Archive | 7:46 pm

Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers

13 Jun

I didn’t expect the maturity of Mr. Morale. It kind of feels not only that Kendrick is too big and too important for growth, but also too developed. When your second album is To Pimp a Butterfly, you no longer feel human enough for growth. We don’t expect the prophet on the mount to go to therapy.

This growth is most obvious in the music. Mr. Morale takes from Kendrick’s discography and builds on it. There are pieces of all of his major work here synthesized into a single album. You can see some of the storytelling of Good Kid in cuts like “Auntie Diaries,” the message of TPaB in ones like “Savior,” the bangers of DAMN in the earworm “Rich Spirit” and even the cinematography of Black Panther in songs like “Mr. Morale.” This is not a medley though, each of the songs show a variety of Kendrick’s strengths and all of these themes run strongly throughout the entire album

More memorably though, the entire album is themed on a message of growth. This idea comes in again and again and from a variety of angles. The opener “United In Grief” starts out with the emptiness of materialism as Kendrick details buying cars and watches he doesn’t care for, a theme later reinforced by the absolute banger “Rich Spirit”, in which he doesn’t even bother spending the money to replace a broken phone.

“Savior” is the strongest statement of this thesis and the one that most brings in the personal side. TPaB was an album with a message and an album that came at a very specific moment in time. “Alright” was an anthem for BLM and that combined with the clear intelligence of Kendrick Lamar makes it hard not to look to him for guidance. He takes this song and a few others to absolve himself of this responsibility and absolve ‘Bron and Cole and Future at the same time so as to highlight that the weight falls on you and no one else.

He does this with some excellent guest spots. It’s a fascinating song that brings in a lot of interesting pieces and uses them to underscore the message of the song. That chorus asking if you’re happy for him sells the core of the song and the album strongly. He’s got a lot of soft piano work and swirling backing in this album and it really lets his raps shine.

This thesis runs especially strong at both ends of the album. The opener “United In Grief” really drives home the emptiness he feels and uses intriguing, fluttering percussion at the back and a halting piano to texture Kendrick’s words. It’s neither him at his best rapping nor his most insightful thinking, but he does bring some really interesting musical shifts through the song.

On the other end, “Mirror” is a top-tier closer. It takes the cinematography and exultation of Black Panther and gets a clever, pulsating, beat going that fully underscores the repeated “I choose me, I’m sorry” of the chorus. It’s hard not to feel happy for Kendrick when you hear the glory in that statement. It’s not new to see how heavy is the head that wears the crown, Kendrick himself said this as far back as TPaB, but he takes that abdication and shows you the wonder in it and so dulls the sting of his ask underneath the message – that you take responsibility for yourself.

Some of the other tracks can’t quite make as strong a statement however. “Crown” speaks of not being able to please everybody, but is never much more than shallow. There are some very interesting swirls in the music and the whole feels almost Radiohead at points, but the song just doesn’t justify it’s runtime. It might have been something if trimmed but ends up just filler. “Die Hard” is another Black Panther-style song and never does more than act as filler here. It was exciting to hear this kind of song in the Black Panther album when it was a new sound and the album was focused on it but it doesn’t do anything much here.

There’s unfortunately quite a bit more filler than I would like. “Silent Hill” never gets to be anything more and Kodak Black brings in a supremely boring verse that in no way justifies his inclusion in the album. Seeing a trap cut was novel but just not interesting enough. “Worldwide Steppers” brings in some solid storytelling but has nothing interesting besides that. It doesn’t even have Kendrick rapping at his best. Baby Keem is just boring in “Savior – Interlude.” “Father Time” has some interesting story in there but nothing that memorable really and it’s even more forgettable as music. It’s not his best rap at all.

Even his filler is pretty good though. There’s some interesting work in K.’s trap and talking about racism through touring Denmark is a lot of fun. “Purple Hearts” might not do much for me but Ghostface brings in a nice old-school verse and the whole things is reminiscent of Graduation-era Kanye. These tracks are not really cause for complaint as much as a mild wish for more.

That’s why it helps a lot that he has a couple of real bangers in this album. “Rich Spirit” is just very good and that hook is nothing short of amazing. “N95” does indeed go hard. “Count Me Out” is similarly excellent. Kendrick does interesting things with the flows and sounds of the song. He builds up expectations just to throw you off, but it takes a while to get interesting.

“Mother I Sober” may not be the kind of track to bump with the top down but it is one of the best songs that Kendrick has ever made. It’s immediately attention grabbing and the mixture of Kendrick’s rapping and the Beth Gibbons chorus is heady. The haunting vocalizations that run through the track serve as great support for the storytelling too. It’s a very exciting song and a very honest one as well and one that links perfectly into “Mirror.”

The most interesting track though is “We Cry Together,” in which Kendrick and Taylour Page scream obscenities at each other for 5 minutes and 41 seconds. It’s an aggressive song. You notice when it starts to play. The directness of the swearing and the twin voices have shades of “Kim.” It may never get as violent but it is every bit as intense.

For all of that though, it doesn’t fully work out. It’s jsut not the best lyrics. The rhymes, especially the cross-rhymes, are weak. It’s a relief whenever the conversation switches to monologues as while having the two rappers overlap should be clever, the rhymes are so weak as to break it entirely, especially as their flows don’t mesh at all. Also, ending with them choosing sex is a weak choice, albeit one almost entirely redeemed by the tap dancing at the end.

The other track to note, “Auntie Diaries” is very strong storytelling with a hell of a stinger at the end. Kendrick is very sympathetic when talking about his trans family members and that sympathy is necessary for a sogn like this. He brings in some of his best lyricism here, especially when the chorus shifts with the subject and the rapping is compelling throughout. It’s a very strong song, but shallower than I would have liked. In his best work, tracks like “Sing About Me” or “The Art of Peer Pressure,” he brings in small, very lived-in details and brings more personality to his characters. Both Mary-Ann and Kendrick’s uncle feel two-dimensional and Kendrick standing up in church is a hackneyed image. The song lacks individuality and so sometimes falls into preachiness, albeit for a very worthy cause. It is a shame though that the most memorable part of the song comes from Kendrick touring. It would have been a better song had he centered it less on himself, even if it is still a great track.

That’s kind of where I end up with Mr. Morale, very good music with evident flaws. It’s not quite the storytelling of Good Kid, not quite the message of TPaB, not quite the rapping of DAMN but enough between the pieces to be only a bit behind the first two and about the level of the last. It doesn’t really bring in much that’s new and that’s a first for K.Dot, but it acts as something of a consolidation of what is already an all-time career in rap, and that’s more than enough to make for truly excellent music.

%d bloggers like this: