After five long years, Kendrick Lamar returned to deliver Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, a double album that depicts himself and those in his world assuming facades as “big steppers” to mask the inner trauma that they’re tap-dancing around.
“We Cry Together” captures a lay-it-all-out argument between Kendrick Lamar and Taylour Paige that devolves into a gender war and abruptly pivots into sex. Their happy ending may feel good, but it shows them sidestepping the issues they just leveled at each other. The 2022 successor to RZA’s “Domestic Violence” veers from Alchemist’s moody piano loop into tap dancing, before Kendrick’s fiancée Whitney Alford tells him, “Stop tap dancing around the conversation.” The moral of the track is lobbed at our head like an errant tennis ball after Kendrick and Taylour’s incendiary back and forth.
On “Father Time,” which starts with Whitney urging Kendrick to get therapy, he raps about how his “daddy issues” imbued him with a “foolish pride” that he conflated with masculinity. On “Mother I Sober,” he asserts, “Every other rapper sexually abused/ I see ‘em daily buryin’ they pain in chains and tattoos.” And the crux of “Mother I Sober” explores how the shame of his mother thinking he was abused as a five-year-old eventually led to “seven years of tour, chasin’ manhood,” which turned into family-threatening infidelity that he divulges numerous times, including on “Worldwide Steppers.” Throughout the 18-track album, Kendrick analyzes his own life experiences, asking society if we champion toxic behaviors because deep down, we feel inadequate.
The album’s thesis statement has drawn praise from many, including Quality Control CEO Pee, who tweeted, “Kendrick album makes you really look in the mirror and question yourself.” But other junctures of Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers have critics questioning Kendrick about the presence of accused rapist Kodak Black, his crusade against so-called “cancel culture,” and misgendering on “Auntie Diaries,” a song about trans acceptance. Kendrick falters when he steps out of his world and offers larger social commentary on Mr. Morale, representing the faults of an otherwise phenomenal album. As he rhymes on “Crown,” however, he’s accepted that he “can’t please everybody,” and for better or worse, he’s not interested in trying. As he says to open “Savior,” “Kendrick made you think about it, but he is not your savior.”
As always, Kendrick is a masterful vocalist, unfurling myriad flows and phrases with a quirkiness that glues them to your psyche, like his unconventional enunciation of “yeah baby” on “Purple Hearts” and “brother” on “Rich Spirit.” On “Worldwide Steppers” he veers through reflections on infidelity and dalliance with white women through a monotone, rapid-fire delivery that sounds like he’s warping through a binary field, emphasizing the headrush he’s feeling as qualms and memories whirl through his mind. On songs like “Father Time,” he rhymes with trademark ferocity, while on “Mother I Sober,” he traverses from a gentle whisper into empowered theatrics, vocally symbolizing the song’s ascent from despair into awakening. Yet again, Kendrick’s verses are compelling from an audial standpoint.