Dot's Return: Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers Review
"The media's the new religion, you killed the consciousness."
After five long years, we've reached the end of an era. Kendrick Lamar returned with this album but simultaneously ended his tenure with Top Dawg Entertainment, which dates back to 2004 (more on that later). I didn't discover Kendrick Lamar personally until 2009, with the release of the Kendrick Lamar EP. Since then, Dot has become an international superstar, and the world was in need of new music from him since the release of the Pulitzer Prize winning DAMN in 2017. In 2021, his feature on Baby Keem's "family ties" told us to get ready, and on May 13th, Kendrick Lamar officially returned. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers would debut at #1 on the Billboard 200 chart, selling 295,000 records in its first week. This album released as a double album, with nine tracks on each volume, but we got to hear the fifth installment of the iconic "The Heart" series before the release of the project.
This record is top three in the series in my opinion, as Kendrick addresses different perspectives of "the culture" which hit even harder as Kendrick used deepfakes to portray six different celebrities in the music video to coincide with his elite picture painting rhymes. The black men he deepfaked are as follows (not in order): Kobe Bryant, O.J. Simpson, Will Smith, Kanye West, Jussie Smollet, and Nipsey Hussle. All of the depictions were impactful, whether it be in a funny way (Jussie's face while saying "the streets got me fucked up" or O.J.'s face while saying "I do this for my culture") or a more serious tone, as Kendrick had Kanye's face as he spoke about bipolar friends or Will Smith's face as he rapped about hurt people hurting people.
While those 4 faces had their place in the music video, I believe that we can all agree that the most touching and important parts of the song and video were the parts with Kobe and Nipsey. Hearing the lyrics about looking back and accepting the way that life ended while seeing Kobe's face was a crazy experience, as losing Kobe had to be one of the worst days ever for me as a fan. However, seeing that also gave me a sense of peace, though I'll never truly get over it, it was comforting to see. Seeing "Nipsey" tell his story and how he's at peace with his end made me feel everything at once, but I initially felt sadness remembering the day he was murdered, as it was such a turbulent moment in time. Those few hours felt so long and fast at the same time on March 31st, 2019. I feel like Kendrick Lamar was the best person to paint these pictures on record, as he knew both people well, is a native of Los Angeles like Nipsey, and an icon of the city like both men were/are. I feel like what truly ties it together is the beautiful sample of Marvin Gaye's classic "I Want You" from 1976, as Beachhouse laid the perfect background for hip-hop storytelling. Allowing Kendrick to cover the hook himself was a great modernization of the classic track, and stripping the sample down to the drums for the second half felt timeless...because it was. Kendrick Lamar releasing this record put the world on notice that he had truly returned. The storytelling, the raw emotion, and the simplicity of it all reminded me of why I began to listen to him in the first place, and that was because he is purely hip-hop.
Now let me just say now that this album isn't anything like the run from good kid, m.A.A.d city through DAMN, not just because five years have passed since his last solo project, but because Kendrick took an entirely different approach with this album. I remember watching the interview that Rick Rubin and Dot had back in 2017, and Kendrick mentioning the process behind good kid, m.A.A.d city. He said that he played the game, making radio records to reach the masses on his first major label project. Even though he was correct with his choices for radio hits, "m.A.A.d city" still became the most memorable record from the project. With To Pimp A Butterfly, Dot explored hip-hop and jazz fusion, and though the consumerist audience that he was catering to on the previous project didn't necessarily understand the project at first, it has been recognized as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all-time alongside its predecessor. With DAMN. Kendrick made even more history by becoming the first hip-hop artist to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music. This is one crazy run for it to have been the first five years of his major label career, as Kendrick had been recognized as an all-time great by the beginning of 2018 when he took home five Grammy awards.
After five years off from solo music, there's been a different approach from Kendrick Lamar for a lot of reasons. Like I mentioned earlier, this was his last release under Top Dawg Entertainment, and even though it was released under TDE, it doesn't feel like a TDE release in my opinion. There are no features from labelmates on the album, and even though there weren't any outside of Zacari (who wasn't offically signed by the label at the time) on DAMN, I expected there to be a sort of fairwell moment to close the curtains on this segment of Kendrick's music career.
