Hear me out. I love Kendrick Lamar.
Not because of pop-culture peer pressure and wanting other people to think I'm a "smart" Hip-Hop fan that has an understanding high above the fray of the "Tik-Tok bullshit"... Not because I'm afraid I'll get shouted down by all of his true disciples if I don't. Not for any reason other than his passionate intention and his unrivaled meticulousness. He has never said a single word on a record just to say it, there is always a purpose; a deeper story, and meaning. As a fan (when he drops) I feel rewarded by his dedication and respect for the craft and culture. As an artist, I relate to and admire his attention to detail.
While I love Kendrick Lamar the artist, what I struggle with is understanding Kendrick Lamar the societal fixture. The world at large seemingly gets less and less patient every day; less and less willing to put forth the effort necessary to understand things that require extensive thought. And yet, there appears to be infinite patience and understanding for the works of this particular artist. There is no doubt Kendrick Lamar has tons of worthy things to say and so much of it is beautiful and said in such unique ways. But so did Lupe Fiasco. So do thousands of ornately lyrical emcees across the world. There is so much meat on the bone of any Kendrick Lamar release that I KNOW the real heads and the core of his base are truly eating for a lifetime. But there's a lotta lying going on when it comes to Kendrick too. Some of y'all are lying to yourselves and the people around you. You don't feel this man! How can you when you don't know what he's saying? And do you know how I know a lotta y'all don't pick up everything Kendrick lays down? Because I don't.
I'm not gonna fake the funk with this review. Even though I designed my college degree around being able to analyze albums like the ones Kendrick gives us, it was a couple of songs into To Pimp A Butterfly that I realized I only knew what this dude is talking about like 30% of the time. If you are familiar with my work you will understand that this is a tough admission. I pride myself on being able to identify and follow the themes an artist is relaying in their projects, often describing them better than they can. But I'm not gonna pretend today. I'm not gonna pretend like I fully understand the underlying story and the metaphorical value of "Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers" - I do not. What I do know though is that even for a historically honest artist, this was his most honest work to date. This was something different because unlike the relentlessly complex "To Pimp a Butterfly" and "untitled unmastered" and the more simple "Black Panther Soundtrack" and "DAMN"-- he finds a balance in this album much like "good kid, m.A.A.d city" and "Section.80" this time almost alternating track to track with lighter and denser work. Maybe that is the key to understanding the duality of the Mr. Morale thing, but again I won't even speculate.
Because Kendrick had the balls, to be honest, and do something different and keep it simple, I'm going to do the same and abandon my normal methodical approach and give you all my first-listen notes song by song straight off my phone. Hasty judgments for an album you are supposed to be anything but hasty with. Don't hate me. Here goes...
“United in Grief”- To put it nicely, this is an interesting musical composition. To put it rudely this shit is in the way. It’s hard to give the number of focus Kendrick’s words require when the rest of the track is doing so much. Chaos.
“N95” - J Cole flow on that 2nd verse - just saying. *shrug* Musically, this is what I want from a Kendrick song. No wonder it’s the single. I’m still lost at points.
“Worldwide Steppers”- This “beat” is garbage… wtf? Thankfully, it switches for a sec but no one can tell me they actually enjoy listening to this instrumentation… However, the song is redeemed a bit poetically by some of his most relatable understandable bars.
“Die Hard”- I really appreciate the break from the density with some easy listening here. This really may be the most simple Kendrick song of all time.
“Father Time” - The skit and the first verse are unnecessary in my view especially because the 2nd verse is classic.
“Rich Interlude”- Serious poetry by Kodak Black backed by nothing but a very complex piano composition - has to be an intentional contradiction.
“Rich Spirit”- Despite the industry being grossly oversaturated with tough-guy talk it was actually quite refreshing to hear KDot flex this specific muscle. That “christ with a shooter” line was hard af.
“We Cry Together”- Simply a fight w Taylor Paige. This track is “Blame Game” from “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” meets “Kim” from “Marshall Mathers LP.” Kendrick kills simple concepts like this.
“Purple Hearts”- A pretty simple soundscape for once— love hearing an emotional side of Ghostface. Kendrick’s contribution to this is a bit forgettable.
“Count Me Out”- The beat, hook, and flow is hard but what are we talking about in the verses?
“Crown”- This is why he’s one of the GOATS. What a great retort to mine and anyone’s criticisms of how Kendrick reigns.
“Silent Hill” - Yes! Finally, some bang! You made Kodak play your game on the “Rich Interlude,” now go play his. Once again, the hook is universally relatable but I was let down by another overly complex Kendrick verse. I do love the lob he threw to Kodak in the second verse. We haven’t seen Kendrick play point with anyone but the usual suspects like J-Rock
“Savior Interlude”- All strings this time. This storytelling is clearly skillful but I am too exhausted this late in the album for all this.
