by Nick Seip Music Year in Review

Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers — Kendrick Lamar [BOTY ’22]

December 31, 2022

Celebrity worship is out in 2022. At this point, we expect our superstars to have a downward spiral after reaching the top. It’s essentially written into the script. This year has seen a few artists inflict critical damage to their own public image, to say the least. But unlike the other guy, Kendrick Lamar is clearly doing the work. Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers feels less like a ticking time bomb, and more like the product of intense self-reflection over his own sins, trauma, ego, and perfectionism. Therapy, but make it art — in doing so, Kendrick proves why he’s still the best lyricist in the game, not in spite of his flaws but because of them. The result is the best lyrical rap album of 2022.

Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is largely a story about grace. The pressure to be perfect has never been stronger than it is in America today. In a nation where fifteen minutes of fame is just one viral post away, anyone has the potential to be the hero or villain of the day. The consequences for the villain are clear: public outcry, humiliation, and pariahship. We can’t always cancel the villains in our own lives, so we burn our celebrities in effigy. The consequences for the hero are more complicated. We uplift our heroes to godlike levels. We look to them as role models and project our own personal politics and expectations onto them. And when they fail to meet these expectations, or fit neatly into our little boxes, the Internet is quick to admonish them.

Kendrick has been lionized as the savior of rap his whole career. College courses have been taught about him since good kid, m.A.A.d city dropped. “But I am not your savior,” he says on Mr. Morale. While artists have long made music in response to negative criticism, this album feels like a reaction to the critical adoration Kendrick has received for each project he’s released. Kendrick’s deconstruction of his air-tight public image largely makes the project such a challenging and uncomfortable listen. We didn’t expect an album like this from the man who made To Pimp A Butterfly and won a Pulitzer for DAMN. Kendrick makes clear on Mr. Morale that the crown he wears is heavy.

“I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015,” Kendrick warned way back on Butterfly’s “The Blacker the Berry.” It felt almost sacrilegious coming from rap’s messiah. But every human being is a hypocrite at one point or another. Grace isn’t about giving villains a pass, but recognizing that no one fits neatly into a box of “good” or “bad.” To live in a state of grace, you have to believe that “good” people make mistakes and that “bad” people can change. The past decade has seen a rejection of the manufactured popstar image that was so prevalent in the late ‘’90s and ‘00s era of sugar-coated teen pop. While we still place our artists on pedestals, we don’t want them to feel like they’re all the way at the top looking down. We want them to feel relatable. We want to feel like we really know them. From Beyoncé to Billie Eilish, our favorite artists have let us into their lives through documentaries and social media confessionals in an attempt to make us feel like they’re just like us — only richer, hotter, and better in every way. In reality, the parts of themselves our stars allow us to see are only based on a true story. What Kendrick does on Mr. Morale feels far from fake. More than any other genre, realness is central to the hip hop tradition. And this is the most real rap’s reigning king has ever been.

Published as part of Top 25 Albums of 2022.