While I was shocked by the lack of Top Dawg features, we did have a recurring feature that I want to talk about before I truly begin my review: Kodak Black. For those of you who don't know, Kodak has been the constant subject of being in and out of prison, as recently as earlier this month, and while that seems normal for the average hip-hop consumer, its what he's been involved with and convicted of in the past, as well as his behaviors that lead me to stop supporting him and being disappointed in Kendrick Lamar for being in alignment with him on this project. I love Kendrick, but nobody is above criticism, and Kodak's past includes pleading guilty in a sexual assault case that involved a teenage girl, avoiding prison time in the process and just getting 18 months probation, and that doesn't sit well with me morally. That's honestly my biggest disappointment with the project, just the fact that Kodak was even involved at all upset me, especially given the fact that he's featured on my favorite record from the album (obviously not because of him). The way Kodak was sprinkled throughout this project made it impossible not to listen to him, but i wanted to let it be known that I don't support him and haven't since the sexual assault/rape case came to my knowledge. This goes for my playlists as well, seeing his name is simply because I don't have full editing power on records I enjoy that he happens to be featured on. The blind support that he has received by our community (generally speaking) is sick, especially given the way that the community has been so against behaviors like this from others in the past few years. I'm deeply disappointed in Kendrick and hope to not see something like this from him in the future. Now let's get into it.
I believe that this album started off solid, as "United In Grief" gives us elite rhyming as Dot explains the way he's had to grieve over the course of his life, as well as acknowledging how long its been between projects explicitly. As the track goes on, you hear Kendrick explain how the money and success makes him "grieve different", using his money and success in order to cope. However, on the very next record, we were asked a question by him, which I believe he was also asking himself: if you didn't have your posessions and conveniences in life, what would you have? It's a great question for people, as most modern things we have do cause issues when they're gone for a short amount of time. WiFi is so important in this society, and losing it could cause a meltdown if it were gone long enough, while money can solve a lot of problems, you still have to be a geniune person at the end of the day. The past two years have shown a lot of ignoraance in people we either look up to or know personally, and the way we've reacted to these things are starting to show who we truly are as a people and society. Kendrick's lines "Where the hypocrites at? What community feel they the only ones relevant?" speaks volumes to the way thaat we've seen society divide itself into individual communities instead of understanding the intersectionality of people. Black women face issues as both being women and being black, just as someone black who's disabled would have to deal with the negative aspects of both groups.
The introduction by Kodak Black on the next record could've easily been given by someone else (Schoolboy Q comes to mind given the history between the two artists) but aside from that, I wanted to give a little background to the man that was mentioned: Eckhart Tolle. Tolle is a spiritual teacher that Kendrick Lamar was seen with during the pgLang mission statement video back in 2020, but we didn't see what it meant until now. Tolle's teachings aren't inherently Christian, though he uses the Bible in some of his teachings. While one can get a full explanation here, the basis of Tolle's teachings are to maintain a presence in the now, achieve inner peace and accept life, living one that reduces suffering. "Worldwide Steppers" was a very in depth view from Kendrick of himself, admitting to his faults as a man and the addictions he has struggled with. He mentions being addicted to sex to a point where his now wife asked him what his problem was, and shows that not everything has been perfect in his otherwise private personal life. He explained that having sex with white women was a sort of revenge for his ancestors in his mind, which is something I've seen other black men say before. I don't agree with this philosophy in any way shape or form, and I feel that Dot possibly realizes the ignorance and fault in his sexual "conquests", especially given that we haven't heard of them until now. Kendrick Lamar did marry his high school sweetheart and now has a wonderful family, but now we see there were/are cracks in his armor, in a similar way that we learned of the cracks in Beyoncé and Jay-Z's respective armors during the eras of Lemonade and 4:44 albums.
