The five-year wait for a new album from Kendrick Lamar, the Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper with the voice of a generation, is finally ended.
“Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers,” Lamar’s fifth studio album and one of the year’s most eagerly awaited new albums, was published overnight on digital services, raising expectations and doubts about his next career moves.
Lamar, 34, is one of the few significant players in today’s music market — when a steady stream of new content is considered a need — who can keep listeners waiting for so long without jeopardizing fan devotion or critical status. Even with Lamar’s absence, “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” is predicted to make a significant first-week impact on the Billboard albums list.
With his major-label debut, “good kid, m.A.A.d. city,” Lamar established himself as one of the most ambitious rappers of the millennial generation (2012). For his sophomore album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” he enlisted the help of a slew of musicians from Los Angeles’ thriving jazz community, including Kamasi Washington and Thundercat. The album, described as “a work about being under continual racist surveillance and how that can rise to numerous forms of internal monologues, some powerful, some self-loathing,” features “Alright,” which became an unofficial Black Lives Matter protest song.
His 2017 album, “DAMN.,” received five Grammy nominations but lost album of the year to Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic.” (The rapper has 14 Grammy nominations in all.) Lamar, who grew up in Compton, California, and has made the culture and problems of that neighborhood a prominent element of his songs, is also the first rapper to earn the Pulitzer Prize for music. “DAMN.” was described as “a virtuoso song collection linked by vernacular authenticity and rhythmic energy that presents emotional vignettes expressing the complexities of current African-American existence” in 2018. Lamar welcomed the honor, performing with a “Pulitzer Kenny” banner behind him.
Also, in 2018, Lamar and his record label’s boss, Anthony Tiffith (aka Top Dawg), were executive producers of a companion album to the film “Black Panther.” “All the Stars,” a tune from the LP by Lamar and SZA, was nominated for an Academy Award for best original song. Lina Iris Viktor, a visual artist, filed a lawsuit alleging that her work was utilized without authorization in the track’s video; the dispute was resolved in late 2018.
Lamar has kept a low public presence since that tumultuous year, making a few cameo appearances on other artists’ tracks and, this year, joining Las Vegas rapper (and his cousin) Baby Keem for two songs on Keem’s album “The Melodic Blue,” including the Grammy-winning “Family Ties.” In February, Lamar performed at the Super Bowl LVI halftime show alongside Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, Eminem, and Mary J. Blige, putting him in the unusual position of either being the only relative youngster in a hip-hop oldies show or — performing songs up to a decade old — possibly already being a bit of a throwback himself.
As a preview for “Mr. Morale,” Lamar released a new music video, “The Heart Part 5,” Sunday. It begins with a spoken prologue in which Lamar’s visage merges with a series of Black men with varied levels of cultural heroes or controversy: O.J. Simpson, Kanye West, Jussie Smollett, Will Smith, Kobe Bryant, and Nipsey Hussle. Deep Voodoo, a firm founded by “South Park” founders Trey Parker and Matt Stone, generated the deepfake effects. The studio is preparing other projects alongside pgLang, a new business launched by Lamar and Dave Free, a longstanding collaborator.
The words in “The Heart Part 5” have already been combed for significance, as has the image of the album’s cover, snapped by Renell Medrano, that Lamar posted on Wednesday. Like a symbolic religious artwork, it depicts Lamar wearing a crown of thorns and carrying a kid as a lady on a bed nurses a newborn.
To some extent, those may also serve as hints for Lamar’s next career stage. “Mr. Morale” will be his final album for Top Dawg Entertainment, or TDE, which has distributed his songs in collaboration with Interscope throughout his career. He has not announced a new label deal. Still, He has instead begun new projects with pgLang, which was announced two years ago as a “multilingual, at service company” that will work on a variety of creative and commercial projects, including the video for “The Heart Part 5” and a line of new Converse sneakers.