Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, released Friday (May 13), is Compton wordsmith Kendrick Lamar’s momentous 18-track return to the rap spotlight after a five-year layoff.
Outside of a few guest appearances on cousin Baby Keem’s 2021 effort The Melodic Blue, fans have not heard much from the Pulitzer Prize winner since 2017’s DAMN. Precursor single “The Heart Pt. 5,” in which Lamar raps over a sample loop of Marvin Gaye’s 1976 single “I Want You,” came earlier this week (May 8) and gave fans a taste of the new record’s overarching concepts, themes and ideas.
Sporting guest appearances from Ghostface Killah, Kodak Black, Blxst, Sampha, Summer Walker and plenty more, the double-disc record clocks in at 73 minutes and sees Lamar stretch the creative boundaries of his artistry to reflect on fatherhood, faithfulness, materialism, generational curses and much more.
Below, Billboard ranks the tracks from Lamar’s long-awaited new effort. Read through for the full ranking.
18. “Rich – Interlude”
The short piano-backed interlude contains an uncredited spoken word verse from Florida rapper Kodak Black, in which he discusses the obstacles he’s faced and overcame while coming up in the music industry. What he says is insightful, but the 1:43 interlude also has the least amount of “song” on the entire record.
17. “Mr. Morale” (feat. Tanna Leone)
With Pharrell behind the boards and an intriguing guest spot by pgLang newcomer Tanna Leone, the record’s title track should’ve worked out better than it actually did. Kendrick rides the song’s futuristic bounce relatively well as he touches on themes of generational trauma and materialistic excess, but Leone’s lackluster energy and some convoluted production moments fail to make “Mr. Morale” truly stand out.
16. “Die Hard” (feat. Blxst and Amanda Reifer)
The poppy “Die Hard” features singing contributions from all three of its vocalists, including rising Los Angeles artist Blxst and Barbados-born singer Amanda Reifer. Kendrick opens up about his hesitancy to be vulnerable to his partner, remarking: “If I told you who I am, would you use it against me?” The track is an easy and relatable listen, but it feels safe compared to where the rest of Mr. Morale takes its listeners.
15. “Savior – Interlude”
Fans who are well aware of Kendrick and Baby Keem’s family ties will find it hard not to smile when the 21-year-old pgLang rapper comes on for an uncredited two-minute bar-fest over luscious orchestral strings in “Savior – Interlude.” Painting the picture with the tumultuous family life that defined his rough upbringing, Keem brings listeners up to his present life of success, where he anoints himself a “new prophet” of the rap game. Yet, the trappings of his troubled childhood still follow him around today (“My uncle would tell me the shit in the movies could only be magic/ This year, I did 43 shows and took it all home to buy him a casket”).
14. “Silent Hill (feat. Kodak Black)”
The subdued, ominous tone of “Silent Hill” provides ample space for Kendrick to slide over, putting up an infectious hook that might remind listeners of cousin Keem’s trademark vocal inflections. Kodak’s guest verse fits the vibe of the track incredibly well and even slightly outshines Kendrick’s own, matching its overall theme of all the stresses that come with being a successful artist.
13. “Worldwide Steppers”
The third track on the record carries an urgency in its production that Kendrick matches with the bars, covering a wide range of topics that catches listeners up on his newfound fatherhood, a two-year writer’s block and past romantic encounters. Its beat is minimal but hypnotic, putting the spotlight on K. Dot’s compelling flows: “Playing ‘Baby Shark’ with my daughter/ Watching for sharks outside at the same time/ Life as a protective father, I’d kill for her.”
12. “Purple Hearts” (with Summer Walker and Ghostface Killah)
With support from Still Over It singer Summer Walker and Wu-Tang Clan legend Ghostface Killah, “Purple Hearts” directs attention to the theme of love as a healing component with the catchy refrain “Shut the f–k up when you hear love talking.” The track’s lush and grand production matches the smooth, relaxed vibe Kendrick and Summer put forth, and Ghostface’s iconic delivery in his spiritual-focused verse cuts through with great contrast: “This world’s in The Twilight Zone, this is the fifth dimension/ God, please blow the whistle, we need an intermission.”
11. “Rich Spirit”
“Rich Spirit” is one of the record’s poppier efforts that works well, and is sold heavily through Kendrick’s seemingly effortless flows and braggadocious rhymes. The Sounwave- and Dahi-produced beat carries a smooth bounce to it, matching Kendrick’s cool, calm and collected demeanor throughout. In between verses, he begs naysayers and doubters to steer clear from his path: “Stop playing with me before I turn you to a song.”
The album’s outro track is a synth-heavy effort that gets candidly honest about the pressure Kendrick feels as an artist that fans and listeners have been waiting on for more than five years to return. As a follow-up to the deeply introspective penultimate track “Mother I Sober,” K. Dot does not want to succumb to that pressure to deliver and ultimately decides to prioritize himself and his personal life: “Sorry I didn’t save the world, my friend / I was too busy building mine again.”
9. “Count Me Out”
The first track of the album’s second disc is thoughtfully framed as a therapy session in which Kendrick lays himself bare over gentle guitar chords and choir refrains. He picks up the flow and matches the aggression needed when those guitar chords turn into distorted bass lines and hard-hitting drums enter the mix. Throughout the song’s energetic hooks, Kendrick amicably responds to an unnamed doubter: “I love when you count me out/ My name is your mouth.”
