We dissect every morsel of information that we have about Kendrick Lamar’s new album “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers.”
But after five years of nigh-on radio silence in which Lamar surveyed hip-hop’s ever-altering landscape from a safe distance, we can now, mercifully, lay the speculation about when Kendrick– or as he’s now seemingly known, Oklama– will be making his long-awaited return to rest.
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Set to drop on Friday, May 13th– which we’re sure is no coincidence– Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers will be our first look at what a Kendrick project sounds like within not only a new decade but a vastly different culture from the one that he signed off from back in 2017.
With little in the way of precursors to the record other than his features on Baby Keem’s The Melodic Blue, there are few things we can say for certain. However, what we do know is that #1- Kendrick is in no mood to take prisoners and is harboring a degree of combativeness that was last seen on “The Heart Part 4” and #2- he’s as fearlessly experimental as ever.
Amid Kendrick wilfully leaving fans in the dark and audiences scrambling around for any sliver of information that can be uncovered, we’ve compiled everything we know about K-Dot’s first new album in five agonizing years.
Although Kendrick’s return marks the beginning of an exciting new era in his career, it also represents the formal severing of a relationship that’s been a driving force behind his career since its earliest days.
The third act to ever join the then-upstart label’s roster, Kendrick has been front and center of Top Dawg Entertainment’s rise from purveyors of Cali’s finest underground spitters to arguably the most revered creative outlet in the game today.
As Kendrick revealed in August of 2021, his upcoming album will mark the conclusion of his illustrious run with the label. But rather than being a product of acrimony, it seems that they’re ending on the best possible terms.
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“As I produce my final TDE album, I feel joy to have been a part of such a cultural imprint after 17 years,” Kendrick said in an announcement originally shared via Oklama.com. “The Struggles. The Success. And most importantly, the Brotherhood. May the Most High continue to use Top Dawg as a vessel for candid creators. As I continue to pursue my life’s calling.”
“That’s a grown man right now,” TDE president Punch said of his departure during an interview with MIC. “We watched him grow from a teenager up into an established grown man, a businessman, and one of the greatest artists of all time. So how long do you actually be signed up under somebody? It’s been almost 20 years.”
“It’s always been there, but now it’s just time and space where he can actually do it,” he continued. “It’s a beautiful thing to watch because that’s something that started with what we built in the beginning. To see it blossom, it’s a full-circle moment.”
With founder Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith proclaiming that the record “is more of a VICTORY LAP, a celebration” and that Dot had his “FULL support,” it’d appear that K-Dot has the blessing of the label’s higher-ups. That said, it should be noted that none of his fellow Black Hippy members nor Isaiah Rashad, Reason or SZA opted to share Kendrick’s announcement, although discord between Dot and the label’s artists is unclear.
As much as they serve as the culmination of one man’s singular vision, it is no exaggeration to say that to make a record as impactful as good kid, m.A.A.d city or as sprawling as To Pimp A Butterfly, it takes a village. Although he can rap for eight straight minutes, Dot has yet to provide an album where he flies solo like his contemporary J. Cole. Even when he provided a compilation of material from off the cutting room floor with Untitled, Unmastered, he still allotted space to everyone from TDE’s Punch and Jay Rock to regular vocalists such as Bilal and Anna Wise.
As such, it seems highly unlikely that K-Dot will suddenly renounce his love of embellishing his output through the tones and talents of his fellow artists. Considering that he’s ushering in a brand new stage of his career, it’s reasonable to assume that the PGLang roster might be showcased in some capacity across the record.
Devised as “a multi-discipline media company,” Kendrick’s enigmatic new organization has broadly worked from the shadows in recent years. At present, their in-house talents are threefold: Kendrick, his cousin and Grammy-nominated artist Baby Keem and fellow LA-based newcomer Tanna Leone. With the latter harboring a melodic flow that will likely go down a storm with audiences once they catch wind of him, a placement on Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers would be a perfect launchpad to propel him into the wider consciousness.
Aside from Keem and Tanna– co-founder Dave Free- who is not only an acclaimed director but also served as a producer as one half of Digi+Phonics– recently revealed that he was “very excited to share my latest/best work with you all.”
As for other artists that have liaised with PGLang during its embryonic days, the collective has filmed promotional videos with the likes of renowned Atlantan R&B singer Brent Faiyaz & the UK’s Jorja Smith. Meanwhile, in their introductory “propaganda” video, there’s a mash-up of vocals from Florence + The Machine’s “June” and original output from longtime collaborator Kamasi Washington. To date, it has never been clarified as to whether this piece of music was devised specifically for the video or if it is in fact taken from another project.
As far as certainty, Thundercat divulged that he did have a role to play on Kendrick’s upcoming album back in March of 2020, revealing, “I think I worked on the new one a little bit too, but not as much,” before going on to say that “some of my favorite moments recording were spent with Kendrick.”
Terrace Martin, on the other hand, a staple of K-Dot’s projects since Section.80 – who last linked up with Lamar on 2021’s “Drones” – recently proclaimed that his days of lending his skills to MCs has come to an end.
“Dear Rap Friends. It just hit me, I’ve helped people my whole career. I’ve helped the biggest artist to the smallest artist,” he said in an open letter. “I have waived publishing, credits, money etc on the strength of relationships, on the ‘love,’ and to watch my ‘rapper friends’ overpay these producers who come to me for pointers and tips is the ultimate slap in the face. So I’m done. I’m not working with anymore rap friends.”
Although it’s unclear whether Kendrick is one of the “rap friends” in question, it’s fair to say that the timing of the letter– which came just days after Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers was announced– could be considered conspicuous. Or else, it could be that the album will be the last time we hear Martin contribute to a hip-hop album.
While Terrace’s status behind the boards is in doubt, a slew of hip-hop’s biggest producers have all but confirmed that they have contributed to the record. In the hours after K-Dot announced the record via a statement on Oklama.com, DJ Dahi, Sounwave, Boi-1da and Cardo– all of whom have previously worked with Kendrick on other projects– had each shared the posts on their respective Instagram accounts, with Sounwave proclaiming that “It’s been a min.. excited to be back.”
“Love, loss, and grief have disturbed my comfort zone, but the glimmers of God speak through my music and family,” Kendrick wrote in August’s “Nu Thoughts” letter, sharing his thoughts and hinting at his overarching musical direction in the process. “While the world around me evolves, I reflect on what matters the most. The life in which my words will land next.”
With some theorists believing that his commitment to meditation and the teachings of Eckhart Tolle may play a pivotal role in the record’s direction, little is known about exactly what Kendrick will say on the record. Although there is speculation — including a possible tweet from LA battle rapper and Punch/TDE affiliate Daylyt, who reportedly tweeted that he heard a song off Big Steppers and “they may kill him [Kendrick] for this.”
Musicality has proven to be every bit as much of a mystery as the lyrical direction. Despite the fact that Billboard’s Bill Werde had initially proclaimed that K-Dot was “pulling in more rock sounds this time,” the validity of this claim has yet to be confirmed by any of the rapper’s camp. That said, what we do know is that in the weeks leading up to its release, the charts are already anticipating the record to produce one of the highest sales weeks of the year with an estimated 350,000 units.
While its contents, collaborators, and concept may remain under lock and key, the most ringing endorsement of Kendrick’s new record came from one of his Black Hippy brethren on a recent IG live, where Ab-Soul authoritatively proclaimed, “you already know what Dot about to do.”