Sifting through the rumor mill chatter for a realistic idea of what fans can expect from Kendrick Lamar on his upcoming album, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers.
Last August, Kendrick Lamar broke a years-long silence to announce a new album was on the way. At the time, the project was untitled. But whatever shape and name it took on, the Compton rap star was clear it would be his last for longtime home team, Top Dawg Entertainment. In fact, the indie label played little to no part in the announcement. Lamar’s new album campaign was unveiled through oklama — which appears to be a new moniker for the rapper — and pgLang — a joint venture launched with manager, visionary creative director, and former TDE president Dave Free — that describes itself as a “multidisciplinary media company.”
Not long after the album was announced, Lamar resurfaced on “family ties,” the booming lead single from Baby Keem‘s 2021 album, The Melodic Blue, and solidified his return with two more appearances on the album, notably on the song “range brothers,” which sent fans into a verse-decoding frenzy. In the following months, a number of previously unreleased tracks leaked, leading many to believe the arrival of Lamar’s album was imminent. However, it wasn’t until last week that Lamar officially announced the title and release date of his fifth studio album. Taking a cue from the iconically flat 1996 press release sirening Michael Jordan’s return to the NBA following a brief retirement, Lamar very formally revealed that his TDE finale, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, was set for release on Friday, May 13.
Each album rollout for a Kendrick project has been pretty singular, and as we approach two weeks out with no single, artwork or tracklist, there isn’t much to base any real expectations on. But that isn’t stopping anyone. In the eight months between its initial mention in late summer last year and the firm release date reveal on April 18, the rumor mill has generated some fantastically absurd chatter. It’s worth noting Lamar’s fans are wildly proficient at this type of pre-release self-hyping (which at one point came up with a launghably gratifying, very detailed, and very fake “leaked” tracklist for what would eventually be Lamar’s Pulitzer-winning 2017 album, DAMN.). It’s equally worth noting Lamar and Co. seem perfectly aware of how much distance a wandering brain can cover on anticipation alone.
Unless the arch of the campaign bends toward the all-at-once drop of DAMN., there’s a good chance we’ll start getting the first glimpses at Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers within the next week or so. Which gives us some time to sort through what we actually know about the album and focus on some tangibles.
The album campaign for Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is already unique.
Kendrick Lamar and his team have never treated two album releases the same way. The rapper’s proper debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, followed a more traditional track, gaining chart presence and radio play with the deceptively dark hit “Swimming Pools,” before letting the album loose and following through with two more breakout hits. The first To Pimp a Butterfly single was released about six months before the label botched delivery, leaking the album to Spotify eight days ahead of its intended March 23, 2015 release. “King Kunta” and “Alright” were released as singles well into the album cycle, the latter of which became the de facto anthem of police brutality protests that year. And with DAMN., Lamar began the promo for his decorated 2017 album just three weeks before it was released, reviving the one-off series, “The Heart,” on March 23 to tease an April 7 release date (which turned out to be the day pre-orders went live.) The album’s true lead single, “Humble, ” landed a week later with a kaleidoscopic visual, commencing Kung Fu Kenny’s tenure as Lamar’s primary rap alter-ego.
So if you’re hoping to learn anything about Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers by studying the respective release strategies for previous albums, don’t bother. The lines don’t really connect. At about two weeks out and with nothing to hear or see yet, we’re already in uncharted territory for the rollout of a Kendrick project, regardless of whether we get a single or the continuation of “The Heart” in the days ahead. With that in mind, there is at least bait for the latter in the unlisted subsection of a new site that has been the exclusive host of Lamar’s dispatches pertaining to the album. But even that’s a speculative dead end for now. Outside of its mere existence, the splatter of folders is just hundreds of empty 404 errors. Whether by glitch or design, there’s literally nothing to work with.
The visual component of the album will be robust.
If there’s any thread you can confidently connect between Lamar’s varying album promo schemes, it’s that the singles get the bulk of the budget, and that’s a formula proven to deliver “eye candy of the year” results with uncommon consistency. Generally the brainchild of creative partner and pgLang co-founder Dave Free, the visual component of every Kendrick campaign has not only defined each phase of the rapper’s career (not to mention that of his soon-to-be former label), but set the aesthetic tone for the whole rap landscape. In the good kid years, it was the romantic tragedy of “Poetic Justice,” the gloriously grainy “Backseat Freestyle,” and the grief-stricken “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe.” For To Pimp a Butterfly, Free and Lamar debuted their The Little Homies banner, teaming up with Colin Tilley for the iconic “Alright” video and Director X on the chest-beating “King Kunta” clip.
For DAMN., visionary vets like Dave Meyers and Nabil were enlisted to work alongside Lamar and Free on their most gripping set of visuals to date (see “Humble,” “Loyalty,” “DNA,” and “Element”). As a chapter-closing album for both Lamar and Free (who stepped away from TDE in 2019 to focus on other projects and developing Baby Keem), you can damn near count on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers being a huge moment for The Little Homies.
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers marks a turning point in Kendrick’s career.
Over the course of the last decade, we’ve watched Kendrick Lamar rise from hungry Dr. Dre protege to standard-bearing, genre-breaking generational talent and full-fledged pop star. It is by no metrics a typical trajectory but the transformation is self-evident. But whichever form he takes on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers will almost surely be a transitional work, bookending a dominant run as TDE’s top dawg and commencing a new era under his own label (and potentially even a new moniker). Regarding the moniker, it’s hard to tell whether it refers to Lamar himself, a collective or both. But each of the rapper’s recent transmissions have been signed with the pseudonym, “oklama,” which has inspired plenty of spiraling theories despite having no known origin or meaning.
As the lone update from Lamar during his hiatus, the oklama post is the only real point of reference for how the rapper is approaching and absorbing a world that has endured historic tragedy and pain during his absence. That isn’t to say we should expect another heavy and cryptic outing, but as he amicably parts ways with his label of three storied albums, fully embraces a hermetic hillside rap dad life, and establishes a career outside of TDE’s brooding industry presence, Kendrick Lamar is very clearly turning the page. And with nothing left to prove among his peers, no is more keenly in tune with where the bar is than the man who set it.