The five-year wait for a new album by Kendrick Lamar — the Pulitzer-anointed, voice-of-a-generation rapper — is finally over.
“Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers,” Lamar’s fifth studio LP and one of the most ardently anticipated new albums in years, was released overnight on digital services, with big hopes from fans and big questions looming about his next career steps.
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 for such a long stretch without sacrificing fan loyalty or critical prestige. Even after Lamar’s extended absence, “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” is expected to make a sizable opening-week splash on the Billboard albums chart.
Lamar cemented himself as one of the most ambitious rappers of the millennial generation with his major-label debut, “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” (2012). For his follow-up effort, “To Pimp a Butterfly” (2015), he brought in a host of players from Los Angeles’s fertile jazz scene, including Kamasi Washington and Thundercat. That album, “a work about living under constant racialized surveillance and how that can lead to many types of internal monologues, some empowered, some self-loathing,” as the 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, though it lost album of the year to Bruno Mars’s “24K Magic.” (The rapper has 14 total Grammy wins.) Lamar, who grew up in Compton, Calif., and has made that area’s culture and struggles a central part of his music, also became the first rapper to receive the Pulitzer Prize for music. “DAMN.” was cited in 2018 as “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.” Lamar embraced the accolade, appearing in concert with a “Pulitzer Kenny” banner behind him.
Also in 2018, Lamar and the head of his record company, Anthony Tiffith (known as Top Dawg), were the executive producers of a companion album to the film “Black Panther.” A track from the LP, “All the Stars,” by Lamar and SZA, was nominated for an Academy Award for best original song. The visual artist Lina Iris Viktor sued, saying her work was used without permission in the track’s video; the lawsuit was settled in late 2018.
Since that eventful year, Lamar has kept a low public profile, making a handful of guest appearances on other artists’ songs and, last year, joining the 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 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 being either the only relative youngster in a hip-hop oldies show or — performing songs up to a decade old — perhaps already being a bit of a throwback himself.
Last Sunday, Lamar released a new music video, “The Heart Part 5,” as a teaser for “Mr. Morale.” It has a spoken prologue stating “life is perspective” and then shows Lamar’s face melding with those of a series of Black men of varying levels of cultural heroism or controversy: O.J. Simpson, Kanye West, Jussie Smollett, Will Smith, Kobe Bryant, Nipsey Hussle. The deepfake effects were created by Deep Voodoo, a studio from the “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 longtime collaborator.
The lyrics in “The Heart Part 5” have already been scoured for meaning, as has the image that Lamar shared on Wednesday of the album’s cover, photographed by Renell Medrano. It shows Lamar, in a crown of thorns, holding a child while a woman on a bed nurses a baby, like an allegorical religious painting.
To some extent, those may also serve as clues for the next stage of Lamar’s career. “Mr. Morale” 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 has not announced a new label deal, but has instead begun new projects with pgLang, which was announced two years ago as a “multilingual, at service company” that will work on a range of creative and commercial projects, from the video for “The Heart Part 5” to a series of new Converse sneakers.