Brace yourself, music fans.
It’s been a long and tumultuous five years since Kendrick Lamar released “DAMN,” the chart-topping, critically-acclaimed album that earned him a Grammy for Best Rap Album and a Pulitzer Prize — the first non-jazz or classical work to receive the award — while cementing the Compton rapper as one of the best in the world.
On Friday, Lamar will release “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers,” his fifth studio album and one of the most highly-anticipated musical events of the year.
The record is set to arrive just days after the Compton rapper set the internet ablaze with the release of “The Heart Part 5,” a stunning new single accompanied by a disquieting visual that uses controversial deepfake technology to depict Lamar rapping as various rappers and celebrities. —both living and dead.
Here’s everything you need to know ahead of the release of “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers.”
The album rollout
On April 18, Lamar tweeted out a link to a page on his website. It contained a blurry fax-like message, addressed “from the desk of Oklama,” announcing Lamar’s forthcoming album would be released on May 13.
A couple of weeks later, a new photo appeared on the oklama website showing two CD-Rs labeled “Masters,” setting off speculation that the upcoming record would in fact be a double-album.
On Wednesday, Lamar shared the album’s cover art, photographed by Renell Medrano — who has captured the likes of Jay-Z, Megan Thee Stallion and Bad Bunny. The photo shows Lamar adorned with a crown of thorns while holding his two-year-old daughter against his chest. To the audience, we see what appears to be a gun, partially hidden in his pants. In the background is his fiancé Whitney Alford, cradling a newborn baby.
Throughout his career, Lamar has kept an extremely low profile, but according to TMZ, Lamar and Alford recently welcomed their second child.
Aside from these sparse details, Lamar has kept the project mostly under wraps. As of now, there is no track list nor any information on producers or guest appearances.
“Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” is expected to drop at midnight, but who knows!
“The Heart Part 5”
Last Sunday, Lamar dropped “The Heart Part 5” – the fifth installment in a series of singles the rapper typically shares ahead of each new album release. Lamar uses these tracks to signal the start of a new era in his career, and to reflect on the world and culture around him — a sort of hip hop state of the union.
Produced by Beach Noise — a production and songwriting trio made up of Matt Schaeffer, Johnny Kosich and Jake Kosich — “Part 5” is a five-and-a-half minute tour de force that samples Marvin Gaye’s 1976 hit “I Want You.”
Filled with dense symbolism and cultural references, the track is a complex meditation on hip hop and Blackness in America, one that explores the tension of being adored and glorified within a culture that is too often associated with violence and death.
“Heart Part 5” is “a scathing indication of the systems and mechanisms that keep America’s Black population at the mercy of circumstance,” writes Son Raw in The Fader. “Infidelity, incarceration, gun violence, poverty — Kendrick refuses to accept these facets of life as an inevitable part of the culture, all without blaming people he knows are victims of forces beyond their control.”
In the song’s video — which opens with an esoteric statement: “I am. All of us.” – Lamar’s face transforms into various celebrities using deepfake technology. These include OJ Simpson, Kobe Bryant, Will Smith, Jussie Smollet, Kanye West and Nipsey Hussle — all men touched by controversy, notoriety or death.
“As I get a little older, I realize life is perspective/ And my perspective may differ from yours,” the 34-year-old says in the track’s opening lines.
Throughout the song, Lamar’s narrative shifts with each new face — he references bipolar disorder while rapping as West, hypocrisy while rapping as Smollett and determination while rapping as Bryant.
“In the land where hurt people hurt more people/ F– callin’ it culture,” he raps as Will Smith, likely in reference to the infamous Oscars slap.
In the final verse, Lamar raps from the perspective of Nispey Hussle, the Los Angeles rapper who was killed in 2019: “As I bleed through the speakers, feel my presence/ To my brother, to my kids, I’m in Heaven. ”
The video – which was apparently made with the help of “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who own a deepfake technology studio – also contains many Easter eggs, as Complex points out:
“Since the song dropped, fans have been sharing theories about the hidden meanings behind some of the production choices. For example, Kendrick takes 15 seconds to inhale and exhale in the middle of the song, which is the number of seconds required to check one’s heart rate. He also cuts the drums for Nipsey and Kobe, symbolizing the stoppage of a human heart beat.”
The cover art for the single, meanwhile, is made up of various hands belonging to each of the above. Complex writes:
“The gloved hand on the right is taken from the infamous picture of OJ Simpson in his 1995 murder trial, and the hand with a Band-Aid on it is Kobe’s after he won his fifth championship. Jussie Smollett’s hand is taken from a photo of him walking to trial, while another is from a photo of Kanye shunning paparazzi.”
Born in Compton, California, Lamar started rapping as a teenager under the moniker K.Dot. His early mixtapes of him earned him a contract with Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE), an indie label that today includes artists like SZA, Schoolboy Q, Jay Rock and more.
After linking up with J. Cole and working with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre on Dre’s “Detox,” Lamar released “Section.80,” his first studio album.
In 2012, Lamar signed a record deal with Aftermath Entertainment and Interscope Records. Later that year, he released his major label debut, “Good Kid, MAAD City.” The album, which won critical acclaim and went triple platinum, detailed Lamar’s experiences of him as a youth growing up in Compton. It contained five massive singles including “Backstreet Freestyle,” “B—Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “Swimming Pools.”
Lamar’s third studio album, “To Pimp A Butterfly,” arrived in 2015. “TPAB,” which won the Grammy for the Best Rap Album, is an incredibly ambitious and musically progressive album, one that incorporated elements of jazz, funk and electronic music . The single “Alright” became a rallying call during the Black Lives Matter movement, and was often chanted in the streets during protests. Widely considered a masterpiece, Rolling Stone named it as the 19th best album of all time in 2020.
His fourth studio album, “DAMN,” was Lamar’s biggest commercial success. Featuring collaborations with Rihanna and U2, the LP — which introduced the Kung-Fu Kenny persona — also included massive hits like “Humble” and “DNA.” It went triple platinum, won a Grammy for Best Album of the Year and earned a Lamar a Pulitzer Prize.
In 2018, Lamar acted as the executive producer for the “Black Panther” soundtrack, and appeared on half a dozen tracks. Since then, he’s kept a relatively low profile, appearing as a guest on a handful of tracks, and making his acting debut on the American crime drama “Power.”
Three years later, in August of 2021, Lamar launched a mysterious new website – www.oklama.com. The site featured a just note Titled “nu thoughts” announcing his next album would be his last with Top Dog Entertainment, the independent record label Lamar has been a part of since 2004.
“I feel joy to have been apart of such a cultural imprint after 17 years. The Struggles. TheSuccess. 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.”
Later that month, Lamar ended his hiatus with an appearance on “family ties,” an excellent single with his cousin and protege Baby Keem. In the music video, Lamar dances in front of a flag bearing the logo for pgLang – a “multidisciplinary media company” has co-founded business partner Dave Free.
In February, Lamar made a brief appearance alongside Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre., Mary J. Blige, Eminem and 50 Cent at the Super Bowl LVI Halftime Show, where he played a snippet of “mAAd city” from his 2012 breakout album” good kid, mAd city” followed by “Alright,” an anthemic highlight from the 2015 masterpiece “To Pimp A Butterfly.”
Though Lamar didn’t play any new music, the appearance sparked rumors and speculations about his imminent return.
Fans eagerly await new Kendrick
With files from Annette Ejiofor
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