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Kendrick Lamar gives morale new meanings on fifth studio album ‘MM&TBS’

OGM’s editorial staff compiled a multi-perspective, multifaceted review of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers.’

Jon Barlas, Editor

Kendrick Lamar is a man of many monikers. K-Dot, Kung Fu Kenny, King Kendrick, Oklama and his latest, Mr. Morale, all take on a different life — cultivating various sounds, personas and cadences unique to their narratives. After all, the Pulitzer Prize-winning artist admits he was “goin’ through something” on his fifth studio album’s opening track, as Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is not only an admission of Kendrick’s faults, but sees him tackle perhaps his most complex character yet: Himself.

Aside from launching his newfound label pgLang with Dave Free — which boasts young superstar talents in Baby Keem and Tanna Leone — Dot’s final project with Top Dawg Enterainment sees him “big stepping” out of the shadows and back into the spotlight. Focusing on the flaws that make him human, amid a legendary and cherished reputation, Lamar’s “Morale” illustrates the elusive rapper staring at his broken nature through the jagged shards of a “Mirror” — piecing it back together with an altruistically gleeful sense of acceptance of his insecurities.

In the five years since releasing his poignant, GRAMMY-winning album DAMN., Lamar essentially trades in his traditional, hyper-focused rhetoric for a project littered with unabashed, free-flowing therapy sessions — lifting the weight of the world off his shoulders in a succession of heavy shrugs. Therapeutic and profound, Kendrick doesn’t only “tap dance” around his “daddy issues” on “Father Time,” toxic habits on “We Cry Together” with Taylour Paige and lust-driven infidelity on “Worldwide Steppers”— all tastefully narrated by longtime romantic partner Whitney Alford — Kenny’s pride and willingness to “break it, to build it” guides the personal sentiments that paint a portrait of imperfection to his “God-like” stature. He isn’t your “Savior,” and he doesn’t need to be — freeing his soul in the process.

With egos and their alters scattered throughout his discography, an interpretation of Lamar’s alias “oklama” — which has also been the catalyst to the album’s rollout at — theorizes more to Mr. Morale’s imperfect perspective. Splitting the name into two root words, okla and ma (“okla,” meaning people; and “ma,” which is used as a marker when addressing someone), when recombined, they become a way of addressing ‘the people’ or ‘my people.’

As a force of morality for those “people,” Oklama convincingly reshapes his deep-rooted foothold as one of greatest artists alive — finding peace regardless of the chinks in his armor. Mr. Morale isn’t just Kendrick apprehensively uncovering the root of his vices, but encapsulates the emotions that sees him choosing himself over anything. “Personal gain off my pain, it’s nonsense,” he raps, mirroring the intrinsic reflections of freedom he alludes to all over the album, and ultimately, clarity in the obstacles life will always present. While music is his “life’s calling,” he wrote in nu thoughts, Kendrick can now pursue it without the heavy-hearted guilt that’s plagued him for years.

Thomas Galindo, Staff Writer

Along with Kendrick (Mr. Morale) realigning his moral compass, there is a strong, unique supporting cast (The Big Steppers) that helps him achieve his newfound goals. Nobody uses features on their albums with more intent and better placement than Kendrick, and he proves it once again with spiritual philosopher Eckhart Tolle‘s narration about deriving self worth from being a victim, elegant hooks from Blxst, Amanda Reifer and Sampha on Disc 1 as well as his pgLang protégés Baby Keem and Tanna Leone delivering standout performances on Disc 2. The album serves as a curtain-pulling exposé on an artist deemed to be a pillar of knowledge — holding the utmost integrity to his music at every moment of his decade-long career.

On the first disc, Lamar acknowledges the lustful and adulterous missteps he has performed throughout his life and the plethora of problems that contributed to his prideful overcompensation. But, he knows that this healing process, while traumatic, will be for the better. “I got some regrets / But my past won’t keep me from my best,” he further illustrates on “Die Hard.“

As we transition into the second disc, christened by Alford’s “Session 10, breakthrough” decree on “Count Me Out,” Kendrick digs deeper. Therapy is not only about taking accountability for one’s wrongdoings, but also examining what caused your actions in the first place. While peeling back the layers of the sexual and domestic trauma that his mother endured and he witnessed, Kendrick discusses how these motifs affect the entire black community, including musical figures like Kodak Black, featured on “Rich (Interlude)” and “Silent Hill,” and R. Kelly, both who have perpetuated sex crimes in their pasts.

Lamar hopes to be a megaphone for advocacy about this cycle of abuse, and does so by explaining how his life’s trajectory could have been altered if he were a victim of similar abuse as a youth. The cherry on top of the album comes with its closer “Mirror,” as Kendrick realizes he needs to begin to live life for himself after wiping the slate clean. He has atoned for his sins, he has embraced his weaknesses, he has shed the skin of being hip-hop’s chosen one.

