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Kendrick Lamar returns, 5 years later and a world away

The hip-hop visionary and Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper is back.
Matt Winkelmeyer
Getty Images for American Express
The hip-hop visionary and Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper is back.

Updated May 13, 2022 at 6:06 AM ET

For the five years since the release of his last album, fans and the music industry have eagerly — if not always patiently — awaited a new album from Kendrick Lamar, one of rap's great current visionaries and most celebrated artistic voices. With the release of Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers today, a new era in Lamar's career is upon us.

The album was indeed delivered as a double LP, clocking in at nine songs per disc and roughly 75 minutes in length. With contributions from Baby Keem, Summer Walker, Blxst, Kodak Black, Portishead's Beth Gibbons, Sampha and Taylour Paige, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is poised to be one of the most celebrated projects of the year.

This past Sunday, Lamar foreshadowed that success and indicated the album was on its way by dropping a single and video titled "The Heart Part 5," the latest in a song series of Lamar's stretching back to 2010. The song, built around an interpolation of Marvin Gaye's "I Want You," is accompanied by a video consisting of a single shot of Lamar, using deepfake technology to morph him into Black male celebrities who have faced public scrutiny — from O.J. Simpson and Kanye West to Will Smith and Jussie Smollett.

"As I get older, I realize life is perspective," Lamar mutters in the first verse, assuming theirs.

Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers builds on DAMN.'s exploration of Lamar's Christianity and his bold cultural criticism, as the rapper bemoans the hold social media, celebrity and capitalism has on society. "I've been going through something: be afraid," he begins on "United In Grief."

On songs like "Die Hard" and "Father Time," he explores vulnerability, the challenges of newfound fatherhood and his marriage. "Daddy issues, hid my emotions, never expressed myself," he raps on "Father Time." "Men should never show feelings, being sensitive never helped." Elsewhere, on "Auntie Diaries," he tackles issues of trans identity.

The album includes production by artists including Duval Timothy, Pharrell, Boi-1da, The Alchemist, while Florence Welch earns a writing credit on "We Cry Together" for its use of a sample from Florence & The Machine's song "June." The album also includes Eckhart Tolle, the author and spiritualist, as a narrator on several tracks, as well as Lamar's partner Whitney Alford on the song "We Cry Together."

Lamar's last solo album, DAMN., earned him five Grammy awards and seven nominations overall after debuting at the top of the Billboard 200 chart in 2017. Helater won the Pulitzer Prize for it, marking the first time the award was given to an artist outside of the jazz and classical genres. "Been writing my whole life, so to get this type of recognition, it's beautiful," Lamarsaid in his brief acceptance speech.

"From the birth of the Old Negro Spiritual, Black America has crafted hymns to get over the confounding hardships of this world," NPR's Rodney Carmichaelwrote in his review of the groundbreaking album. "Lamar complements that tradition, but he also complicates it. DAMN. embodies a year in which hip-hop — and America at large — finds itself wrestling in public with its inner demons."

Rumors about Lamar releasing new music began to bubble up on social media in October of last year, when an unconfirmed song leak began to circulate online and eagle-eyed fans noticed the artist had brieflychanged his profile photo on Spotify. In 2021 Lamarannounced in an online letter that he was producing his final album for label Top Dawg Entertainment, where he has released all four of his albums, beginning with his critically acclaimed Section.80 in 2011.

"As I produce my final TDE album, I feel joy to have been a part of such a cultural imprint after 17 years. The Struggles. The Success. And most importantly, the Brotherhood," he wrote at the time.

Across his decade-long career, Lamar has remained a singular voice in hip-hop, his body of work a passionate and political exploration of faith and Black art. His audience, from loyal fans to award voting bodies, have treated Lamar as working in a genre all his own, whose releases command attention more than perhaps any other artist working in hip-hop.

In the four years since releasing DAMN., Lamar's musical output has been relatively quiet, aside from the occasional collaboration. "The Heart Part 5" is Lamar's newest material since his recent collaboration with cousin and artistBaby Keem, including the songs"Family Ties" and "Range Brothers," released in August and September of last year.

In 2018, Lamar curated and appeared on the soundtrack to Marvel Studios'Black Panther movie, later released asBlack Panther: The Album. The album won a Grammy for the song "King's Dead," featuring James Blake, Jay Rock and Future, and the lead single "All the Stars" featuring SZA was nominated for an Academy Award. This past February, Lamar performed in the Super Bowl LVI halftime show alongside Dr. Dre, Mary J. Blige, Snoop Dogg, Eminem and 50 Cent.

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Hazel Cills is an editor at NPR Music, where she edits breaking music news, reviews, essays and interviews. Before coming to NPR in 2021, Hazel was a culture reporter at Jezebel, where she wrote about music and popular culture. She was also a writer for MTV News and a founding staff writer for the teen publication Rookie magazine.
Ashley Pointer
Ashley Pointer is a news assistant for NPR Music.