I feel like the production on "Die Hard" reminds me of the Black Panther soundtrack from 2018, if you placed this track on that project that it would fit flawlessly. Blxst did an amazing job on the hook of this record, as well as beautiful vocals provided by Amanda Reifer, whom I had not heard of before this project. One thing I enjoy about Kendrick is the way that smaller singers/songwriters do end up having bigger moments on some of his records. Anna Wise became a mainstay by working with Kendrick during his earlier career, Zacari made himself known and eventually earned a deal with TDE for his work on DAMN and the Black Panther soundtrack, and I hope that artists like Amanda get more exposure and recognition as well, because I truly seeing smaller artists get the credit that they deserve.
The inner work continues on the following track, as Dot rapped about his upbringing and his father. As a young boy, you learn everything from your father or older boys/men around you, a father figure is one of the most important things you can have in your life. Also, it should be known that daddy issues aren't a woman thing, those issues deeply impact men as well. As we understand the issues that he dealt with and accepted on "Father Time" with help from Sampha, we then go into a song where Kendrick is trying to balance wealth with how he reacts to people and events in his life. The instant gratification of spending money could become a bad habit when you have an excessive amount like someone of Kendrick Lamar's status would, and I believe that facing that would be very difficult for most in his position, a great record when you truly listen to the lyrics.
The most chaotic song on the album is easily "We Cry Together". Kendrick and Taylour Paige play a couple that just argues for the entire song, until wanting to have sex at the end. This serves as an on-wax example of the "toxic relationship", and if you relate to this in any way, you should defnitely move on and find peace in your life. Obviously there isn't much playback value with this record, but in context of the album, I believe that Dot is showing how messy life can become when you let things spiral out of control. You can allow bad people into your life, or you can become a terrible person for those you have in your life, it truly goes both ways. This record follows the formula of the Mr. Morale volume, as the records are more introspective, showing the way that he's dealt with his life's problems, stepping around them broadly. I feel like the ninth track to close the volume is a strong outro, as Dot, Summer Walker & Ghostface Killah collaborate smoothly over the bass heavy "Purple Hearts". I feel that this song shows that Kendrick is still able to make songs that don't cut so quickly from verse to verse (as the others do on this half of the album) as this song has a clear structure. This is in no way a knock on the other songs so far, just acknowledging that Dot didn't follow the common structure and formula that we've grown used to from his other projects.
Volume two, The Big Steppers, begins the same way that Volume 1 did, with a continuation of the poem from the previous volume. "Count Me Out" is a direct contrast to "United In Grief", as Dot seems to have grown from the therapy he mentioned at the top of the album. He's accepted his flaws and mistakes, and embraces growing from the ashes as a new person with a new outlook, with the repeated statement "This is me, and I'm blessed". On the very next song, Dot fully embraces the public's wishy washy reactions to everything with the cliché but true statement: You can't please everybody. The song was really straight to the point, as Kendrick spoke directly to his listeners. My favorite record on the album followed this track, as we get Kendrick over a trap beat, having fun over the instrumental to "Silent Hill". To reiterate, I do not support Kodak Black nor did I want to hear him on this record, so I don't have control of this when I place the record on playlists for enjoying Kendrick's moments. I believe that Kendrick is speaking to himself during his verse, especially on the line "can't hide behind yo money dawg", given the entire first volume of the album explaining the way that he's sidestepped his personal issues. There is a version on Youtube available without Kodak on the record here for those of you who feel the same way that I do, but hearing Kodak's verse truly made me more disappointed in Kendrick, as Kodak said he was in the studio with him fresh out of prison.
The next two songs flow together perfectly, given that they have the same title, and the feature is the one that we all expected: Baby Keem. After some commentary by Eckhart Tolle, Keem seems to give his version of the first half of the album, as he gives 2 minutes of his eccentric lifestyle choices, thoughts & upbringing. To follow this up, Kendrick name drops Future, J. Cole (another artist who should have been featured on this project in my opinion), LeBron James and himself, letting it be known that they are not saviors. A lot of listeners seem to have a problem with seeing that their favorite artists and athletes are still people and can make mistakes, and that they in fact aren't saviors. Yes, music can be healing and some artists create that type of music better than others, but that doesn't mean that these artists aren't still people that sin just like us on a daily basis.
