Kendrick Lamar’s new album “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” is both a return to form and the end of an era.
The LP, Lamar’s fifth studio album, is his first new record after winning a Pulitzer Prize for 2017’s “Damn.” (though he gave nearly an album’s worth of work to the “Black Panther” soundtrack). It comes four months after Lamar performed at the Super Bowl at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood alongside his mentor Dr. Dre in a Compton-themed set.
But it’s also the 14-time Grammy winner’s final album with Top Dawg Entertainment, the L.A. hip-hop and R&B label that he helped turn from a regional underground favorite to a dominant global force. Lamar previously announced on his cryptic website, Oklama, that he will be starting a new company, pgLang, with former TDE executive Dave Free.
The rollout for “Mr. Morale,” released Thursday night, began in earnest with the release of “The Heart Part 5,” a track that interpolates Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” and whose striking video finds Lamar morphing into deepfake versions of Kobe Bryant, O.J. Simpson, Kanye West and other Black celebrities. Last month, Lamar also made a Coachella cameo with his cousin, Baby Keem, to perform their track “Family Ties,” which won a Grammy earlier this year.
Lamar’s new LP is expected to easily top the Billboard 200 the week of its release. Days before the release, Lamar posted its cover art, featuring fiancée Whitney Alford and him holding their two children, with Lamar in a bejeweled crown of thorns.
Here are some early observations and highlights:
1. Yup, it’s a double album.
As his website announcement suggested, “Mr. Morale” is indeed a double LP, clocking in at 18 songs split in two halves.
2. The guests have range.
Few artists would feature Portishead’s Beth Gibbons and the embattled rapper Kodak Black on the same LP, but Lamar’s roster of guests is wide and exciting on “Mr. Morale.” They include: Wu-Tang Clan’s veteran MC Ghostface Killah, pgLang newcomer Tanna Leone, a rowdy verse from “Zola” star Taylour Paige, L.A.’s rising singer-rapper Blxst, Lamar’s cousin and “Family Ties” rapper Baby Keem and the R&B mystic Summer Walker.
3. It’s Beach Noise’s breakout.
Lamar works with several favorite producers such as Sounwave and Boi-1da on “Mr. Morale,” but the three-man team of Beach Noise — Matt Schaeffer, Johnny Kosich and Jake Kosich — are the breakout producers on this LP. They’re all over Baby Keem’s “The Melodic Blue” and produced “The Heart Part 5,” and their work is the centerpiece of new Lamar tracks such as “United in Grief,” the brooding “Silent Hill” and “Auntie Diaries.” Expect them to enter the production A-List with this LP.