Free from the shackles of shame, all there is left to do is appreciate Kendrick for not only providing a thought-provoking, self-revealing project unlike any other, but for once again crafting a diverse, miraculously-produced LP of emotionally potent narratives like “Mother I Sober,” upbeat, catchy bops like “Mr. Morale” and “Die Hard” as well as lyrically intensive showcases like “Worldwide Steppers.” It’s not often you come across an album that fires off your brain’s synapses like Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers does, but it’s no surprise that a classic from Kendrick Lamar is a gift that only he can timelessly deliver.

Lee McIntosh, Contributor

Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is not only a story that speaks on Kendrick Lamar’s shortcomings, but one that speaks on many of our own. As Lamar has evolved throughout his career, the culture began to look to him for answers. Answers on racism, inequality — so on and so forth, (ironically, answers he gave us back in 2015 on To Pimp A Butterfly). When the world seemingly needed him most, during the pandemic and during the BLM movement, he was absent, which left a lot of fans wondering why he hadn’t spoke up. He was seen as a hip-hop equivalent to God himself, or “Mr. Morale,” and many of us truly looked at him as our “Savior” and redeemer.

In Baby Keem’s “Family Ties,” Kendrick laid it all out: “I been ducking the pandemic / I been ducking the social gimmicks / I been ducking the overnight activists.” On this album, we get a glimpse of exactly why Kendrick had been laying low. Dealing with childhood trauma, lust addiction, therapy, issues within his own relationship and more, Kendrick understands that, ironically enough, he doesn’t always have all the answers. He has his own flaws, imperfections — he’s human too. So when everyone needed Kendrick, he unapologetically put himself first, crooning on the finale track “I choose me, I’m sorry.” After all, he already told fans how he felt in 2017 on one of DAMN.’s deep cuts “FEEL.” rapping “Ain’t nobody praying for me.”

The “Big Steppers,” on the other hand, would be us: The people walking the earth and living our lives from a bird’s eye view. What a big stepper refers to is someone handling business — or bossing up. However, in today’s society, many of us are hiding behind a facade of acting like we’re doing better than we are, when in reality, we all have problems of our own that we are afraid to face. Many of us have childhood trauma of our own, issues within our family, toxic relationships and so much more. An underlying motif throughout the album is tap-dancing — a catch-all phrase that’s used when someone is avoiding certain subjects or avoiding their issues entirely, “tap-dancing” around the question.

Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is not only one of Kendrick’s most personal records to date, it serves as an eye opener that further proves these “God-like” figures and influential voices are just as human as we are.

Tyler Zucker, Contributor

Kendrick Lamar’s five-year hiatus has allowed him more than enough time to think and reflect, as the double album features some of Kendrick’s most personal and introspective lyrics to date — diving into problems that would typically be exclusively reserved for him and his therapist.

Throughout the album, he tears down the barrier between himself and the image fans have built up for him. He is seen as rap’s “Messiah” — someone who would carry on the torch for the next generation of profound lyricists. On MM&TBS, though, he dispels this notion, asking his audience if they are truly happy for him or if they simply see him as a celebrity figure instead of a human being. It’s a dense and challenging listen; one that may put off fans. However, it’s the album Kendrick needed to make after all this time. He unshelved every dilemma plaguing his mind — pouring years’ worth emotion into each of the album’s 18 tracks.

He refuses to be held to the impossibly-placed standard the world has set out for him. He is not this flawless figure that should be put on a pedestal. He is simply Kendrick Lamar: An incredible artist yet a flawed human at his core — calling back to his sentiments on his standalone single “The Heart Part 5”: “I am. All of us.” Mr Morale & The Big Steppers delivers in every aspect to ring in Kendrick’s new era — crafting yet another album that begs to be heard for years to come.

Nimai Kumar, Staff Writer

Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is a revival fit for the legendary emcee’s comeback, with a whole new sound and unexpected features to match.

The two-sided project brings along Kendrick’s take on his personal state of affairs as he sends listeners on a journey through his current headspace, bringing a quality of sound that enunciates his (sometimes polarizing) thoughts on domestic violence, LGBTQ+ issues, substance abuse and more. In comparison to DAMN.’s three red carpet features, Kendrick calls upon an unorthodox set of artists — predominantly including Kodak Black as a cursor for his pain. Touting appearances all over the project, Kodak creates a couple of moments that really connect his street world with Kendrick’s analytical style of lyricism.

Ultimately, Kung Fu Kenny celebrates ending his five-year by showing how versatile and calculated he is and always will be. Musically and conceptually, this proves to be the most mature project from the good kid, m.A.A.d. city rapper, giving an uncharted and honest look at how he has progressed as both a person and musician. This is no doubt the beginning of a renaissance for Kendrick Lamar at the start of his pgLang era — a renaissance built on brutal, self-honesty.

Listen to ‘Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers’ below!