By Mathew Coyte
Whether or not you appreciate his genre-taunting production or lyrical acrobatics, Compton MC Kendrick Lamar’s power as a poetic barometer of the culture is inarguable. He’s the only rapper to own a Pulitzer Prize, making him an artist whose records can be found in the collections of chin-stroking jazz aficionados as well as blasting out of fast fours on the strip.
The problem with Lamar is that he often walks a fine line between being populist and being too clever for his own good. The double LP “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers”, his first album in five years, and his last for the venerable Top Dawg Entertainment label is both a personal triumph and commercial misstep.
“Mr. Morales”, like “To Pimp a Butterfly” and “DAMN” pays no mind to traditional structure, but this time, there’s little to indicate why some ideas are stitched together. Lamar begins album opener “United In Grief” with a nod towards the themes contained within, “I’ve been going through something. 1855 days. I’ve been going through something. Be afraid.” The track sounds like a roughly chopped salad, jazz piano-stabs tumbled amidst distorted trap beats, the tempo ramping up to frantic from lazy-slow at the drop of a hat. It’s exciting, but disorienting, and it’s not till track four that we hear anything that would pass for a single. When said track, “Die Hard”, featuring Blxst and Amanda Reifer arrives, it sounds shockingly pedestrian when compared to the arty pastiche that precedes it.
It’s when Lamar’s mash of real talk, ‘70s funk, distorted industrial beats and raw production gels that this record really hits. “Father Time” is a prime example of what can happen when Lamar can mould his experimentation into a cohesive song. “Grown men with Daddy issues” is a genius line and one of the album’s only real nods to the #metoo movement that happened in the years between KL drops. On the flip side is “We Cry Together”, a nasty domestic argument between Lamar and Taylour Paige set to a repetitive piano line that sounds like the noise coming from behind a closed door about to be kicked-in by the cops of Law & Order SVU. It’s compelling, but I can’t see myself going back for a second listen.
This behemoth of a record is every bit as good as “To Pimp a Butterfly”, but spread over four sides, Lamar throws a lot more at it that doesn’t stick. Come for tracks like “Purple Hearts”, with its Ghostface verse and stay for more challenging cuts like “Silent Hill” (with Kodiak Black). Some will find ‘Mr. Morales & The Big Steppers’ either too smooth, or too abrasive by turns. However, adventurous listeners will be finding stoke in this double LP for the next five years.