Kendrick Lamar Chooses Himself on “Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers”
Issue 16, Volume 112
“Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers” marks the long-waited return of the revered rapper Kendrick Lamar after five years of absence. Established by many as one of the greatest artists of the genre ever since he first emerged on the scene in 2011, Lamar has been missed by fans and critics alike. He has released four highly successful albums, won fourteen Grammys and a Pulitzer Prize, and garnered worldwide attention since 2011. The rollout of “Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers” has been relatively sparse, preceded only by Lamar’s performance at the Superbowl Halftime Show and the release of his single “The Heart Part V.” Because of the mystery surrounding the album and the weight that comes with Lamar’s name, “Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers” has been one of the most anticipated albums of the last few years.
Lamar prefaces “Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers” with the lines “1855 days / I been goin’ through somethin’.” With these words, Lamar establishes the central theme of the album: despite his impossible success and recognition, he is still haunted by an inescapable trauma. The project explores the roots and effects of this trauma by structuring itself as a therapy session, putting the flaws of Lamar’s coping mechanisms, and by extension, those of his community and peers, directly under the spotlight, while simultaneously looking for solutions and ways to move forward. This structure is established using the voices of philosopher Eckhart Tolle, whose periodic narration pins him as Lamar’s therapist and spiritual advisor, and Whitney Alford (Lamar’s wife), who acts as the driving force of his introspection.
The album is divided into two discs of nine tracks each, the first of which focuses on addressing Lamar’s flaws and attempting to understand their origin. These ideas are introduced in the opening track, “United in Grief,” which illustrates the unhealthy and materialistic habits that Kendrick has used as coping mechanisms, as he raps, “the money wipin’ the tears away / I grieve different.” The next track, “Worldwide Steppers,” addresses more of his flaws and imperfections, calling out his lust addiction, objectification of women, writer’s block, and abandonment of his community, an idea explored all across “To Pimp a Butterfly” (2015). The heart of these flaws is explored in “Father Time,” where he focuses on the ideals of masculinity that were engraved in him as a child and the effects that rippled throughout his life, forcing him to be competitive, egotistic, and selfish. “We Cry Together” is the emotional climax of the first half of the album. The track is extremely intense, playing out as an explosive argument between Lamar and actress Taylour Paige. The weight of this track is both impressive and demanding: the duo’s performances are riveting, but the aggression and intensity of this track make it difficult to listen to. It seems to serve as a reminder to Lamar about the importance of strong relationships, and its conflict is indirectly resolved in the closing track “Purple Hearts,” in which Lamar learns his lesson and devotes himself to a stable relationship with his wife.
The second disc of the album analyzes how Lamar copes with the issues introduced by the preceding tracks. This idea is prevalent in the track “Crown,” which explores Lamar’s difficulties with fame and the expectations it places on him; the recurring use of the line “I can’t please everybody” is used as a mantra that helps him cope. The track “Savior” sees Lamar fully taking off the “crown” that has been placed upon him (that being one of the thorns, a symbol of being held as God and the pressure of his fame and status in the music industry), defiantly stating “I am not your savior.” The next track, “Auntie Diaries,” discusses Lamar’s shift in how he views gender and sexuality, describing the changes he had to make in himself to become a more accepting and open-minded person, choosing “humanity over religion.” This introspection is continued in the extremely significant “Mother I Sober,” a heart-wrenching track that sees Lamar attempting to understand and break free from the generational trauma that has haunted him throughout the album. To do this, he has to come to terms with both his trauma and his mother’s trauma, and set free all the guilt and pain that comes with it.
The album’s closing track, “Mirror,” reinforces these ideas with the pivotal lines “I choose me, I’m sorry.” These lines come as revelations to Lamar and work in tandem with his realizations about the complexity of his fame and his humanity, marking the growth that occurred as a result of “putting in the work.”
The impressive storyline and development of the album tie it to its predecessors, yet its soundscape sets it apart. The production of “Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers” compliments Lamar’s intimate intent, being both minimalistic and melancholy. This is exemplified in songs like “Crown” and “Mother I Sober,” in which a single piano acts as the main structure of the song, resulting in a natural swelling that matches the narratives and results in some of the most beautiful melodies and musical moments of his whole discography. Other parts of the album see a less melancholic sound, comparable to Baby Keem’s “The Melodic Blue” (2020), a project that Lamar had multiple features on. This Keem-inspired sound is most noticeable on “N95” and “Savior” (which features Keem himself), in which Lamar tries unorthodox and melodic flows over rapidly progressing beat switches. This minimalistic and melodic sound is unique, setting itself apart from the traditional west-coast-Rap sounds of “good kid m.A.A.d city” (2012) or the jazz-influenced “To Pimp a Butterfly.” This distinction is important and under-valued, displaying what many rappers’ catalogs currently lack: sound diversity.
Compared to Lamar’s previous projects, “Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers” may have a much more scattered and disorganized storyline, yet all its imperfections seem intentional, meant to represent the fragmented and confused state that Lamar finds himself in. However, this leads to a few songs on the album seeming unnecessary, like “Silent Hill,” a lighthearted track that feels out of place among the emotional weight of the rest of this album. It is only at these points that the disorganized nature of the storyline feels distracting, with more energetic songs often being located in between somber songs, making the listening experience a bit disjointed. Additionally, some of the features fall a little short, especially the surprising inclusion of Kodak Black, a controversial artist who has several allegations of sexual assault. His appearances on the album are supposed to tie into the ideas of generational abuse and cancel culture, but this significance falls flat when the ideas aren’t given the development they deserve.
Despite its shortcomings, “Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers” sees Lamar delivering performances teeming with intimacy and introspection: true emotion. Everything about the album feels authentic, every word, every thought process, and every melody culminating into an album that sacrifices “perfection” in the name of truth. Lamar is not trying to impersonate the cohesion and scale of “To Pimp a Butterfly” or the radio hits on “DAMN.”; rather, he is creating something different, something that, both as a rapper and a new father, he feels he needs to. He is able to do this in a way that fits into the album-wide narrative he has already established: if his previous albums both established his world and his internal flaws, “Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers” looks back at this world through the lens of these flaws, attempting to find their roots and remedies. Lamar’s development on “Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers” may make it his most personal and important project yet, created in an effort to pick up the pieces of himself and enter a new stage of his life, one where he is free from the trauma and weight of his past.