During his actual verses on "Savior", Dot calls out the hypcrisy in today's society, as well as the ignorance, giving a clear example of the black box posts on Instagram in 2020 that were supposed to be solidarity with and amongst black people in the United States. Dot touched on the ignorancce surrounding COVID-19 as well, with another name drop: Kyrie Irving. This record is mainly about thinking for yourself, but having some common sense, at least that's the way that I interpreted it, the complications of "free thinking", especially as a celebrity given that this album is very introspective for Kendrick Lamar. The mentioning of Tupac not being alive and needing to think for yourself, dealing with the backlasah of "independent thought", and seeing the way that capitalism takes advantage of almost everything in society puts Kendrick's mindset right on the same level as the general public, following the point of the interlude and song together: he is not your savior either.
While recognizing that he isn't the savior of anyone personally, he has called himself the savior of hip-hop countless times, and has a crown of thorns to go along with this message. Costing $3 milllion and consisting of over 8,000 diamonds, Tiffany & Co. created this dazzling crown of thorns with over 1,300 hours of work by four artisans. I've seen a lot of people take this as a sign of disrespect to Christianity, but Kendrick didn't take any shots toward believing in Jesus Christ or call himself Jesus Christ in a direct sense. He mentioned on this album a lot that God was speaking through him, and I believe that those statements also go along with this crown of thorns being created for his character on this album. As a Christian, I don't see an issue with it, but I also recognize that I don't speak for everyone. Dave Free, Kendrick's longtime collaborator, friend and partner at pgLang, gave this quote about the crown: "The crown is a godly representation of hood philosophies told from a digestible youthful lens".
"Auntie Diaries" is the most controversial song on the entire album by a long shot, as it caused more backlash towards Kendrick than working with Kodak Black did. The record is about growing up and learning about different genders and sexualities due to family members, and after becoming older, he understands. The use of the f-word on record was in reference to the way that he didn't know any better in years past, and wasn't used in a derogatory sense. Kendrick even said to use the word only if you allow white poeple to use the n word (to black listeners of course). This shows that he isn't saying the word's use is ok, but he's against it after learning the issues surrounding the term. I agree that this is a much more harsh way to get this point across, but the point was one of solidarity. I'm not a member of the LGBTQ+ community, so I understand that I don't have a direct say in what those who are can choose to be offended by, but I do have a reaction from one side of the spectrum from someone who is a member of said community, as Chloe Marie Stankoski on Twitter (music under the name James Colt) had their take on the record as a transgender themselves.
Listening to the song, Kendrick goes from using the word directly to using the term "f-word", as he shows his growth from youth to now. To the side that didn't want the use of the word at all, I do understand completely, due to the fact that as a society we've generally moved past using the word. However, i do see why Dot used the word, and to agree with Chloe's take, it shows the truth behind transphobia, it's purely rooted on ignorance, ignorance that Kendrick acknowledged throughout the record until the end where he seen his contradictions and called us all out for them as a society as well. We live in a world that wants allyship, but if we can't see the past for what it truly was (as everyone 23 and older knows how the world was with the f word before around 2015-16), we won't move forward and are doomed to repeat it with another group, if not the same one (e.g. the way that monkeypox is being framed toward the LGBTQ+ community incorrectly as its begun to spread through the United States). A lot of us still have family that will misgender or direspect those in the LGBTQ+ community due to their ignorance of it, upbringing, and/or lack of information, and this harsh record is a way to show the wrong in this mindset, as Kendrick himself admits he was a part of that crowd at one point. The world has a lot of hateful people in it, and that's a reality that has to be faced on a daily basis by many different marginilaized groups on different levels. Ignoring the harsh reality of the world by putting a lens over what actually occurs is a dangerous way to live, and while it doesn't always sound/feel good or something those like to hear, it's sometimes necessary. I didn't like hearing the f word in the record, but I understood why it was used, and I also understnad that hip-hop has used this word in a derogatory way for years, by artists that are championed by the general public, non-LGBTQ+ and LGBTQ+ alike. Those artists used it in ignorance, not to tell the message that Kendrick Lamar clearly gave. It'd be a little hypocritcal to praise Eminem, Tupac, Jay-Z and others while simultaneously ridiculing Kendrick over this record in my opinion, given the context. In 2017, Jay-Z gave the public a record that covered similar topics with "Smile" about his mother in 2017, but Kendrick clearly took a much more raw approach on "Auntie's Diaries". While it was very harsh, the message was clearly there and I hope that those who are offended at least understand that intent of the record, despite how the use of the slur may have come off to them initially, and I mean that in the most respectful way possible.
