Album Review: Understanding Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers
By Spencer Yu, Contributor
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is Kendrick Lamar’s ( Kendrick Lamar Duckworth) most introspective and mature album yet. Self reflection has long been a central theme of Duckworth’s music but on his latest album, it is a lot more personal with production that is overall more reserved. The result of this is a somewhat polarizing album, with both praises and critiques from everywhere.
Duckworth is not only thought of as one of the most talented artists of this generation but also one of the most illusive. After the release of his critically acclaimed album DAMN the artist took a hiatus with very little social media interaction. Aside from some features and a very light teaser on Baby Keem’s track “Family Ties”, there was no word from the Compton rapper as to what his next album would be or what the central theme of the album would be.
However, it was revealed on April the 18th that his new album Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers would be released on May 13. With the traditional “Heart Part” teaser track being released on May 8 being praised for not only the tight wordplay that we have come to expect from Duckworth but also the use of deepfakes to convey the idea of rapping from the perspective of notable figures within the black community. With the full album to release just five days later the stage was set for Duckworth’s highly anticipated 5th studio album.
When I first listened to this album I was slightly confused. It wasn’t the album I was expecting and ultimately left me wondering as to what the meaning of the album was. However on repeat listens I have come to the realization that the album wasn’t made as something to enjoy at a surface level but rather it was made as a moment of catharsis for Duckworth that is meant to be explored by the listener.
The album is an evolution of what we have seen from him so far in terms of how introspective he has been and as a result at times this album can be uncomfortable to listen to due to the manner in which some of the subject matter is conveyed. The best example of this is the song “ We Cry Together”, which depicts Duckworth and actress Taylour Paige going through a very toxic relationship and the coping mechanisms that surround it.
“Aunty Diaries” is another example of this in which Duckworth expresses his opinions towards the LGBTQ+ community. Criticizing society’s views towards them as well as looking back at his own views on using slurs. It is delivered in a way that is incredibly raw with no sugar coating and as a result of this I feel that many people are either going to stop listening when it gets to these tracks or just skip them entirely on repeat listens. That’s not to say that the tracks are bad, they are actually very good but the rawness of these tracks might turn some listeners off from them.
Other standout tracks include “Father Time” in which Duckworth shares his experience growing up with his father and expresses how generations of toxic masculinity have affected future generations of men and their attitudes towards gang culture. “N95” is also another very topical track in which Duckworth speaks about superficial people using expensive things as a mask to hide their true character..
However, I feel that his dedication to producing something more reserved and mature could turn some listeners off as it does not have the level of energy some are expecting from a rap album. That’s not to say that every song off this album is reserved and deals with social issues but a large portion of them are. For me, that’s not a bad thing at all but I feel that a side effect of being more reserved is that it potentially won’t have the same staying power as some of his previous albums.
This album is also chock full of features. However a standout for me personally is Sampha for his amazing work on the hook of “Father Time” and legendary Wu Tang Clan rapper Ghostface Killah for appearing on the second verse of “Purple Hearts”. Taylor Paige also deserves mention for her role on the track “We Cry Together” for depicting a toxic relationship in such realistic fashion. These three were the artists I felt worked the best in this album given its subject matter.
Kodak Black was a surprise for me personally due to how prominently he is featured in the album with a spoken word verse on “ Rich – Interlude” and having the second verse on “Silent Hill”. I have mixed opinions on his presence on the track because on one hand he definitely is more evolved than the Kodak Black we have seen previously. Black talks in line with some of the issues brought up in the album but I still have a hard time liking the way he constructs his verses. His rapping at points comes across as just choppy to me with no real consistent rhyming scheme or flow. Personally I was just expecting a little more from him on this album.
In conclusion, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is a very enjoyable and very competent album that due to this being his most mature album may fail to attract as large of an audience as some of his previous works due to this album being a little more reserved. I think that it is a good sneak peak into what Duckworth is going to be doing with his new company PGLang and look forward to what is coming up next from him.