Kendrick Lamar albums are notably dense: good kid, M.A.A.D. City is one of the great modern coming-of-age works of art, To Pimp a Butterfly is a lush and didactic examination of Black culture, and DAMN. sees him wrestling nervously with his stratospheric fame and tremendous influence. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, Lamar’s eagerly awaited fifth LP, is no exception. It’s been five years since DAMN, the 34-year-old vocalist has a lot on his mind, and it feels like he airs it all over the record’s two discs (it’s being called a double album even though it’s shorter than To Pimp a Butterfly). He delves into celebrity hero worship on “Savior,” reflects candidly about watching a family member transition on “Auntie Diaries,” and shares his reaction to Kanye and Drake burying the hatchet on “Father Time.”
Musically, the album arguably covers more ground than Kendrick ever has, with features ranging from Portishead’s Beth Gibbons to Kodak Black to actor Taylour Paige. “Die Hard” is a gleaming Los Angeles joy ride, “We Cry Together” offers menacing boom bap courtesy of The Alchemist, “Crown” feels like a bleary-eyed Lamar writing on a cocktail napkin at a piano lounge.
Given the time he takes between releases, each time Kendrick releases an album he’s reckoning with a vastly different world than he did on his previous project. Mr. Morale is wide-ranging, ambitious, thoughtful, and occasionally messy, and it’s certainly full of food for thought. Here are some of GQ’s biggest takeaways from our initial listen.
Kendrick weighs in on the vaccine debate (and Kyrie Irving) on “Savior.” There’s a complicated relationship between some hip-hop artists and vaccines in general. But Kendrick is the rare artist who actually stays out of the spotlight when he’s out of the spotlight, so we really had no sense of how he felt about the COVID-19 vaccines. He opens Mr. Morale’s “Savior” with a Charles Barkley-ian critique of people who look to celebrities as societal bellwethers, and on the second verse really zeros in on the issue of inoculation. In classic Kendrick fashion, he doesn’t just come right out and share his opinion, but paints a picture of a devout Christian who was a vaccine skeptic…until they got sick.
“Seen a Christian say the vaccine mark of the beast/Then he caught COVID and prayed to Pfizer for relief/Then I caught COVID and started to question Kyrie/Will I stay organic or hurt in this bed for two weeks?” he raps, referring to Kyrie Irving’s refusal to get vaccinated for nebulous reason, which made him ineligible to play for much of the NBA season. .
It’s easy to be anti-vaccine until you’re ill, in other words. Irving has already responded to “Savior” in classic cryptic fashion, telling his Twitch audience, “That’s definitely gonna go over people’s heads but that’s part of art. It sparks conversation. I love it. I’m not mad, I’m not indifferent, I’m just grateful.”