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Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers
"What I'm doing, I'm saying that I'm human"
I have been an avid Kendrick Lamar fan since 2011’s Section.80, and I don’t think anyone could’ve predicted just how far he would go back then. In 2011, I still remember some debate about his somewhat nasally voice—not as much debate as there was around Danny Brown, who also broke through that year—and then in the first half of 2012, which brought us crewmates ScHoolboy Q’s Habits & Contradictions and Ab-Soul’s Control System, it was not immediately clear who among Black Hippy was best: Section.80 was good, but not that good and had a few derpy cuts even though the really good stuff still holds up today. (With its half-realized concept, consider Section.80 the The Who Sell Out to good kid, m.A.A.d. city’s Tommy.)
Then good kid, m.A.A.d. city dropped. Then the infamous “Control” verse (the only level-headed response was from K.R.I.T.: “Ask me about this Kendrick shit / That he ain't even really even diss me on”). Then To Pimp A Butterfly. In the short span of five years, Kendrick Lamar catapulted himself into conversations about G.O.A.T.’s such that wouldn’t make people think you were tripping if you said his name: everyone seemed to be able to get behind him. (Well, I think Lamar would think you were tripping if you said his name before 2Pac or Eminem. I say, let me be tripping then.)
Having wrote at length about good kid, m.A.A.d. city, To Pimp A Butterfly and DAMN. on Rate Your Music / Sonemic, it would be redundant to cover those albums again in this space—especially because I feel the same way about each one—so I’ll go quick. good kid, m.A.A.d. city has been one of my three favourite hip-hop albums since the moment it arrived, but its success isn’t so much the narrative (since my favourite tracks all do fine removed from context), but twelve distinct beats and Kendrick Lamar’s shapeshifting voice over top. To Pimp A Butterfly is special and incredible and ambitious to a fault, whether it’s juggling too many different topics and/or song parts at once. My favourite tracks are the lush ones: “These Walls,” the best use of Bilal’s voice ever, and “Momma,” which is reminiscent of Talib Kweli (Reflection Eternal)’s “Too Late,” ‘cept with a better rapper. DAMN. was bound to be underrated by people who wanted another To Pimp A Butterfly and received an album heavily influenced by Lil Wayne and trap music instead, i.e. influences that weren’t there in the previous album. (I guess I’ll carve out a little space here to mention that the acclaim of untitled unmastered has always alluded me. There’s a fire in the live version of “untitled 03 | 05.28.2013.” that just isn’t there in the studio recording.)
DAMN. is worth discussing a little further because it’s the most important one within the context of his latest album. The daydream-static of “YAH.” and lovely “LOVE.” aside, the album’s greatest successes are the big bangers (surprisingly) produced by Mike Will Made It: “DNA.” and “XXX.” (No rapper makes songs like “YAH.” or “LOVE.” which is probably why so many listeners feel uncomfortable with both, writing the former off as filler and the latter as sentimental.) But “DNA.” and “XXX.” are exceptions for a different reason: they’re the only tracks on DAMN. that shift around in the model of so many previous Lamar cuts in their multipartitisms (“The Art Of Peer Pressure,” “m.A.A.d city,” “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst,” “Momma,” “Hood Politics,” the single version of “Alright”). The rest of DAMN., most of which is (ahem) damn good (especially “ELEMENT.” and “FEEL.”), sees Lamar taking a step back from being the artist we want him to be and the artist he wants to be. And if he wants to make a song like “HUMBLE.” or “GOD.” (both among the album’s worst cuts), then who are we to stop him, especially when the former was his first top-charter (not including, of course, his appearance on Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood”)?
With all that out of the way, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers isn’t a sonic retreat like DAMN. was. It’s more ambitious in song construction and lyrical content; there’s more of Kendrick on display here than DAMN. But it’s, again, the album that Kendrick Lamar wanted to make and not the one we wanted him to make. Hence the uncomfortable subject matter (“Worldwide Steppers” and “Auntie Diaries”). Hence the Kodak Black feature. Hence “Like it when they pro-Black, but I'm more Kodak Black.” Hence his continued love for lame hooks (“Silent Hill”). He told us this much near the start, didn’t he? “Look at me, look at me, I'm a loser, I'm a winner / I'm good, I'm bad, I'm a Christian, I'm a sinner / I'm humble, I'm loud, I'm righteous, I'm a killer / What I'm doing, I'm saying that I'm human.” And treated by adoring fans and critics as more than that now, he retreats, repeating the words “I can’t please everybody” (and its assuring counter, “You can’t please everybody”) 50 times on this album.
