Say this for Kendrick Lamar – he’ll keep you waiting, but when he does come back, it’s a massive presentation.
Five years after his Grammy and Pulitzer Prize-winning “Damn,” one of the game’s deepest rappers returned Friday with the double album “Mr. Moral & The Big Steppers.”
Across 18 tracks split evenly between “Big Steppers” and “Mr. Moral,” Lamar spends an hour and 13 minutes leading listeners through a musical odyssey heavy with piano riffs, bits of incongruous sound, and, predictably, much baring of his soul.
The guest list includes some familiar names — Kodak Black, Baby Keem, Ghostface Killah — and some interesting inclusions, such as actress Taylour Paige (“We Cry Together”) and Portishead’s Beth Gibbons (“Mother I Sober”).
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But Lamar, 34, never cedes the spotlight – as he shouldn’t – to what will rightly be considered his musical opus. “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” is the first release from his new creative imprint, pgLang, as well as his latest association with Top Dawg Entertainment, his home since the start of his career over a decade ago.
Lamar’s lyrical intensity is designed for repeated listening, but here are some first impressions of notable tracks from the album.
“Global Steppers”: After an introduction by Black — who refers to Lamar by one of his many alternate names, Oklama — the song wavers between haunting pulsation and old-school soul. It’s also Lamar’s autobiographical catch-up for fans wondering if he and his fiancee Whitney Alford had a second child based on the album cover photo; references to “playing ‘Baby Shark’ with my daughter” and “I would kill for my son Enoch” would indicate yes. Lamar also alludes to his long absence between new releases: “Writer’s block for two years, nothing moved me / Asked God to speak through me, that’s what you hear now.”
“Father time”: With a dense piano background, Lamar rhymes about how his “dad issues kept me competitive.” But fans will surely be buzzing about his high-profile name: “When Kanye got back with Drake, I was a little confused/Guess I’m not as mature as I think, I got some healing to do .”
“We cry together”: Not so much a song as a raw, swear-filled tirade over random piano notes with Lamar and actress Paige hurling insults at each other for nearly six minutes. You’ll wince as you listen to their unvarnished attacks on each other. “That’s the kind of (expletive) couples do?” wonders Lamar. Paige’s script, meanwhile, includes the verbal grenade, “You’re the reason R. Kelly can’t admit he’s abusive.”
“Don’t count on me”: The first song on the album’s “Mr. Moral” finds Lamar struggling with the contradictions in his head (“I care too much, I want to share too much / Too much in my head, I’m shutting down too”) and nods to the pandemic while remaining thoughtful (“Masks on the babies, mask on a opp/ Wear masks in the neighborhood stores when you shop/ But a mask won’t hide who you are at the interior”).
“Silent Hill”: Lamar handles the first two verses, which roll to a heart-pounding beat, before Kodak Black steps in for an epic run through the final third with lyrics such as “Every Sunday somebody gotta teach my boy to be a man / I had no father. ”
“Saviour”: The song following the interlude of the same name references COVID-19, Russian President Vladimir Putin, protests and vaccines (“Seen a Christian say the vaccine mark of the bete/Then he caught COVID and prayed the Pfizer for relief”) with help from Baby Keem and Sam Dew.
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“Mother, I am sober”: For nearly seven minutes, Lamar goes through a list of harrowing grievances and vivid descriptions of generations of women who have affected him in one way or another. With piano and a haunting beat as the only backdrop aside from a few vocalizations, Lamar’s voice shifts from a whisper to pangs of anger in the song’s final section as he rolls out the references to physical violence, to Alford’s sexual addiction and deception. Portishead’s Gibbons is a sort of Greek chorus as she chimes in with “I wish I was somebody/Anyone but myself.”
“Shimmer”: The album ends with the most groove-infested as well as melodically cohesive offering. As Lamar intones “I choose myself, I’m sorry,” with a shrug in his voice, it’s obvious he’s not apologizing, but rather continuing his journey to gaze at his reflection without remorse.