One album, two takes: Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers

Being distinct should ideally be the norm but in an age where the loudest among the mundane gets the best grades, Kendrick Lamar flourishes at being the odd one out. He wants to be different. 

Some of the most popular rappers release albums every year. Kendrick took five years to release Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers. He went through a lot during that time and he put it all in these songs. 

Any experienced A&R (artists and repertoire) person would push their rap artist towards a trap vibe. There is little trap on this double album. In the past Lamar has collaborated with jazz pianist Robert Glasper and soul singer Bilal. The drum patterns on the opening track, United In Grief, are harsh and fast, juxtaposed by the calming piano passages and the airy strings. 

Lamar is a traumatised black man, father and partner who has dealt with loss. He does not pretend to be perfect; he acknowledges how he has hurt those he loves. He is haunted by patterns from his ancestors and he wants to redirect those generational wounds. 

On Worldwide Steppers his flow is more Saul Williams than it is Biggie Smalls. He speaks honestly about his infidelities with white women and how, when his high-school love and fiancé Whitney Alford questions him, issues of sex addiction and his possible racism come up as intertwined. 

Sampha’s beautiful tenor accompanies Lamar’s father issues elegantly in Father Time. He speaks about how, since his mother died, he has focused on work and although this makes him able to afford a good life for his children, it doesn’t make him a present father. 

Not afraid of controversy, Lamar’s choice to feature the rape-accused Kodak Black on Silent Hill is what got the Twitter thumb revolutionaries in a frenzy. He could have named this album Drama. The Oscar-worthy We Cry Together, with actress Taylour Paige, is an intense screamfest between two lovers in a dysfunctional relationship who find cussing each other an aphrodisiac. 

On Aunty Diaries, he speaks on how he couldn’t ignore his community’s influence when it comes to how he feels about his queer family members and being witness to their journeys. It points to the paradox of black people who deal with hatred because of the colour of their skin while simultaneously hating others for their sexual preferences.

Lamar is an intelligent, introspective and observant man. He is not going to appease the anti-woke movement to keep up with top-five lists. Sure, he did not break any first-week sales records but I reckon he’s okay with it. Slow poison. — Kabomo 

Kendrick Lamar has turned 35. By now you would’ve heard that the single We Cry Together — with the most interesting ending since Eminem’s Stan — is the biggest drop in Billboard Hot 100 history, going from number 16 to 81 in its second week. 

But before we get into the rapper’s last album with Top Dog Entertainment — the only Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper — I’d like to take a detour and talk aboutLauryn Hill.

In 2002 a not-so-stylised Ms Lauryn Hill walked onto the MTV Unplugged stage and cried her way through most of her set. The die-hards loved it, but I didn’t get it. I much preferred my Lauryn when she was in a toxic relationship with a married man so I could jam to Ex-factor. When she was talking about her trauma from all her romantic faux pas, I was not interested in hearing her truth. 

This time I get it. I’ve had enough demons to know that our decisions, childhood trauma and our generational history matters, especially as black people. There is something profound about listening to Lamar bare it all on this album. He’s a guy from the ’hood who has reached the heights he only dreamt about when he wrote Black Boy Fly on his debut album, good kid, m.A.A.d city

Lamar is saying, “I’ve got more money, fame and more clout than you could imagine but I’m an emotional mess of black trauma, toxic masculinity and misguided intentions.” I admire anyone who can sit in the discomfort of their feelings and work through it without shame or guilt, because we do shame public healing. 

Are there problems with this album? For sure. Aunty Diaries is the biggest red flag, using a homophobic slur 10 times. Granted, it’s Kendrick’s style to narrate characters in third person (case in point, the song u on To Pimp A Butterfly) and many argued that Aunty Diaries is Lamar illustrating being an ally to the queer community through showing how children can be mean without realising it. But that argument is flawed because that’s like justifying Jack Harlow using the n-word to illustrate how he grew up as an ignorant redneck. 

However, this album as a body of work is audacious — especially for a rapper — artistically nuanced, and the most vulnerable a rapper has been since Jigga’s 444. Lamar doesn’t need to be number one on the charts, he doesn’t even need to be the rapper of the moment. It looks like he’s cool with sliding off the top three. What he’s after is healing. He’s going to present all of our collective ugly parts and he’s hoping we’ll sit with him and heal together. I’m with him. No more family secrets, trauma bonding or lying by omission. I’m ready for that Rich Spirit. — Lerato Tshabalala

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Kabomo is a writer, poet, emcee, magazine editor, singer, producer and director
Lerato Tshabalala
Lerato Tshabalala is an author, podcaster, a tastemaker, unconscious bias advocate and the M&G Friday editor

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