As Kendrick Lamar notes on Mr Morale & the Big Steppers’ opening track, it’s been 1,855 days since he last released an album. By his own account of him, the intervening five years have been something of a rollercoaster ride. He and his partner started a family (his children of him are on the album’s front cover), he made an acclaimed acting debut, performed at the first ever Super Bowl half-time show centered around hip-hop, and watched as the praise for his work shifted into an unprecedented realm. He won the Pulitzer prize for music, becoming not just the first rapper but the first pop artist period to receive the award.
As Mr Morale & the Big Steppers makes clear, he also struggled with his mental health, sought therapy and endured a two-year stretch of writer’s block – cured, he suggests, when he “asked God to speak through me”.
Clearly his prayers were answered in no uncertain terms: on the evidence here, the block ended like a dam bursting. The album is 18 tracks and nearly 75 minutes long. Anyone who learned to be wary of rappers who confused quantity with quality in the CD era, when every hip-hop album came stretched out to a disc’s maximum playing time, should note that there isn’t a moment of padding here.
Mr Morale & the Big Steppers is absolutely crammed with lyrical and musical ideas. Its opening tracks don’t so much play as teem, cutting frantically from one style to another – staccato piano chords and backwards drums; a frantic, jazzy loop with a bass drum that recalls a racing heartbeat; a mass of sampled voices; thick 80s-film-soundtrack synth and trap beats. On Worldwide Steppers, Lamar’s words rattle out at such a pace that they threaten to race ahead of the backing track, a muffled, dense, relentless loop of Nigerian afro-rock band the Funkees that suddenly switches to a burst of laidback 70s soul and back again.
On N95, the tone of his delivery changes so dramatically and so often that it sounds less like the work of one man than a series of guest appearances. When it comes to actual guest appearances, it casts its net wide – Ghostface Killah, Sampha, Summer Walker, the singer from Barbadian pop band Cover Drive – and occasionally delights in some unlikely juxtapositions. One interlude features a string quartet and 74-year-old German self-help author Eckhart Tolle discussing the perils of a victim mentality alongside Lamar’s cousin, rapper Baby Keem, whose concerns are more earthy: “White panties and minimal condoms”.
The album keeps executing similar tonal handbrake turns, from deeply troubled to lovestruck and from furious to laugh-out-loud funny, the latter switch covered by We Cry Together, an ill-tempered duet with actor Taylour Paige that drags everything from the rise of Donald Trump and the crimes of Harvey Weinstein to the question of why “R&B bitches don’t feature on each other’s songs” into a heated domestic dispute. Even by hip-hop standards, there’s a quite phenomenal amount of swearing involved: no one has made more creative capital out of two people telling each other to fuck off since Peter Cook and Dudley Moore reinvented themselves as Derek and Clive.
Lamar’s lyrical skill is prodigious enough to make gripping rhymes from some very well-worn topics: fake news, the projection of false lifestyles via social media, the pressures of fame. But more notable still is his willingness to take risks.
Auntie Diaries, a lengthy, heartfelt lobbying on behalf of the trans community, is new territory for mainstream hip-hop. It confesses Lamar’s past homophobia and lashes out at the church and his fellow rappers in dextrous, convincing style. On Savior, he upbraids pop’s censorious moral climate as an unthinking exercise in liberal box-ticking. Elsewhere, the track turns its ire not merely on white people glomming on to the Black Lives Matter movement (“one protest for you, 365 for me”), but the black community and indeed himself.
He employs Kodak Black, a rapper whose lengthy legal issues include pleading guilty to assault and battery. This guest spot will be seen by some as an ethical failing but Lamar seems uninterested in moral purity, and more in how environment and other factors shape behaviour. Tellingly, the next track begins with Tolle: “Let’s say bad things were done to you when you were a child, and you develop a sense of self that is based on the bad things that happened to you…”
He saves the album’s most shattering moment until the end. Mother I Sober offers a devastating series of verses that draw together slavery and sexual abuse, and deal unflinchingly with a sexual assault experienced by his mother and an episode in which a young Lamar, being questioned by his family, denied that a cousin had abused him . He was not lying but the disbelief that greeted his answer from him, he suggests, led to feelings of inadequacy that left him “chasing manhood” and nearly losing his partner in the process. It’s difficult but compelling listening, held together by a fragile chorus sung by Portishead’s Beth Gibbons.
Before that is a track called Crown, on which a piano seesaws between two chords and Lamar looks dolefully towards a moment when critical acclaim eludes him and his audience shrinks.
“I can’t please everybody,” he keeps repeating, as if it’s a mantra designed to manage his eventual decline. It’s smart forward thinking: after all, every successful artist has their unrepeatable moment in the sun and no one’s lasts for ever. But, on the evidence of Mr Morale & the Big Steppers, an album that leaves the listener feeling almost punch-drunk at its conclusion, it’s not a mantra Kendrick Lamar has any need of at the moment.