“Savior”- Usually on this album it's been the other way around but now we have sick verses with the weird bridge and hook. I’ll accept the switch!
“Auntie Diaries”- Next level shit. It is so hard to make specific statements and take heartfelt stances like this and have it feel organic and not have the song come off corny. This is astonishingly well done and even 10 years after “Same Love” drove Macklemore’s album to a snub Grammy victory over Kendrick, it’s still quite necessary to have our culture’s stars show support for the LGBTQ+ community.
“Mr. Morale”- Sounds like a Black Panther leftover. I don't hate it but again, wtf is he talking about?
“Mother I Sober”- I’m sorry, this is very poignant, beautiful poetry but I am over the melodrama at this point.
“Mirror”- Is that you Pharrell? I was blown away by "Auntie Diaries" and I didn't take anything super memorable away from the rest of the project after that.
Of course, the skill and level of thought in this album are amazing and vastly superior to almost all competitors. As we've established, Kendrick is almost universally regarded as one of the best to ever do it and there's a reason for that. Just as it feels like we are obligated to give Kendrick his props, I also think we're obligated to hold him to an absurdly high standard-- even on the first listen. I went back and listened several times after taking these notes and it filled some gaps and answered questions for me-- it's great. But will everybody that claims they love this album listen to it more than once? I'm not sure about that so I think it was a valuable exercise to see it through that lens.
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It's SavageX2 here again and this time I'm back with a Take-Two on the latest offering from the maestro himself Mr. Kendrick Lamar. This is the last offering under his Top-Dawg Entertainment label. Coming 5 years after his last studio album DAMN, he’s certainly kept the hip-hop world on edge in anticipation. And with seemingly no prior promotion, Kendrick took a big leap on this one. Let’s get into my thoughts.
Kendrick starts off awkwardly with the track United in Grief. Sonically I loved this song but I have the feeling it wouldn’t be well received by the masses. Absent are the trap hats and 808s. Kendrick opted more this time for more analog sounds from a live drumkit sample. What I think really stands out with this song are its lyrics. Now more than ever we all can relate to the concept of grief. Seeing the senseless acts of violence being perpetrated on almost a weekly, national basis it seems like. Grief is something we all understand, hence being united. However, as the chorus states “we grieve different."
Next up is the lead single “N95.” Just off titles alone, Kendrick is clearly speaking on social topics reflecting the unusual times we’ve experienced over the last few years. N95 refers to the brand of facemask marketed to help protect the population from the still ongoing COVID-19 virus. This song seems to appeal more to the newer generation. The production is much more modern, granted it employs a more lead-like bass than 808. He also references a lot of today’s popular music and fashion, albeit in a more educational sense of encouraging the youth to be less materialistic and more substantive. But at least there’s a visual to go along with this.
Another point about this album that stuck out to me was the interludes featuring Kodak Black. With a particular focus on the track “Rich (Interlude).” My interpretation is this is Kendrick’s attempt to bridge the gap and show the differences as well as the similarity. Kodak talks about where he’s come from, the state of society today, and the game going forward. He mentions how he pays homage to the OGs as well as how despite where he’s come from and now, they “own property.” Disc 2 opens with a similar line from the first disc just with different words. But this time instead of “I hope you find some peace of mind in this lifetime,” it's “We may not know which way to go on this dark road” again putting the emphasis on the increased focus on mental health. We’ve all known the stigmas within the African American community surrounding mental health but as of late, the narrative is starting to change.
So, if I had to choose words to describe this album, I wouldn’t choose “Classic, Banger, Fire,” or anything of the sort. There aren’t many, if any, “club bangers.” Nothing very similar to what's most popular today. Granted, there were some attempts to include modern-day sayings and ad-libs. But there were no real drill or trap beats. None of what people were probably hoping for.
What I would call this album would be a lyrical journey of a masterpiece. In other words, I think this album is much better enjoyed through reading than it is listened to. Kendrick did not appear so much the rapper here. In my opinion, he approaches this album like a spoken word artist backing music. This album feels personal. The community asked, “What have you been up to all this time?” The very first thing out of his mouth answers that very question. “I’ve been goin’ through somethin’. One-thousand eight-hundred and fifty-five days I’ve been goin’ through somethin’. Be afraid.” And for the next 73:05 he proceeds to tell you about it.
I think this is a great look into the mind of a great creative. How they go through things the same way we do despite their celebrity status. And it affects them just as much as it does us. Kendrick is fortunate enough to have access to some of the greatest producers to help him convey melodically that we all go through things and we all need help sometimes with our Morale. Because sometimes no matter what we’ve gotta be the Big Steppers. Savage out.
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