8. “Savior” (feat. Baby Keem and Sam Dew)
On “Savior,” Kendrick name drops some of Black popular culture’s leading figures, such as J. Cole, Future and LeBron James, but declares that they – along with himself – are not anybody’s saviors. The track explores an interesting theme of celebrity worship in tandem with Christian concepts of savior complexes, but Kendrick also dives into pertinent racial issues and deeply contested political topics like COVID-19 and political correctness. Cousin Keem hops on the track’s chorus as well, reminding fans of the duo’s infectious chemistry, which won them best rap performance at this year’s Grammy Awards.
7. “Father Time” (feat. Sampha)
“Father Time” stands out on Mr. Morale because of Kendrick’s willingness to open up and be more vulnerable about some of the personal and mental health issues that he alluded to on previous tracks like DAMN.’s “FEEL.” In addition to a much-welcomed vocal effort from U.K. singer Sampha, Kendrick reflects on the “daddy issues” that hardened his shell throughout his upbringing and made it difficult to express emotion throughout his adulthood. Deep into his second verse, he also offers his reaction to Ye and Drake’s late-2021 reconciliation (“When Kanye got back with Drake, I was slightly confused/ Guess I’m not as mature as I think, got some healing to do”).
The droning piano backdrop of “Crown” feels hypnotic and monotonous, but it deliberately matches the intimate subject matter of the track. The repeated refrain of “I can’t please everybody” feels like listeners have been plopped into the deepest depths of Kendrick’s mind, and ringing repeatings of that line haunt and inform the pressure he feels both as an artist and a human being to please others. Kendrick’s personal troubles are a recurring motif of the record, and the additional burden of needing to satisfy everyone else feels worthless when he can’t even please himself.
5. “We Cry Together” (feat. Taylour Paige)
The album’s fifth track is an unparalleled effort of musical creativity that works more like a movie or play scene than it does a conventional song. (Think John Singleton’s 2001 Black classic Baby Boy starring Tyrese and Taraji P. Henson.) “We Cry Together” sees Kendrick at heated odds with Zola actress Taylour Paige in an unpleasant relationship dispute which, for nearly six minutes, does not let up on the gas pedal. The two exchange extremely vulgar insults and slanderous feelings toward one another, every line consistently rhyming throughout. Kendrick’s Ice Cube-inspired aggression matches Paige’s catty malevolence, making for an intensely visual listen and a deeply memorable album cut.
4. “United in Grief”
Mr. Morale’s opening track sees Kendrick frantically letting loose on five years of pent-up bars over jazzy piano-based production. “1,855 days, I’ve been going through something,” he remarks at the top, which aligns the latest record’s release date with April 2017’s DAMN. — it’s clear that Kendrick has been planning out this moment for a while now. His verses pick up the intensity with rumbling drum loops, reflecting on how his tenured career in the music industry has forced him to learn how to “grieve different” through material purchases. In addition, his long-winded run in the rap game has allowed him to see the younger generation of his family start winning too (“I watched Keem buy four cars in four months/ You know the family dynamics on repeat”).
3. “Auntie Diaries”
“Auntie Diaries” is one of the record’s most understated tracks production-wise, but what Kendrick reflects on throughout its 4:41 runtime arguably stands amongst his most poignant lyrical work to date. Similar in gravity to how he portrayed the Black experience in America in 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick offers insightful perspective on gender and sexuality by framing the experiences of two transgender individuals in his life through the troubling experiences they’ve endured in order to live their full truth. He remarks that these hateful entities are often those closest to these individuals, such as family and churches rooted in Christian faith, and that popular homophobic slurs that are often casually used by many should be retired for the sake of allyship and understanding.
The record’s second track offers a perfect blend of introspection and aggression using the “N95” mask, popularly used during the COVID-19 pandemic, as a metaphor for fake inauthenticity amongst contemporary American society. The “take off” motif of the track’s first verse sees Kendrick run through a gambit of materialistic ideals and unimportant desires as he urges listeners to leave all that kind of unnecessary baggage behind. The track’s energetic chorus borrows another page from cousin Keem’s book of popular vocal inflections, while the third verse sends the song into frenzied overdrive (“Can I vent all my truth? I got nothing to lose/ I got problems and pools, I can swim on my faith”).
1. “Mother I Sober” (feat. Beth Gibbons of Portishead)
The longest track on Mr. Morale, clocking in at 6:46, is a masterclass in raw, unfiltered lyrical vulnerability. Complimented by a succinct but piercing chorus from Portishead lead singer Beth Gibbons, Kendrick’s three verses underscore the sobering theme of generational pain and trauma that is often left unearthed amongst families. In sharing his debilitating and deeply intimate experiences on wax, Kendrick seeks to break that curse and allow his children, along with future generations of his family, to heal and move forward (“I pray our children don’t inherit me and feelings I attract/ A conversation not being addressed in Black families/ The devastation, haunting generations and humanity”). Speaking cameos from wife Whitney Alford and daughter close the eerie track, letting him know that his brave efforts have broken the generational curse.