The five-year wait for a new album from Kendrick Lamar — the Pulitzer-anointed rapper who is the voice of a generation — is finally over.
Mr. Moral & the Big Steppers, Lamar’s fifth studio LP and one of the most anticipated new albums in years, was released overnight on digital services, to high hopes from fans and big questions about his next career moves initialed.
Lamar, 34, is one of the few major figures in the contemporary music scene — where a regular flow of new content is seen as a necessity — who can keep fans waiting that long without sacrificing fan loyalty or critical prestige. Even after Lamar’s lengthy absence, “Mr. Moral & the Big Steppers is expected to make a sizeable leap up the Billboard albums chart in its opening week.
With his major-label debut “Good Kid, mAAd City” (2012), Lamar cemented himself as one of the most aspiring rappers of the millennial generation. For his follow-up To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), he enlisted a variety of musicians from Los Angeles’ fertile jazz scene, including Kamasi Washington and Thundercat. This album, “a work about living under constant racist surveillance and how that can lead to many kinds of internal monologues, some empowering, others self-hating,” as Times pop music critic Jon Caramanica wrote, includes “Alright,” which became an unofficial Black Lives Matter protest anthem.
His 2017 album DAMN won five Grammy Awards but lost Album of the Year to Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic. (The rapper has 14 Grammy wins total.) Lamar, who grew up in Compton, California and made the area’s culture and struggles a central part of his music, also became the first rapper to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music received. “DAMN IT.” was cited in 2018 as “a virtuosic collection of songs unified by their native authenticity and rhythmic dynamism, offering moving vignettes that capture the complexities of modern African-American life”. Lamar accepted the award and performed in concert with a Pulitzer Kenny banner behind him.
Also in 2018, Lamar and record label boss Anthony Tiffith (known as Top Dawg) were executive producers of a companion album to the film Black Panther. A track from Lamar and SZA’s LP “All the Stars” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Visual artist Lina Iris Viktor sued, saying her work was used in the track’s video without permission; The lawsuit was settled in late 2018.
Since that eventful year, Lamar has kept a low profile, made a handful of guest appearances on other artists’ songs, and joined Las Vegas rapper (and his cousin) Baby Keem for two songs on Keem’s album The Melodic last year, Blue ‘, including the Grammy-winning ‘Family Ties’. In February, Lamar took the stage at the Super Bowl LVI halftime show alongside Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, Eminem and Mary J. Blige, which put him in the odd position of either being the only relatively young man on a hip hop oldies show or – with songs as old as a decade – maybe even a little relapse.
Last Sunday, Lamar released a new music video, “The Heart Part 5,” as a teaser for “Mr. Moral.” It has a spoken prologue stating “Life is a perspective,” and then features Lamar’s face blended with that of a range of black men of varying cultural heroism or controversy: OJ Simpson, Kanye West, Jussie Smollett, Will Smith , Kobe Bryant, Nipsey Hektik The deepfake effects were created by Deep Voodoo, a studio owned by “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, which is planning further projects with pgLang, a new company founded by Lamar and Dave Free, a long-time employee.
The lyrics in “The Heart Part 5” have already been parsed for meaning, as has the image Lamar shared Wednesday of the album’s cover, photographed by Renell Medrano. It shows Lamar in a crown of thorns holding a child while a woman breastfeeds a baby on a bed, like an allegorical religious painting.
In a way, these can also serve as clues to the next stage of Lamar’s career. “Mr. Moral” will be his last album for Top Dawg Entertainment or TDE, Lamar’s home since the beginning of his career, which has released his music in partnership with Interscope. He hasn’t announced a new label deal but has started new projects with pgLang, announced two years ago as a “multilingual service company” that will be working on a range of creative and commercial projects, from the video for The Heart Part 5 to a line of new Converse sneakers.