“Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers”: Kendrick Lamar’s Therapy Session, A Review

The cover to the “Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers” album.

Dan Ramos, Editorial Board

Kung Fu Kenny is back. After a masterful return with the continuation of Kendrick’s long running series The Heart, The Heart Part 5 is a beautiful jazz experience. With its magnificent Marvin Gaye sample and lyricism that takes the perspective of many notable Black celebrities like O.J. Simpson, Kanye West, Jussie Smollett, Will Smith, Kobe Bryant, and Nipsey Hussle, this set expectations extremely high for its release. This album would be the last album he’d release with Top Dawg Entertainment, the label that he’s been a part of since Section.80. Come May 13th, I was up at midnight, excited to hear the next era of Mr. Duckworth’s career.

As it was announced earlier in May, this album has two sides, one being Mr. Morale, and the other – The Big Steppers. We begin with “United in Grief.” A soulful shout starts the track. “I hope you find some peace of mind, in this lifetime,” a statement which greatly begins Kendrick’s journey in finding peace through a difficult life. Kendrick’s first words on the album states the fact he’s been “going through something” for 1,855 days, the same exact amount of days since he released DAMN., April 14th 2017, and the day Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers was released, putting into perspective how long he’s been in emotional pain, and how long it has been without an album. He goes on in the track to recall the troubles of fame, how he’s resorted to therapy for his mental health, and how he’s utilized his wealth in his career. This was such a fantastic opener and really set the stage for what was yet to come for this record. We then move into “N95,” the “hit” on this album. The synths on this track were VERY unexpected, but it worked so well, and is one of my favorite tracks. “Worldwide Steppers” brought vocals from Kodak Black, an artist with a controversial history, and one who has the most features on this album. “Die Hard” has a huge R&B influence in its sound, and greatly reminds me of the track Kendrick did with SZA for the Black Panther soundtrack, “All the Stars.” I love the vibe on this track, and the message of insecurity in relationships. “Rich Spirit” has such a Vince Staples sound, which I thought Kendrick executed so well.

Now, let’s talk about “We Cry Together.” This song is difficult to listen to. Kendrick and Taylour Paige are arguing for the entire track, and at moments their augmenting gets so aggressive and realistic. I was in shock for the 6 minutes I was listening to it, and yet, I was so amazed at how raw it was. The Alchemist’s beat that plays behind this track, and Lamar and Paige’s performance, creates one of the most impressive and uncomfortable tracks Lamar has ever released. This is absolutely not a track that you should play in the car with your friends, or just in the car in general. Moving on to the last track of Disc 1, “Purple Hearts” turns a complete 180 in its sound, and ends the first Disc on a great note. With features from Summer Walker and Ghostface Killah, it’s such a lush and relaxing track to listen to.

On to Disc 2, “Count Me Out” brings another soulful shout to start the track, “We may not know which way to go on this dark road” alluding to the continued grief Lamar is still struggling with, and finding a path towards, healing. The beat starts low, then halfway through, it changes pace entirely and makes for a banger. “Crown” is, in my opinion, one of the more forgettable tracks on Disc 2, but I think it’s still a very pleasant track to enjoy. Kendrick said it best here, “I can’t please everybody.” “Silent Hill” is a sound we’ve NEVER heard from Kendrick before, and know I want more. His change in voice makes the track so unique, as well as the beat he’s behind. Kendrick killed it and so did Kodak Black.

“Savior” is awesome, and by far one of my favorite tracks. First, let’s talk about Baby Keem. Keem has been on top of the world ever since his latest release The Melodic Blue, winning Grammys with Kendrick for “family ties,” his debut album being certified gold, and going on tour selling out venues across the country. Now he’s on his cousin’s album. Keem’s interlude is thoughtful and makes it very clear that Keem’s in his own league. “Savior” begins with declarations from Lamar that artists like himself, J.Cole, Future, and even LeBron James, are not society’s saviors, even with their big impact on society through their art. It shouldn’t be up to them to always give guidance in such difficult societal problems, as they’re human, as well. The beat’s great and unique, and Lamar and Keem continue to prove that they do NOT miss together.

We then move to “Auntie Diaries.” Lamar reflects on his transgender family members, and the growth he went through as a child as he had to navigate through a hateful environment that discriminated against the LGBTQ community. In this track, Lamar controversially uses discriminatory language against LGBTQ members, which has been greatly debated since the release of the album. I was uncomfortable with Lamar’s usage of the language, but it doesn’t sit right with me as a straight male to give an opinion on this topic. I will say though, the message of this track is very impactful and really gives into perspective how Lamar owned up to his own mistakes growing up, and I couldn’t be gladder that Lamar used his platform to allow for more acceptance.

As we reach near the end of the album, there’s “Mr. Morale,” an aggressive, but hype-filled track. I enjoyed this track a lot, and it reminded me of the track “Black Skinhead” from Kanye West’s Yeezus. “Mother I Sober” is depressing. The trauma Lamar has experienced for his whole life is so heartbreaking to listen to, and it’s by far Lamar’s most vulnerable track ever. To close the album entirely, “Mirror” reflects on Lamar’s hiatus, and his choice to take care of himself first before anything else. “I chose me I’m sorry,” is what carries the chorus, and beautifully displays Lamar’s choice to prioritize himself before anyone else. The instrumental is gorgeous, and really puts the bow on this fantastic album.

When I was listening the night it was released, I wrote my notes down for each track to give my first impressions. When I reached the other half of the album, I completely stopped, and just put my full attention towards listening to the album. No thought of giving an opinion, just taking in the album. This album is something you seriously need to digest, and cannot take away your attention from. It has so much to take in, and has so much you could miss. I’ve listened to it probably 8 times over the first weekend, and yet, I still don’t think I’ve completely swallowed this album whole. This album is vulnerable, raw, and beautiful. Kendrick all throughout his career has musically reflected on the Black community, his childhood experience in Compton, CA, and the culture he’s helped influence through his music. But now, we are given the side of Kendrick Lamar Duckworth we’ve personally never seen before. This album was not created for us, but for Kendrick himself, to guide him in the trauma he’s faced all his life. Such an amazing album I’ll be returning to, and in my opinion, is album of the year so far.