MUSIC

King Kendrick Returns: First-listen Impressions of ‘Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers’

Kendrick Lamar is back, and his double album Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers packs a punch worth waiting five long years for. Check out Boardroom’s rapid reactions to the album.

Kendrick Lamar kept to himself for the better part of five years, and now we have a better understanding as to why. Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is painfully textured from top to bottom, just as last week’s palette-setting single “The Heart Part 5,” and seemingly nothing is off-limits for the Pulitzer Prize-winning MC. The 18-track double album is Kendrick’s fifth and final album under Top Dawg Entertainment and his first since the all-around darling DAMN.

Kendrick was able to vanish like the Avatar for years because of the cash he made following the April 2017 release of DAMN. As J. Cole said on “1985,” one of the primary ways artists make money is through touring. It was widely reported that Kendrick’s last headlining tour, The Damn Tour, grossed $62.7 million across 52 shows. The next year, he headlined The Championship Tour, TDE’s first-ever record label tour. Official numbers for the tour were not released, but as with all concerts, revenue was often dependent on venue and attendance.

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The exact cut that Kendrick takes from the tours is unrevealed and will likely remain that way forever. However, the projected money speaks for itself. What can’t be quantified is the money made from merchandise; not only did Kendrick consistently sell out merch and apparel on TDE’s website, but as he made tour stops, they often came with pop-up shops selling exclusive merchandise. To build the hype, Kendrick would stop at some of the shops to ratchet up the mayhem as fans rushed in with hopes of seeing K.Dot in the flesh before he appeared on stage later that night.

Then came the Nike deal. Details of the collaboration were not revealed, but it yieled long-sleeve tees, hoodies, pants, socks, and even shoes that are now scarce. (When you can find it, it comes at a premium price.) With hundreds of thousands of merchandise sold, one can only imagine how much money was generated from those sales. With Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers finally in all of our ears, there is more money to be made for Kendrick.

Friday, he announced a tour with 67 dates that range across 24 U.S. states, 13 countries, and three continents. The Big Steppers Tour 2022 will undoubtedly rake in a boatload of cash for Kendrick and everyone involved. It remains to be seen what pool Kendrick decides to jump into next, but one thing is certain: there will be money dripping from his sweat when he decides to vanish, again.

Before we’re left longing for more of him, we dissected his freshest material based on first-listen impressions. Read below.

Make the strongest statement about the album you can make.

MEGAN ARMSTRONG: The strongest statements were made by the man himself. I don’t dare try to outwit the master.  This is true here and for everything Kendrick has ever put out: Kendrick Lamar’s music is meant to be digested over a period of time — to be lived in and worn in — before you can begin to peel the onion. He has never subscribed to instant gratification as an artist, and his discography has never been tailored for insta-reaction. I still haven’t brought myself to listen all the way through “We Cry Together” (featuring Taylour Paige) because I need to prepare myself to embrace its intensity. So, as Miguel said in a recent episode of This Is Us: “It’s a good question. Ask me again later.”

RANDALL WILLIAMS: My goodness, I’m not sure we’ve seen a rap album full of vulnerability like this since 4:44. Trauma lies all over the floor of Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, it is as if a tornado spun through Kendrick’s recording studio and spilled Mr. Lamar’s life across 18 songs. In some cases, this could result in disaster and misplaced emotion over different beats. However, K. Dot’s handpicked cast of characters fulfilled each of their roles beautifully. Kendrick has never been able to create the hits that (his rival) Drake has, but Kung Fu Kenny’s albums have consistently garnered more critical acclaim than the Toronto rapper’s releases. The two live in different worlds that have yet to collide. I say all of that to say: Kendrick found his stride on Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers. At times, I think he has struggled to find balance in creating songs that can live in a casual listener’s playlists. There probably aren’t any club hits on this album, but there are vibes with lyrics as potent as the venom of a viper that can live in everyone’s playlists. With all that being said, I do think Kendrick will reign supreme at award shows for the next 18 months, and with this album, he has only built upon an already mighty legacy.

How does the album square with expectations?

MEGAN ARMSTRONG: Did anybody expect Kodak Black? Broadly, I truly didn’t have any expectations. I knew it would collectively rock us, and it did. To try and predict exactly how he planned to move us would have damaged the gift before it arrived on the doorstep. Disc 1 (“Big Steppers”) felt like Kendrick imploring everyone to keep in mind he still bleeds the same as he did before the world labeled him indestructible. Disc 2 (“Mr. Morale”) feels like he’s contextualizing how he grapples with those universally experienced traumas from his since-earned singular position of power. Kendrick introduced himself to the world at large from a place of brutal introspection with g.o.o.d kid, m.A.A.d city — his cinematic major-label debut that captured a day-in-the-life of surviving his violent surroundings. There’s a parallel in the opener, “United in Grief,” when he warns us he’s about to take the same approach of airing his internal carnage but with a wider timeline: “1,855 days, I’ve been going through something.” Perhaps he’s realizing that even though his external circumstances chronicled inGKMC improved, it wasn’t the solve for those scars he still carries. For most of us, therapy is private. As hinted by Kendrick here, self-examination was his muse.

