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5 Takeaways From Kendrick Lamar's New Album Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers

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This swirl of lyrical topics is matched by equally ranging beats from Sounwave, the Alchemist, Pharrell Williams, DJ Dahi, and others. With a handful of exceptions, most of these songs have at least three producers. Opening track "United in Grief," which credits multidisciplinary experimentalist Duval Timothy among its writers and producers, shifts from staccato piano and light hi-hats to relentless drum slaps and vocal chirps across four minutes. There's aqueous pop-rap ("Rich Spirit"), boom-bap ("We Cry Together"), chamber pop ("Crown"), and flecks of R&B ("Die Hard," "Purple Hearts"). Five years has given Kendrick a lot of time to pile up subject matter and sounds, and he doesn't hold anything back.

The double album effect

Even though Mr. Morale is actually a few minutes shorter than To Pimp a Butterfly, it's being presented as Kendrick's first double album. On the surface, it appears that this distinction serves to split the record between the more cathartic first half (The Big Steppers) and the more contemplative second half (Mr. Morale). "Count Me Out," the opening track on the album's second disc, even begins with a disembodied voice that sounds like a therapist addressing Kendrick by his real last name, Duckworth. As a whole, the album is fraught with confusion and clarity, and Kendrick finds solace in both. "I'm not your savior," he admits at one point, attempting to shirk accountability while holding up a mirror to society.

Kodak Black adds a problematic layer of confusion

Most rap fans might not think to connect Kendrick Lamar with Kodak Black—which I'm sure is part of the reason why the South Florida rapper is here in the first place. Compared to the rest of Mr. Morale's many guests, Kodak is the most prevalent. His verse on "Silent Hill" is mournful and boastful in equal measure, and his two interludes are strategically placed emotional checkpoints. Theories about Kodak's significance abound—one suggests he's representative of The Big Steppers, and Kendrick is Mr. Morale. But it's curious, to say the least, that Kendrick would cede so much space to a rapper who recently pleaded guilty to first-degree assault and battery of a female high school student on an album that spends so much time wading through stories of abuse, trauma, and disgraced media figures like R. Kelly and Harvey Weinstein.

Who exactly is Mr. Morale?

Is Mr. Morale the therapist speaking to Kendrick? Is he a persona through which Kendrick can process grief and trauma? Is he a metaphor for God? Kendrick's daughter mentions him by name at the end of the heart-rending penultimate track, "Mother I Sober," which features Portishead's Beth Gibbons on the moody hook, just before the rapper frees himself of all the bad thoughts he'd been shouldering this whole time. As with every Kendrick opus, the narrative is thorny and twisted, an invitation to countless close listens.

The most Kendrick-y Kendrick-isms

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