not trans or gay, so I won’t comment on “Auntie Diaries.” Kendrick’s cousin Baby Keem makes a couple appearances here to my liking. I was glad to hear him on this album performing with honest precision. All in all, this album will live on as another gem in Kendrick Lamar’s vault. As he transitions into his pgLang label era, Kendrick gives fans an acclaim-worthy omen for his artistic future. Reservations aside, Mr. Morale surpasses his standard of quality and breaches the mercurial space of vapid hip-hop monotony.

Kendrick Lamar - Mr. Morale, Album Review
Pristine Mix
Artistic Bravery
Tasteful Experimentation
Undercooked Songwriting
Some Sonic Overlap
Lack of Centerpiece
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