Kendrick Lamar Is Back. How Will His Album Reflect the World’s Changes?

Since Kendrick Lamar dropped his last solo album ‘DAMN’ in 2017, a lot has changed. What can we expect from ‘Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers’?

Kendrick Lamar is back. New album

Image via Getty/Allen J. Schaben

Kendrick Lamar is back. New album

Kendrick Lamar’s last solo album, DAMN, dropped in the spring of 2017. It was a revelatory time. Donald Trump’s assault on civil liberties, Twitter, and our collective nerves was just beginning in the early days of his presidency, and he had emboldened white supremacists who revealed just how much of a scourge racism still was. The women behind the #MeToo movement were also revealing how rampant sexual assault was througout our institutions, disgracing prominent figures like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby. 

If that wasn’t enough, 2017 was the deadliest year for mass killings in a decade. Even before COVID, the societal tumult had many of us turning inward and taking stock of our lives. In turn, many of the year’s most memorable rap releases were reflective. Jay-Z’s 4:44 answered Beyoncé’s Lemonade as a similarly soulful, confessional album in which he admitted his extramarital affairs and got candid about wanting to do right by his family. Vince Staples’ Big Fish Theory showed the Cali rapper giving another harrowing glimpse of the Long Beach streets through an updated take on classic funk and electronic music. And Tyler, the Creator shined on Flower Boy, a lush, deeply personal album that, for many, marked his sonic evolution from a petulant teenager into a grown man with well-considered reflections on the world. 

Arriving first, DAMN set the tone for all these projects, with Kendrick getting existential throughout the album on tracks like “DNA,” and “FEAR.” He has said that DAMN’s 14 tracks tell a story meant to be played backwards and forwards. Whichever direction one listens, it’s hard to deny his brilliance, and the project added another piece to one of hip-hop’s most infallible catalogs. DAMN, ​​an impeccable, Pulitzer Prize-winning project, made us excited for where Kendrick was going next. Little did we know, it would take five years to find out.  

The long wait is finally over. New Kendrick Lamar music is imminent. Today, the iconic MC announced that his fifth solo studio album, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, will arrive on May 13, ending a long hiatus since his last full-length solo album. It’s been five years since DAMN.

Kendrick fans stand next to only Grand Theft Auto die-hards when it comes to prolonged thirst for new product, as there’s been immense speculation about what he’ll do next. There was a January 2020 scoop about him being “close” to finalizing a rock-influenced album, but then the pandemic hit and the world drastically shifted. In August 2021, Kendrick posted a letter announcing that the then-unnamed album would be his last on Top Dawg Entertainment, while expressing that he’s been grappling with “love, loss and grief,” hinting at some possible themes for the new project. The following month, photos popped up of Kendrick filming a video in LA. In 2022, the Milano Summer Festival announced an upcoming performance in July and promised Kendrick “will play the pieces of the new album, long awaited by the fans,” while Rolling Loud tweeted and deleted that his upcoming set in Miami “means exactly what we think it means.” It seems like he was waiting for the concert scene to come back to some sense of normalcy after COVID shut down venues worldwide.

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Kendrick’s recent collaborations with his cousin Baby Keem show that he’s still tapped into youth culture. The flows he hit on “family ties” and “range brothers” make it clear that he’s still having fun with music, and that he would sound great on production from buzzing 808 kings like Tay Keith, Cardo, Kenny Beats, and more. And of course, if he really wanted, he could just rap his ass off over soulful, gritty beats and contribute another record to the canon that artists like Alchemist, Roc Marciano, and Westside Gunn have cultivated over the years. 

The album’s title also makes one wonder if we’re in store for another concept album. Will Kendrick take us through a sonic universe, offering social commentary through Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers’ journey? Colloquially, steppers has entered our lexicon as the latest term for “shooters” or “goons,” though it’s been co-opted by some people to signify that a stepper is a general badass. With that in mind, a cursory interpretation of that title hints at a good kid, m.a.a.d city-like paradox. 

It will be interesting to see how much Kendrick plays into meme marketing with his new album. TikTok was bubbling in 2017, but it’s now the undisputed king of social apps. In 2022, nearly every top-selling rap and pop project has been bolstered by a winning TikTok campaign, so will Kendrick play the game? It’s highly unlikely we’ll see Kendrick making an overt “Toosie Slide” or “Body” play for TikTok supremacy, but the hysteria behind the “top ’o the mornin’” refrain on “range brothers” shows how his animated delivery and charisma allow him to slip in meme-able moments as naturally as anyone. His forthcoming album is so anticipated that Kendrick doesn’t have to do much marketing for it to dominate the charts in May, but a winning meme gives the right song staying power. 

While it’s fun to speculate on how cultural and industrial changes will shape the new album, it’s also worth considering how his own life and times will reflect in the music. At 34, and already more accomplished than 99.9 percent of rappers, it wouldn’t be surprising if he’s feeling anxious about his artistic fulfillment. Both Cole and Drake, in their early to mid 30s, have been candid about their qualms of how to keep the artistic flame alive, and where to take their careers next

Drake and J. Cole have each exercised the artistic freedom to release whatever they want, however they want, a luxury afforded to stars of their caliber. Drake has routinely put out Billboard-appeasing albums with a little something for everybody, while Cole’s last project, 2021’s The Off-Season, was an ode to craft that saw him simply trying to rap as well as he could over stripped-down production that brought his lyrics to the foreground. Kendrick could go in either direction, or chart his own course. Sometimes, having the power to do anything can be a burden with millions of fans. 

The confusion that Drake and Cole have expressed is a symptom of success in a space that demands constant commercial triumph lest fans believe you’ve “fallen off.” Kendrick may grapple with being a nearly 20-year rap vet who has already seen music’s commercial heights. Is he still looking to be “King Kunta” and fight for the rap crown as feverishly as he reached for it on “Control”? Or will pgLang represent the start of a new chapter of his public life as an executive?

More importantly, how has this period shaped his growth as a father, husband, son, brother, and loved one? Last August, he posted some “nu thoughts” to his Twitter page, in which he reflected that he, like most of society, wasn’t in a good space. 

“I spend most of my days with fleeting thoughts. Writing. Listening. And collecting old Beach cruisers,” he wrote. “The morning rides keep me on a hill of silence. I go months without a phone. Love, loss, and grief have disturbed my comfort zone, but the glimmers of God speak through my music and family. While the world around me evolves, I reflect on what matters the most. The life in which my words will land next.”  

He was 29 when DAMN dropped, so what have his 30s been like so far? What breakthroughs did he have on those phoneless moments riding his bike on silent hills? Those “glimmers of God” make me wonder what kind of gems the new album will offer to the millions of people desperately trying to stay emotionally afloat in a world that assails one challenge after another. 

Kendrick reportedly had a daughter in July 2019, and he’s famously private about his personal life, so there’s a chance that he has nothing public to say about family life. But being a first-time father, especially of a daughter, may have given him new insights on life. If he does explore fatherhood, hopefully it will be more interesting than the “now I want to treat women like humans” trope we’ve heard from other famous girl-dads.

Whatever happens, Kendrick will have the rap world in a frenzy. He has one of rap’s most beloved catalogs, and it’s difficult to imagine him not dropping another album of the year contender that will motivate his MC peers and give the rap world what they’ve been looking for. 

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