Sing About Me: Review of Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers

Alex Robins

I love Kendrick Lamar. Many of my students, I hang on every cryptic word he tweets, deeply scrutinize every couplet he delivers, and consistently consider his placement in the pantheon of great American Wordsmiths. Former students still reach out about our first-day-of-school activity of analyzing “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” in government class. Heck, I even watched his acceptance of the Pulitzer Prize for DAMN.

Lamar’s music pushes against the status quo, forcing listeners to look beyond the plain text of his lyrics and peer beneath the thorny exteriors of his songs. The surfaces themselves sparkle with incredible production, memorable hooks, and deep contemplative language. His focus on the album format rather than the simple single helps push the boundaries of listeners used to simply stuffing their Spotify libraries full of hits. Lamar’s track lists demand complete inclusion on our “Spring Fling 2022” playlists!

For me, Lamar’s albums fit into a narrative: Section.80 as our introduction into his personal spaces and cerebral machinations; good kid, m.A.A.d. city as his love letter to his family and Compton, California; To Pimp a Butterfly as his Obama-era celebration mixed with the existential dread of wider American society; DAMN. as his international superstar status breakout and proof of his worldwide influence.

So what to make of this new album, Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers?

Kendrick Lamar has never been afraid to be honest on record. He uses different characters to great effect to spin stories of gang violence, humility, police brutality, love, fatherhood, sex, and death. However, it can be difficult to pull apart Lamar’s beliefs and experiences from his characters’ accounts. When he raps “banana clip split his banana pudding,” is he speaking from personal experience or as a way of commenting on urban violence in under-resourced communities? For me, the beauty has always been in the performance itself and the way Lamar approaches the craftsmanship of his art. How he rides an incredible saxophone run on “Alright” or digs into the sexiness and innuendos of “Poetic Justice.” Or how “GOD.” somehow combines spiritualism and capitalism into a meditation on his come-up.

Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers seems to finally turn the camera around. Rather than the voices of others Lamar wants to conjure, we hear about his own struggles: his romantic infidelities, his challenges with fatherhood, his sense of self in an ever-shrinking world. These can work to incredible effect, as in the heart-wrenching “Mother I Sober” which speaks to sexual trauma and its deep lineage in the Black community. Beth Gibbons’ ghostly moan digs into this theme of displacement and erasure: “I wish I was somebody/Anybody but myself.” Likewise, Summer Walker’s doubling of Lamar on the chorus of “Purple Hearts” is triumphant in its recognition of the power of love and family over fame and celebrity. Yet that same song takes an incredible guest verse from Ghostface Killa (Wu-Tang Clan) and… pulls out the drums. It’s a strange production choice; instead of leaning into the track’s powerful swagger, Ghostface sounds like he’s arrived after the lights have come up and everyone’s heading for the exits.

While Mr. Morale’s production can feel overstuffed at times with every song has at least three producers credited, this maximalist approach adds to the dense beauty of songs like “United in Grief” and “Die Hard.” After almost 70 minutes of intensity, the album ends with its most straightforward track: “Mirror.” The repeated refrain, “I choose me, I’m sorry,” feels like rays of sunlight shining through the thick fog of the earlier track list. Yet even here, Lamar acknowledges the possibility of both self-care and selfishness in the face of personal struggle.

Ultimately this album doesn’t totally fit into the aforementioned, admittedly simplistic narrative I’ve created for Lamar’s music. But check back with me next week, I’ll likely have a whole different take! Thus is the complicated brilliance that is Kendrick Lamar.