I think the general consensus was that Kendrick hadn’t released an album since DAMN. because he’s arrived in this place where he doesn’t need to rush his artistry. But to hear one of the most prolific writers ever to put pen to paper admit that he struggled with two years of writer’s block (“Worldwide Steppers”) was refreshing to hear for me, as a much less accomplished writer who struggles with that constantly.

RANDALL WILLIAMS: Generally my policy for expecting music from artists is to expect absolutely nothing, so that you can enjoy everything. Kendrick is my favorite rapper, so this is inherently different. I honestly just wanted a great album. That is what Kendrick made his name on. It has never been the hits that he admittedly used to chase. It has always been incredible pieces of work that live beyond the life of our attention. This fits right into his catalog. Where it belongs within the rankings of Section. 80, good kid, m.A.A.d city, To Pimp a Butterfly, and DAMN., I’m not sure. We all know music is made to digest over time, so I’m not in a rush to swallow this. At the least, I can say this meets my expectations and gives me reason to see him on tour, buy merchandise, and continue to rep the world’s best rapper.

I’ll also say the intention to build pgLang is clear. Baby Keem and Tanna Leone, both pgLang artists, are featured on the album. So what could possibly be missing? All of Kendrick’s now former label mates at TDE. Both sides have appeared to peacefully depart one another as Kendrick and his manager Dave Free embark on a new journey to build pgLang. In most cases, all TDE members change their profile pictures across their social media channels to the album cover of whoever is releasing the next album. That didn’t happen this time. I don’t know what it means or if there is truly anything behind it, but I thought it was an interesting observation. 

What’s the first track you just had to listen to again?

MEGAN ARMSTRONG: I was all tucked into bed with my mouthguard in, but I couldn’t help but bob my head as soon as “Silent Hill” (featuring Kodak Black) came on. I can’t explain it. It was an involuntary reaction. In terms of subject matter, I immediately hit replay on several songs that directly touched on the pitfalls of dehumanizing fame, false savior complexes, and idolatry: “Crown,” “Count Me Out,” “Purple Hearts” (featuring Summer Walker and Ghostface Killah), and “Savior” (featuring Baby Keem and Sam Dew). Just when you trick yourself into believing Kendrick is above the noise and not paying attention to the daily nonsense, he reminds you that he doesn’t miss anything.

RANDALL WILLIAMS: I think it had to be “Father Time.” The piano hits harder than Mike Tyson wearing vibranium gloves, and Kendrick’s potent rapping about “daddy issues” and the trauma that comes with them cuts deeper than Petyr Baelish’s dagger. What’s funny is the song does not relate to me by any means. My dad is actually the complete opposite of everything Kendrick rapped about. I love my pops. But the passion, potency and vulnerability in the bars cling to you like mosquitos in the summertime. This thought and opinion could change. The nature of choosing one track to listen to first over 17 others is not fair.

What’s a track you’re still wrestling with?

MEGAN ARMSTRONG: “Worldwide Steppers.” As bluntly honest as Kendrick has always been, it was still a bit startling to hear him confess to “lust addiction” in such detail and publicly cop to presumed tension between him and his high school sweetheart, Whitney, because he has kept his relationship — and personal life as a whole — so fiercely private. Kendrick is different, but the man lived through a pandemic just like the rest of us, and it’s not absurd to think that maybe he also was forced to confront internal demons in the stillness — to look inward in a way that his to-the-moon ascension from 2012-15 enabled him to stuff down. The two projects are not at all comparable, but while listening to the first nine tracks, I did have this fleeting thought: Is this Kendrick’s more subtle version Lemonade? He isn’t wielding a bat on the street like Beyoncé in “Hold Up,” but he’s hitting us over the head with unsuspected fallibility all the same.

RANDALL WILLIAMS: Honestly, it’s probably “United in Grief.” The raps in the project’s first song expeditiously spew out like air when someone pops a balloon. Sometimes the downside of rapping with extreme pace is the fact that it can be a lot to process. Before one line can resonate with you, another is knocking at your doorstep. And it isn’t just the rapping, the beat changes a lot. The combination of the fast-paced bars and the alternating beat in the background felt chaotic. I also have $20 for anyone who has these lyrics memorized within a 48 hours. Find me on social media and I will stay true to my word. Eventually Kendrick stops in the pit as he claims, “I grieve different,” but the raps race back at you again shortly after. It was a lot to take in, and it was the first thing I heard in five years. I’ll eventually understand everything he said in “United in Grief,” but that day is not today. 

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