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After five long years, Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar is back and has announced plans to drop new music. His fifth studio album, “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers,” is scheduled to release on May 13. Lamar posted the announcement through his new multi-disciplinary media company pgLang. The project will be Lamar’s final album under his contract with West Coast Powerhouse TDE, preceding the rapper’s complete transition to the pgLang banner. Founded by Lamar and Dave Free in 2020, pgLang emphasizes using different art forms to tell stories, ranging from music to film to books. This idea is extremely captivating when considering that Lamar himself, can’t be defined as simply a rapper or musician, but a multifaceted artist. This interdisciplinary creative identity can be seen in the ways Lamar’s existing studio albums utilize different art forms to forward a more complex form of storytelling.
“Section.80”: A Collection of Short Stories
Lamar’s first album gave listeners a motivated and raw version of the budding star. He was far from the mainstream artist he is today, but his captivating storytelling and lyrical abilities were clear on tracks like “Ronald Reagan Era” and “Rigamortus,” specifically, hears the Compton MC spit a tongue-twisting, nearly-minute-long verse — seemingly without taking a single breath. The album as a whole is especially compelling, feeling like a collection of short stories that tell a broader, loosely connected narrative. This can be seen literally with tracks titled “Chapter 6” and “Chapter 10.” But also in the overall flow of the album when taken as a collective piece of work. There are the recurring characters of Tammy and Keisha, who even have their own tracks dedicated to them, for example. The album as a whole spans a wide variety of topics, from the effects of the crack epidemic to nuances in race, with each track feeling like its own contained narrative house within the larger world of the album.
“Good Kid, m.A.A.d City”: A Short Film
“Good Kid, m.A.A.d City” truly thrust Lamar into the spotlight. Songs like “Swimming Pools(Drank)” and “m.A.A.d city” became some of the biggest hits of 2012, and the album garnering the rapper his first Grammy nomination and what should have been his first win. While “Section.80” is a collection of different stories, “Good Kid, m.A.A.d City” is a tight narrative that tells the story of a single day in the life of a young Kendrick. “Backseat Freestyle,'' for example, calls to mind a young Kendrick freestyling in the back of a car after being picked up. The story isn’t completely chronological. There are some tracks that occur in different places in time, but everything traces back to that singular day. The album crosses the boundaries of just being music and becomes something cinematic. Lamar himself recognizes this, TOO. A description on the album’s cover reads: “a short film by Kendrick Lamar.”
“To Pimp A Butterfly”: The Poet
Three years after “Good Kid, m.A.A.d City,” Lamar returned with 2015’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” and completely shook up the hip-hop world. Sonically, it was a turn away from his earlier works and their more conventional rap sound. “To Pimp A Butterfly,” instead embraced heavy jazz, blues, and hip-hop influences. This fusion of styles led to Lamar’s most critically acclaimed album to date, filled with powerful, introspective tracks speaking upon mental health, morality, and racial inequality. And while “Good kid, m.A.A.d city” felt cinematic, “To Pimp A Butterfly” seems more poetic in nature. Throughout the album Kendrick slowly unveils a poem in some of the outros and intros of tracks, giving longer and longer snippets and finally culminating in the final track “Mortal Man,” where listeners finally get the full poem. The standout is in its finale, where Lamar elaborates upon the title “To Pimp a Butterfly” with an allegory of the caterpillar and butterfly that discusses the physical and mental growth in life. The impact this album has had is immeasurable, and while Lamar was snubbed of the “Album of the Year” award at the Grammys, his messages on “To Pimp a Butterfly” will stay with fans for a long time.
“DAMN.”: A Mélange, A Satire
Lamar’s most recent studio album brought together styles from his previous works. He again embraced the more traditional sounds in hip-hop, but complemented them with themes and sounds first seen in “To Pimp A Butterfly.” This created a clear and thought-provoking thematic experience that earned him the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for music, making him the first rapper to do so. With title names like “FEEL,” “PRIDE,” and “HUMBLE,” Lamar gave a clear view into the relevance of each song. Each track feels like an exaggeration of these themes, giving unique examples of his experiences and thoughts. In his 2018 Grammy performance, Lamar had the words, “This is a satire by Kendrick Lamar” prominently displayed in the background as he performed music from “DAMN.”
And now, fans arrive at “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers.” What can we expect from this latest album? So much has changed in the past five years since “DAMN.” was released. And yet, since the release of Lamar’s executive produced compilation album “Black Panther: The Album” in early 2018, little has been heard of him. His most recent musical appearance was on Baby Keem’s 2021 album “The Melodic Album,” where he featured on “range brothers” and “family ties,” with the latter earning the pair a Grammy for “Best Rap Performance.” One thing is for certain, though: Lamar will make sure his new album is a completely new experience.
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