To that end, the ‘pleasures’ on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers are notably fewer than before. When the drums start splaying out on “United in Grief” (which make me think of something Kanye might have done in the past few years, but good-sounding instead); Sampha’s distinctive warble on “Father’s Time”; Ghostface Killah’s surprisingly elegiac verse on “Purple Hearts,” a song whose main beat sounds suspiciously like the one on “YAH.” albeit with heavier drums; the female vocal that Pharrell Williams samples for “Mr. Morale”: rising and falling and flat-lining. All good moments that I’m sure I’ll hear more over the year.
But where Mr. Morale really shines is the ‘un-pleasures,’ significantly more than before. There’s the anxious throb that churns into some sort of weird chant underneath Kendrick Lamar as he wrestles with internal guilt for having sexual encounters with white women on “Worldwide Steppers.” Notably, there’s no hook between the first and second verse. The first ends, “I don't know how to feel / Like the first time I fucked a white bitch” and immediately the second begins, continuing where he left off, leaving you barely a moment to breathe. There’s Taylour Paige’s twisting her voice beyond “u”, beyond Kendrick, on “We Cry Together,” and the Very Real way that song ends. The fake promise (“Never mind, bitch, I'm walkin' out”), and then the false reconciliation in revenge sex. (“This is what the world sounds like” is how the song starts.) If songs like these makes anyone feel uncomfortable, then they’re triumphs because they do that by design. I’m personally struggling to think of the last time a mainstream rapper/artist has made a song like “We Cry Together” or “Aunties Story,” as in, cleaned out their closet for public consumption, scrutinization, crucifixion.
My problem with the album and why I rank it fourth in his discography is twofold. (1) There aren’t enough moments of pleasure or un-pleasure to justify its length (and the album doesn’t really balance the two either), compounded by the fact that (2) The beats aren’t as interesting as they used to be. Most of the production of Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is handled by regulars Sounwave & DJ Dahi, and I truly, truly mean it when I say that both were among the best producers that emerged in the previous decade and Kendrick Lamar wouldn’t be where he is now without their help, particularly that of Sounwave who’s been backing him since the literal beginning, the Kendrick Lamar and (O)verly (D)edicated mixtapes, pre-Section.80. Sounwave might be the most jazz-minded producer we’ve seen in (enter arbitrary number of) years (okay, since Black Milk, basically), and you could tell the saxophone in “Alright” was his work without pulling the credits. Meanwhile, DJ Dahi has a hypnotic rhythm style that I associate with Pharrell, almost as integral to Vince Staples’ Summertime ‘06 as was No I.D., the best parts of 21 Savage’s I Am > I Was, and why didn’t more people talk about the drum sound he cooked up for Drake’s “Worst Behavior.”
That being said, Sounwave and DJ Dahi aren’t allowed to play to their strengths here: the beats don’t feel as vibrant as they did on good kid, m.A.A.d. city or To Pimp A Butterfly, nor as laser-sharp as they did on DAMN. Certainly there’s no jazz for Sounwave to play with again. I’m not convinced by what sounds like a re-hash of Baby Keem’s “family ties” (which Lamar featured on) that is “N95”’s beat (notably, both were produced by Baby Keem)? I’m not convinced by “All the Stars”-remake “Die Hard,” even if I might say it’s marginally better. I’m not convinced I want two piano-based ballads on the second half of the album that take up so much time, even if Beth Gibbons is on one of them. I’m not convinced by the uninteresting stretch between “Crown” through “Savior’ of the second disc. ‘Second disc.’ Worth stating is that Mr. Morale is presented as a ‘double album,’ even though it’s only 5 minutes longer than good kid, m.A.A.d. city and 5 minutes shorter than To Pimp A Butterfly, but set up this way, it gets to join the hallowed hall of the problematic double album in hip-hop.
This is all from my second playthrough of the album, mind you. Each of Kendrick Lamar’s previous albums have all grown on me to varying degrees, so it’s possible this one will as well, but it also doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a grower by design, and Sam Dew’s voice weaved throughout has already grown old while I still kind of like the ‘I remember you was conflicted’ bits from To Pimp A Butterfly.
Anyway, I didn’t have the space for this but I wanted to plug that the ending of Kendrick Lamar’s second verse on “LOVE.” which goes “Told you that I'm on the way / I'm like a exit away, yep” makes me think of the ending line of Bryan Charles’s 33 1/3 book on Wowee Zowee: “Unchain your heart, honey. I like you. I am en route —” or the last little bit of Kim Addonizio’s poem “To The Woman Crying Uncontrollably In The Next Stall,” “listen I love you joy is coming.” Weird to think that one of my favourite Kendrick Lamar lines might be one that’s so simple, with no word over four letters. Just this declaration of love on the move, ‘I am running to tie your shoes’-style, that makes me feel so incredibly cozy.