Kendrick Lamar – “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” review

It’s really here: The 5th full-length album from Compton emcee, songwriter & actor Kendrick Lamar. Coming up in ‘04 off his debut mixtape Y.H.N.I.C. (Youngest Head N***a in Charge): Hub City Threat (Minor of the Year), he would go on to follow-up with 2 more tapes as well as an eponymous debut EP before breaking out in the fall of 2010 off his 4th mixtape O(verly) D(edicated) & then Section.80 that next summer. Then came him signing to Dr. Dre’s very own Interscope Records imprint Aftermath Entertainment, where Kendrick has made himself home since then. Especially given that good kid, m.A.A.d city & To Pimp a Butterfly have quickly become some of the most beloved hip hop albums ever made in their own rights for good reason whether it be gkmc coming off as a hood movie on wax or TPaB delivering relevant social commentary on top of jazzy, funky production. Kendrick’s last album DAMN. however was definitely his most commercial one yet & I don’t listen to it as much as his other work, but it’s still a great listen nonetheless with it’s phenomenal duality concept. But only 3 months after performing the Super Bowl halftime show, Kendrick has finally returned in the form of the double disc Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers to fulfill his Top Dawg Entertainment contract.

“United in Grief” opens up the album a piano & drum instrumental from oklama himself surprisingly alongside Sounwave amongst a few others talking about mourning differently whereas “N95” works in some synth-horns & hi-hats provided by Boi-1da & Baby Keem to declare that “You’re back outside, but they still lied”, obviously referring to the COVID-19 pandemic. I also loved when he says “You entertain the mediocre, need to stop it. You entertainin’ old friends when they toxic” during the outro. “Worldwide Steppers” takes a more tenser route with co-production from Tae Beast sampling “Breakthrough” by The Funkees talking about how “we’s them killers”, but then the DJ Dahi co-produced “Die Hard” shoots for a more catchier vibe down to the hook shared by both Blxst & especially Amanda Reifer flipping “Remember the Rain” by Kadjha Bonet encouraging listeners to not let your past keep me you from your best.

Meanwhile on “Father Time”, we have Kendrick over some solemn boom bap production sampling “You’re Not There” by Hoskins ‘Ncrowd detailing the relationship that he had with his pops with a killer hook from Sampha & the “Rich” interlude is basically Kodak Black detailing what he learned in the business over some bare pianos. “Rich Spirit” turns things into more spacious territory with some finger-snaps, snares & hi-hats talking about staying strong mentally, but then “We Cry Together” is pretty much Kendrick & Taylour Paige (should’ve been Rico Nasty but it is what it is) re-enacting a legitimate argument that K-Dot had with his fiancée Whitney Alford over an Uncle Al beat flipping “June” by Florence + the Machine. It’s tense, but feels reminiscent to “Kim” off of Eminem’s iconic 2000 masterpiece The Marshall Mathers LP.

Ghostface Killah & Summer Walker tag along for the smooth love ballad “Purple Hearts” to the complete the 1st disc even though I can’t stand the “yeah baby” at the end of the hook & the 1 line on Summer’s verse co-written by fellow Compton representative/Shady Records signee Westside Boogie about eating ass had me rollin’ while “Count Me Out” opens up the 2nd disc by mixing trap influences with some catchy vocal melodies taking aim at his detractors. “Crown” is a vulnerable piano ballad admitting that he can’t please everybody while “Silent Hill” easily has the worst hook on the album, although I appreciate Kendrick & Kodak riding a nocturnal trap beat talking about pushing snakes off them.

Following that, the “Savior” interlude is in the same vein as “Rich” from the string/piano instrumental to Baby Keem recalling some memories that he had growing up while the actual “Savior” song itself has an irresistibly catchy groove to the beat from Cardo asking if one is really happy for him as well as admitting that he started questioning Kyrie after catching the rona. “Auntie Diaries” starts off with a moodier aesthetic before getting triumphant at the end with Kung Fu Kenny discussing his uncle & one of his cousins being transgender while the song “Mr. Morale” opens up about the heavy shit that’s been on his mind as of late over a Pharrell instrumental with a peppy, futuristic tone to it. The penultimate track “Mother I Sober” is definitely the saddest on the album with it’s bare pianos along with former Portishead frontwoman Beth Gibbons on the hook & K-Dot reflecting on witnessing his mom being sexually assaulted when he was 5 years old as “Mirror” finishes the album by apologizing for choosing himself over anyone else over a colorful beat with an empowering hook.

5 long years later & Kendrick is parting TDE with what I consider to be hip hop’s best double album since Big K.R.I.T. dropped 4eva’s a Mighty Long Time only 6 months after DAMN. came out. Hell, I find Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers to be superior to it’s predecessor because I really admire that he decided to come back after all this time to reflect on his life past & present over production mixing together it’s more trappy, poppier cuts with the politically charged jazz rap from the greatest hip hop album of the 2010s even down to the latter’s experimental, neo-soul undertones.

Score: 4.5/5

Baby Keem – “The Melodic Blue” review

Baby Keem is a 20 year old rapper, singer, songwriter & producer from Carson, California who actually happens to be Kendrick Lamar’s younger cousin. He’s gone on to drop 4 EPs & 2 mixtapes in the last few years, with his sophomore tape Die for My Bitch being the one that helped boost him to the point where he rightfully earned a spot on the 2020 XXL Freshman Class. But now after signing to K. Dot’s newly formed pgLang with distribution from Columbia Records we’re finally being treated to a full-length debut from the promising West Coast up-&-comer.

“trademark usa” starts off the album by shouting out the dead & a forboading Frank Dukes instrumental, but switches up into something more vibrant & Keem saying he’s the same dude in 48 states. The self-produced “pink panties” is a funky lust tune whereas “scapegoats” takes a more soulful turn telling us he thought there was redemption in the 4 ethers. Kendrick blesses us for the boisterous “range brothers” despite the tedious “top of the morning” refrain with a dope beat switch from the help of 30 Roc towards the last minute & a half leading into “issues” taking a more minimalistic sound opening up about the memories of certain people in his life.

Meanwhile on “gorgeous”, we have Keem telling his bitch that she’s a dime on top of a synth-heavy Cardo instrumental just before the piano-laced “south africa” is essentially about him & his girl both having the money. “lost souls” moodily declares all these hoes as such with an equally catchy outro telling his woman that he’s on her side, but then Don Toliver tags along for the playful club banger “cocoa”.

I love how “family ties” begins with bringing in these horns for Keem’s verse & later taking a grimier turn for Kendrick to smoke your top 5 while “scars” climatically asks God why life is so hard. “durag activity” obviously takes a psychedelic route as Travis Scott comes into the picture flexing their wealth whereas “booman” has a jazzier vibe talking about being a barbarian.

The song “first order of business” has a bit of a more ambient sound talking about loyalty & gratitude while the penultimate track “vent” brings Kendrick back one last time to viciously ask if you’ve ever been punched dead in the face. “16” then ends the album by asking his girl won’t she think about them & the beat from DJ Dahi is danceable as fuck.

I’ve always suggested to check out Die for My Bitch for those who’ve never heard of Keem, but now I have to recommend The Melodic Blue because he really outdid himself on here. His lyrical skills have increased as did his production & his versatility from the energetic hip hop joints to the infectious R&B cuts is really admirable.

Score: 4/5