The title track comes in and Dot gives quite the statements, briefly mentioning R. Kelly and Oprah and the things they went through, as well as the traumatic experiences of black people in general. The cycle of black trauma is a very complicated one, and Kendrick explains how heavy it is on his soul, given how much he's seen in his life. The following record, "Mother I Sober", expands upon this as Dot speaks on specific situations in his life where he's at his lowest, a very vulnerable record that seems to be a cry for help, but in actuality is a song about perseverance and a sort of apology to Whitney (his wife), as it ends with words from his daughter, telling him that she loves him. I feel that this segment shows his growth beyond everything that he's seen growing up in a tough area, and we get a glimpse into the private life of Kendrick Duckworth, not the artist Kendrick Lamar. The final track, "Mirror", kinda speaks for itself based on the title, as Kendrick looks at himself in the mirror to end the album in the perfect fashion.
END OF TOP DAWG ERA
The messages that Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers gave the world were beautiful, as Kendrick was beyond vulnerable on this project. I really appreciated the rawness of this album, it wasn't made to please the masses or radio DJs, it was Kendrick giving us what was on his heart. The other very important aspect of this album is what I mentioned in the very beginning, that this was his last album as an artist for Top Dawg Entertainment, which he announced last August. Kendrick Lamar is now a member of his own label, pgLang, and TDE seems to be undergoing a major rebuilding phase based on the lack of releases in recent years. The president of the label, Terrence “Punch” Henderson, has been the subject of ridicule on social media for the way he's handled the artists. However, when the topic was on Kendrick and potentially duplicating the success of the past decade when he leaves the label, Punch told Complex the following:
I wouldn’t use the word duplicate, because that would mean that it’s a certain formula and that gets cookie-cutter to me. It’s more so about what each individual artist wants to do. Everybody doesn’t have the same goals and want to accomplish the same things.You’ve got some where they want to be the biggest star in the world, or you’ve got some who just want to be low key and be able to support their family and do shows. Or you’ve got some that want to transition into movies. It’s just so many different things, so it’s not a duplication; it’s enhancing whatever the individual artist wants to do.
In my opinion, this quote was simply the best answer to give. Of course you can't duplicate one of the greatest hip-hop artists of all-time. The lack of cohesiveness with the label as Dot came to the end of his tenure was very off-putting, and while there was no direct disses or anything like that, it's been telling to me as I see the rest of the label and the inner turmoil that's been going on in relation to SZA's sophomore project. If you loved seeing the label's iconic run during the 2010s, make sure you keep a eye on how they perform post-Kendrick Lamar, as well as seeing how pgLang performs with Dot and Dave Free at the helm of their own endeavor.
To conclude, I believe that Kendrick Lamar ending his TDE run with this vulnerable and introspective album was very on brand, as we got to see a side of the man that we've come to see as untouchable be someone just like us...human. Dot has produced yet another solid album, as his discography continues to become one of hip-hop's best. Kendrick Lamar's run as a member of the conglomerate may be over, but his career is far from it. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers isn't his best work, but I don't believe that it was meant to be his best, it was meant to show us who he truly is: imperfect.
Final Grade: 83/100 (B)