Best Music

Kendrick Lamar’s sixth studio album makes art out of big personal steps.

rosebud awards, 2022, music
Red Nose Studio

Dropped on May 13, 2022, 1,855 days, to be exact, after the release of his Pulitzer Prize–winning DAMN., Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers consists of two nine-track discs and one single. Chronicling the rapper’s depression, childhood trauma, infidelity, attempts to self-medicate, and nasty case of writer’s block, Mr. Morale is a nakedly truthful dispatch from the widely anointed “conscience of rap,” a title Lamar shoulders with both glee and gloom. The cover photo of the artist and a woman—apparently his fiancée, Whitney Alford—holding two children in a bedroom says it all: we’re being invited into a private space—in here, it’s personal.

From the opening bars of the first song, “United in Grief,” in which Lamar confides that he has been “goin’ through somethin’” for “one-thousand eight-hundred and fifty-five days,” Mr. Morale crisscrosses between Lamar’s own confessions and social commentary. From his own family’s generational trauma to the nation’s widening political divide, from his “lust addiction” to wrestling with feelings of transphobia, Lamar offers an unflinching view of his thoughts and intimate experiences.

The story lines on tracks like “Auntie Diaries” and “Father Time” are especially candid; in the latter, Lamar traces some of his character flaws to his father not showing him affection as a child. Delivered in a soft timbre, the lyrics land like a kick in the throat: “I got daddy issues, that’s on me / Lookin’ for, ‘I love you,’ rarely empathizin’ for my relief.” Even by Lamar’s standards, the lyrics on Mr. Morale are vulnerable, complex, and, at times, challenging—descriptions that readily apply to his melodies as well.

There are moments, such as in “Worldwide Steppers,” when Lamar’s vocals feel like they’re running either ahead of or behind the track’s rhythms until they click, creating aha moments like the end of a smart detective thriller. Other elements not typically heard on rap albums, like the folksy piano runs on “Crown,” keep you on edge: the music can flow in a new direction at any moment. The most unusual and haunting feature is the tap dancing heard on “Savior” and other tracks. It feels out of place at first, but it too adds a layer of depth to the songs: Is Lamar “tap dancing” around the issues he raises, or is he delivering the plain truth as promised? But not every track on the album necessitates a philosophical understanding. To show that he can still drop bumpin’ tracks like “King Kunta” on To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar injects TikTok-ready bangers “Die Hard,” “Count Me Out,” and “Purple Hearts” into Mr. Morale’s bloodstream.

Mr. Morale lands with a masterful balance of listenability and intrigue. Lamar may or may not pick up another Pulitzer or Grammy for this album, but as he makes perfectly clear from “United in Grief” to “The Heart Part 5,” he did not produce this work to win more awards or riches. Lamar is doing what few other successful, mainstream artists are doing: making art at the height of his talent and being as honest as a human being can be. In the outro of “Mother, I Sober,” a new voice sings: “Before I go in fast asleep, love me for me / I bare my soul and now we’re free.”

If baring his soul in Mr. Morale set him and others free, well, that’s something that Lamar can feel good about for a lot longer than 1,855 days.•

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