Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers

Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers
Kendrick Lamar's Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers

There are two ways to approach reviewing a new Kendrick Lamar record:

  1. Saying I am not in any position as a person to review a Kendrick Lamar record and just listen.
  2. Keep my privilege/position in check/context while critiquing the record.

Option 1

I need not remind you for the umpteenth time that I am a white cisgendered queer cultural Jew in a heteronormative relationship and in decent enough socioeconomic standing to have purchased a house in New York City.

Obviously that is not a boast by any means, though it can be read as such by more than half the world. (It is also something I will probably have to remember by heart when the fourth reich goes door to door, minus the Jew part.) I fully recognize my privilege, its absurdities, and everything in between.

Based on the above, a fair amount of people would say, “Motherfucker, you can’t say shit about the Kendrick album.” They might be right.

Option 2

Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers is and event album. As in, there will be only a few album releases as monumental as this one in 2022. Adele’s 30 was probably the last one that comes to mind.

Event albums are for everyone to listen and digest. Mr. Morale will no doubt be one of the biggest albums of the year. Not reviewing it or commenting on it would be wholly absurd, akin to ignoring The Beatles in the ‘60s.

Is it a good album? Mostly. On the music and lyrical side of things, it’s a step above and more of the same, respectively, when compared to DAMN from five years ago. It’s probably Kendrick’s third worst album behind Section.80 and DAMN, which are not bad albums by any stretch of the imagination. It borrows a lot of elements from jazz and electronic music that found their way onto Brainfeeder- and maybe even Planet Mu-released albums over the last several years.

It’s frenetic. It’s subdued. There’s a lot more piano than you’d expect on a Kendrick Lamar record. The pacing and sequencing kinda sucks, but it’s also 18 songs for around 80 minutes. Few albums of that length hit it out of the park in terms of flow and quality, and I can’t name any that have been released in recent memory.

In terms of lyrical content, there are also two ways to approach it:

  1. Having Kendrick Lamar talk about mental health, recognizing trans people, and abuse for a wide audience — especially a core, Kendrick Lamar album-listening audience, is friggin awesome.
  2. Don’t we expect way less conservatism from our “conscious hip-hop” superheroes?

Approach 1

This needs no explanation. This event album will be listened to by everyone, from me, to your mom who heard about it on NPR, to the people bumping Future outside my house at odd hours of the evening. To have this album talk about forward-thinking things such as taking care of one’s mental health, eschewing trans/homophobia, and recognizing one’s own abuse and trauma (as well as that of their loved ones) will spark something in even a small percentage of people that hear the album. That’s absolutely amazing.

Approach 2

That said, the album doesn’t really deliver a concrete conclusion for the listener to take away. Maybe that’s the point, as Kendrick spends the bulk of the album telling you he is no role model or someone to shoulder the weight of the world’s conflicts, abuse, and so on.

That’s cool and all, but why say anything if all you have to say is “it’s not for me to say?” It’s the biggest non-answer in the world, and if your whole schtick is “I am going to say a lot, but don’t look to me to say anything” that is in conflict with itself.

Never mind the few times the album calls out cancel culture (which is not a monolith), ever so slightly doubles down on the previous album’s preach for conservative family structures, and trips over its messages so many times to reveal that a few of them ring quite hollow. (Having a song about recognizing trans family members while using the f word and misgendering them is nitpicky, depending on who you ask.) If we are to move forward as people — all people — while certain figures in entertainment have “delivering a potent message” as part of their all-caps BRAND, then this writer believes that message should be inclusive, forward looking, and backed up by someone saying “this is what I stand for and this is what I believe in” — not someone taking two steps forward and backwards simultaneously, delivering an undercooked message, all while saying “I am not a messenger; please don’t look to me for guidance.”

Should I listen to the album?