It finally happened. After a five years wait, Kendrick Lamar released his new album Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers. It's captivated the internet for the whole weekend as expected, as everybody has dissected the project. And there's much to dissect. His most introverted and personal record to date, it's a dense and impactful listen that covers everything from family trauma to infidelity. The double-disc is so thick with material that it's likely going to be pulled apart further in the weeks to come but these are the things that stood out to us on first listen.
Kendrick’s Admission He Was “Confused” by Kendrick & Drake’s Reunion
Father Time featuring Sampha begins with Lamar's fiancée saying, "you really need some therapy," as Lamar begins to work through his "daddy issues." He really inserts himself into conversations of pop culture but here he gives a rare admission that he's actually keeping up with what's going on. He raps, "When Kanye got back with Drake I was slightly confused / Guess I'm not as mature as I thought, got some healin' to do." Kendrick and Drake have reportedly had a beef rumbling under the surface for years so it's likely it's Ye's re-acceptance of Drake that he's confused by but he doesn't clarify.
The Appearance of Beth Gibbons of Portishead
Mr. Morale gathers some of the biggest names from the hip-hop and R&B community but on the album's emotional centerpiece Mother I Sober he turns to Portishead's Beth Gibbons and Duval Timothy. "I wish I was somebody, anybody but myself," Gibbons sings on the melancholic hook of the song, surrounded by haunting, looped keys. Throughout the song, Lamar addresses his past trauma in some of the most emotionally fragile lines of the record and it ends with his fiancée telling him, "you broke a generational curse." It's an incredibly vulnerable moment.
The Florence + The Machine Sample On ‘We Cry Together’
Florence + The Machine's Dance Fever and Mr. Morale were the two big releases of the week so it felt somewhat ceremonious that Florence actually appears on the Kendrick album. She ushers in We Cry Together with a sample taken from June which was featured on her previous album High As Hope. It's the intro to the song before things turn really heavy, elevating it before it crashes back down to earth.
The Poetic Back-and-Forth of Kendrick and Taylour Paige on ‘We Cry Together’
Mr. Morale is a heavy record but it doesn't get much more intense than when Lamar joins with Zola actress Taylour Page for We Cry Together. It plays out more like theatre than a song on a rap album and the pair engage in an intense argument, somehow finding the beat as the emotion completely takes over. It then ends with the voice of Lamar's real-life fiancée Whitney Alford who says, "stop tap dancing around the conversation."
It's certainly not a song that begs for repeat plays but it's an absolute show stopper on the first listen through the record.
The Voices He Makes
Lamar hinted at his vocal experimentation on Baby Keem's range brothers when he raps, "top o' the morning." He's always experimented with what he can do with his voice but on Mr. Morale it sounds like he's digging even deeper. On Rich Spirit, he somehow pulls off the album's most accessible melody with a vocal that's fragile, cracking throughout. Meanwhile, on Crown, he waltzes over a piano with an elongated, dead-pan voice singing, "I can't please everybody." It's disconcerting and morose which is exactly the point. On N95 though, he shows his biggest range, skipping through so many tones that it sounds like there are multiple rappers on the track. The climax finds him at the top of his vocal range, juxtaposing that with a muffled vocal response followed by his regular rapping tone. The dynamic he creates with his voice throughout the whole record is flawless.
The Pointed Language Of 'Auntie Diaries'
Auntie Diaries might bring the most surprising subject matter of the whole record to the table. Lamar begins the song rapping, "My auntie is a man now," as he begins to explain how he came to terms with his transgender relative as a young man. Homophobia and transphobia are addressed in ways that have surprised audiences. Lamar's use of gay slurs throughout has divided the internet over the weekend but it's been defended by some members of the trans community. "A lot of people are hung up on some of its problematic elements," wrote one Twitter user. "A lot of ppl have problems with Kendrick's use of the f-slur here but it's important to remember the narrative frame the song uses. This becomes incredibly relevant at the apex of the song. He's speaking about how casual homophobia is normalized - even in Elementary School," they continue. It's an incredible thread that needs to be read in full by anyone who is attempting to understand Lamar's perspective on Auntie Diaries.
Kendrick Lamar's "Auntie Diaries" off #MrMoraleAndTheBigSteppers is an incredible song about trans acceptance & intersectionality but a lot of people are hung up on some of its problematic elements. Here's a thread attempting to clear up the confusion. 💜🧵 1/x pic.twitter.com/N1UgZFviEV
— conure 🐦🖤 (@conureCC) May 13, 2022
Admissions Of Infidelity
Mr. Morale grapples throughout with Lamar's biggest flaws and one of those is infidelity. He addresses it throughout the record with stark honesty, often bookended by the words of his fiancée. Lamar has been very close-chested about his partner to who he has been engaged to since 2015 and has two sons with but on Mr. Morale we get an unfiltered insight. On Worldwide Steppers he admits that he has a "lust addiction" and follows it up with "text messagin' got my thumbs hurt." It's not until Mother I Sober though that he really gets honest about it. He raps, "...sleepin' with other women/Whitney's hurt, the pure soul I know, I found her in the kitchen/Askin' God, ‘Where did I lose myself? And can it be forgiven?"
The Features Are Simultaneously Confusing & Expected
We've already talked about a number of features from rap go-to Sampha to the surprising indie inclusion of Portishead but there are plenty more that are equally as expected and confusing. We expected to hear Lamar's cousin Baby Keem on the record and he appears multiple times including an official credit on Saviour. Fans appreciated and understood the inclusion of Wu-Tang Clan's Ghostface Killah on Purple Hearts alongside Summer Walker too while Sam Dew's vocals across a few of the tracks make sense given his connection to Lamar producer Sounwave.
The inclusion of Zola actress Taylour Page on We Cry Together is certainly unexpected but her performance has been almost universally praised. The same can't be said for the inclusion of Kodak Black which has divided the internet. His presence is heavy throughout as he appears on a number of interludes and also has a full verse on Silent Hill.