Kendrick Lamar has always dealt in big numbers. “Seven billion people on planet Earth today,” the Californian rapped on his breakthrough mixtape, 2010’s Overly Dedicated, back when he was an up-and-coming tyro. Since then the numbers have got bigger. “Eight billion people on Earth,” he announces on his new studio album, Mr Morale & The Big Steppers.
Like his outlook, it is a grand experience, a double album of 18 tracks lasting almost 75 minutes. It arrives amid immense expectation. The upstart from Compton, Los Angeles of 2010 has become one of the most significant rappers of his generation, or indeed any other.
To adapt the basketball references that run through his work, Lamar sees angles and spaces and possibilities quicker than the rest. He jumps higher too. His 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly brokered a union between the two leading genres of African American music over the past century, jazz and rap. Its 2017 follow-up Damn was the first non-classical or jazz winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
In his work, complex topics of racism, hip-hop culture, religion, family life, sex and blackness are addressed in musically adventurous songs that command a mass audience: Damn’s hit single “Humble” has been streamed more than 1.6bn times on Spotify alone. The song is a comical treatment of rap bragging, a not-so-humble argument in favour of humility. Like a magician, Lamar is adept at showing both sides of the coin at the same time. “Love is not just a verb,” as he once rapped.
Shedding egotism is a major theme on Mr Morale & The Big Steppers. “I’ve been going through something,” are his opening words: “One thousand eight hundred and fifty-five days.” That’s the time since Damn’s release, a gap that Lamar ascribes to “writer’s block” in the song “Worldwide Steppers”. In “Savior”, however, he offers a different explanation. “And they like to wonder where I’ve been,” he raps: “Protecting my soul in the valley of silence.”
The album’s cover photograph shows him holding his young daughter in a shabby bedroom while his partner, Whitney Alford, breastfeeds their baby son (whose birth is revealed on the album). Lamar, 34, wears headgear resembling a crown of thorns. Overweening comparisons to Christ are raised — only to be dashed down by the album itself.
In a song called “Crown”, the rapper chafes against the expectations weighing on him. “They idolise and praise your name across the nation,” he semi-sings rather than raps. He is accompanied by an insistent piano phrase. There are no hip-hop beats, although a chanted refrain at the end of the track connects it to the sound-world of rap freethinkers OutKast.
“We Cry Together” uses a dissonant contrast between a wandering piano melody and solid old-school rap beat to soundtrack a blazing row between a couple, with a superb turn from actress Taylour Paige (Zola) as the furious woman. “Worldwide Steppers” has the intensity of a Gil Scott-Heron spoken-word piece, set to an itchy, stripped-back beat. In Scott-Heron style, the verses dauntlessly tackle provocative topics of racism and interracial sex. No less boldly, “Auntie Diaries” is about transgender identity, which links to overarching themes of prejudice, fallibility and transformation.
Voices are key to the album’s sound design. They range from guests such as Portishead’s Beth Gibbons and controversial rapper Kodak Black to samples of self-help author Eckhart Tolle speaking. There are numerous backing vocals, a choral backdrop to Lamar’s lead vocal. He raps with verve and skill, employing different accents, tones and turns of pace. It is a virtuoso performance. Pitched as a retreat from the public sphere, it actually opens up Lamar’s private world into the impressive expanse of a big, bravura album.
Released on pgLang/Top Dawg Entertainment/Aftermath/Interscope