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The ‘Last Song Standing’ Episode 2 Syllabus: ‘Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers’

Unpacking Kendrick Lamar’s densest album yet, and trying to figure out which songs will head to our season finale

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to this week’s episode of Last Song Standing, a new show from The Ringer and Dissect built on a simple premise: two hosts figuring out an artist’s greatest song by debating their way through every album in the artist’s discography. Season 1 will tackle one of the most significant artists working today: Kendrick Lamar.

Each week, Cole Cuchna (host of Dissect and Key Notes) and Charles Holmes (from The Ringer Music Show and The Midnight Boys on the Ringer-Verse feed) will tackle a different Kendrick project, nominating three songs and ultimately picking one apiece. Then, they’ll take their individual picks into a season finale battle royal, where they’ll have to determine which song should be crowned Kendrick Lamar’s best of all time.

On this week’s episode, we’re tackling Kendrick’s latest album …

Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers

Release date: May 13, 2022
Billboard 200 peak: no. 1
Singles: “N95,” “Silent Hill”

After the release of 2017’s Damn. and his work on the Black Panther soundtrack the next year, Kendrick stepped away from the public spotlight for nearly four years before releasing Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers this past May. He opens the double album by revealing that during his 1,855-day-long hiatus, he’s been “goin’ through somethin’.” What follows is Kendrick’s most vulnerable album, delving into his daddy issues, lustful addiction, and the internal strife between doing what’s best for himself and assuming the role of “savior” for his community.

Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers received positive acclaim upon release. He did, however, face criticism for his handling of sensitive topics, including the language he used when discussing transgender relatives (on “Auntie Diaries”), and for including Kodak Black, who pleaded guilty to assault in a deal to settle a rape and sexual assault charge, on an album that addresses the generational trauma stemming from sexual abuse.

It’s an unresolved, therapeutic release featuring some of Kendrick Lamar’s most complex lyricism and production to date. With so much to unpack from the album, what did Charles and Cole pick as the best song?

What the critics said at the time: “Kendrick’s fifth studio album is about what happens when a rapper hailed as ‘the voice of a generation’ removes the metaphorical mask … and reveals that what’s underneath is far uglier, more broken, and more forthright than most had imagined.” —The Ringer

Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is the testament of a complicated soul with a lot more work to do, and the result is a mix of expansive ambition and messy incoherence, tumbling down dark roads with no clear exit strategy.” —NPR

“It’s concerned with masculinity, the efficacy of protest, and the weight of hip-hop fans’ expectations. But it’s mostly about phones and the internet. Kendrick … is obsessed not only with how those things enable our basest, most lustful selves, but the ways they commodify what should be uncommodifiable and render virtually all communication insincere.” —Mic

“Despite all its aggrieved poses and statements, the often astonishing rapping, the fastidious attention to detail, and its theme of self-affirmation, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers ironically never settles on a portrait of Kendrick.” —Pitchfork

Trivia: Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers marks the final studio album between Lamar and his longtime label, Top Dawg Entertainment.

So how does the Last Song Standing team feel about Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers?

What Charles says: “The emotions are so visceral and so raw that it’s almost like listening to someone pick away at a psychic or emotional scab.”

What Cole says: “It put me through something. It’s a very emotional album. … It’s been an emotional journey not only trying to understand not only where Kendrick is and what he’s trying to say on this album, but redefining our perception of him.”

Hottest take from the episode: Charles would rather listen to Drake’s house music album than Mr. Morale.

Possible choices for their lists: Will Charles and Cole go for the hard-hitting single “N95”? The somber climax to the album, “Mother I Sober”? “Die Hard”? Something else? Listen to find out.

Next week’s episode: Charles and Cole revisit the album that finds Kendrick at the peak of his career. Check back next Thursday on the Dissect podcast feed, and until then, check out the Last Song Standing companion playlist.

Hosts: Cole Cuchna and Charles Holmes
Producer: Justin Sayles
Production: Kevin Pooler
Theme Music: Devon Renaldo