Within the first thirty seconds of Kendrick Lamar's latest album, we hear "1855 days..." along with the refrain "I grieve different."
It is a bittersweet feeling, knowing that just like his listeners, the rap savant was counting the days until he released his next album and realizing that he had been hurting so, so much.
In the expansive double album Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, Kendrick returns to lay bare his heart, mind, and soul via his lyrics. In our lightning-fast consumptive world, it is an album that defies an instant reaction. It exists to overwhelm.
And overwhelm it does, in ways both mesmerizing and messy, but all too real.
Kendrick Lamar's Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers: An honest album worth the wait
The double album is Kendrick's fifth studio album and is made up of two discs worth nine songs each. Big Steppers, the first album, is narrated by Lamar's longtime partner, beautician Whitney Alford, while Mr. Morale, the second album, is narrated by spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle. Both the narrators provide a varied frame for each side, but it very much feels like one cohesive unit.
Right from the opener, United In Grief, Kendrick makes it clear that this album is not like the boisterous DAMN (2017), wherein he proclaimed his greatness beyond rap itself. This is a reconciliatory album, a "therapy album."
And with that in mind, Kendrick goes ballistic with his truth bombs. He raps about being critic-proof, misgenders his transgender aunt frequently in Auntie Diaries while bemoaning his distance with her, and talks about abusers like R. Kelly being victims of abuse themselves.
But along with these bars, there exist songs about generational trauma, both racial and sexual (like Mother I Sober) and suffocatingly toxic relationships (like We Cry Together, which harkens to Eminem's Kim), which are discordant and uncomfortable for a whole other reason - they are unflinching. Truly, squirm-in-your-seat unflinching.
Thus, the album is far from 'correct' at times, but no one can tell you it is dishonest. Lamar has won a Pulitzer and been labeled as the artist of a generation, but he doesn't want to become a corporate avatar for social progress; he barely has his own stuff figured out.
The musicianship of the record is ornate, with KDot opting for the highest echelons of music producers on every track. With the return of frequent collaborators like Sounwave, J.LBS, DJ Dahl, and Thundercat, along with a cavalcade of guest features from Ghostface Killah, Baby Keem, and the controversial Kodak Black (who Kendrick defends vehemently).
The album pairs jarring beats with orchestral splendor like it is the most natural occurrence in the world. It is a constant barrage of one tonal handshake to the next; it is futile to try and list them out. Frequent beat switches and piano clusters make some tracks feel like they're bursting at the seams with music. Just like his lyrics, Lamar's music is unhinged and unleashed.
Favorite Tracks: Mother I Sober, Purple Hearts, We Cry Together
Right from the album cover featuring his children to the final refrain of "I choose me. I'm sorry..." on the final track, Mirror, Kendrick unveils a gargantuan wall of good and ugly truths he has kept veiled for over five years. The articulate, sonically gifted nature of the album makes the wait totally worth it.