Mr Morale & the Big Steppers is an experimental deep dive into Kendrick Lamar’s troubled psyche
Kendrick has undoubtedly secured his place on the ‘Mount Rushmore of rap’.
How? Because he has achieved his stratospheric commercial and cultural success with a social conscience. He is an artist capable of creating immersive stories with different protagonists within each of his albums, whilst not sacrificing the quality of his song compositions in the process. The latest instalment to the artist’s catalogue, Mr Morale & The Big Steppers, arrived on last Friday much to the delight of fans, after a lengthy wait since his Pulitzer Prize-winning LP DAMN. in 2017. Expectations were inevitably sky-high for this next release.
Released as a double album, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers assumes an ambitious form, guiding us through Kendrick’s psyche, with his long-time partner Whitney Alford as the narrator. The album plays as Lamar’s therapy session – Kendrick is sitting in the therapist chair of a psychologist’s office and pouring his heart out properly for the first time in his career. Side A, ‘The Big Steppers’, kicks off at breakneck speed with, ‘United in Grief’. The first words he utters are: “I’ve been going through something / One-thousand eight-hundred and fifty-five days, I’ve been goin’ through somethin’ / Be afraid”. As listeners and fans of Lamar, we’re intrigued by who Lamar has become and what topics will be touched upon. With the five years of near radio-silence and the plethora of global events since ‘DAMN.’ dropped, surely Lamar has changed. However, rather than looking outward while the world around him changes, Lamar instead looks inwards, fully confronting himself and his multitudes. This is just the first of many moments of soul-searching and meditation throughout the 18-track record.
Next up is ‘N95’, with one of the most interesting beats that Kendrick has ever rapped over. Co-produced by cousin Baby Keem, the synth-drenched cut is reminiscent of Keem’s ‘The Melodic Blue’ album, with its several beat switches and playful adlibs scattered throughout. Track 3, ‘Worldwide Steppers’, is a gritty, looped beat over which Kendrick juxtaposes the saving grace of religion and his sexual encounters with white women, which he describes as ‘retaliation’ for slavery. ‘Die Hard’ features vocals from Blxst and Amanda Reifer. Production-wise, this cut takes the form of a summer beach banger but the bars, however, reflect the opposite of the breezy production: “I hope I’m not too late to set my demons straight…”. Other highlights from Side A are ‘Father Time’, a song about Kendrick’s ‘daddy issues’ caused by having a distant father figure growing up. ‘We Cry Together’ sees some dark and brooding production from The Alchemist; the boom-bap drumbeat is layered by a never-resolving piano chord structure, creating a tense and uncomfortable atmosphere which perfectly serves the song’s lyrical themes.
The ‘Mr Morale’ side of the album begins with Track 10, ‘Count Me Out’, a rock-infused banger that centres on Lamar’s motivation to stay on top, despite criticism. Later on, we hear Baby Keem and Sam Dew join Kendrick on ‘Savior’. This track lands and the message is especially important – that he is not a role model and the saviour to all of the world’s problems. The saviour complex bestowed upon him after he echoed agreeable pro-Black politics on ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ (2015) at the tail-end of the Obama administration has been rejected.
This aligns with the artwork of the album: whilst it depicts Kendrick wearing a thorn crown, on further inspection, the image is not half as narcissistic as it appears. From the tattered apartment walls to the handle of the revolver tucked into his back pocket, it perfectly illustrates the light that he wants to be seen in; imperfect and capable of making mistakes, even when holding a lot of responsibility, like his family.
Image credits: @kendricklamar on Instagram
The bittersweet ‘Auntie Diaries’ sees Kendrick tell the story of two transgender people, using this narrative to critique himself, society, and the church’s views on the LGBTQ community. The most touching lyric comes when Kendrick recollects the day that he called out the preacher for his antiquated views about transgender people, describing it as “The day I chose humanity over religion”.
The penultimate song ‘Mother I Sober’, featuring Beth Gibbons is perhaps the most heart-breaking song he’s ever penned. He details his mother’s experience with sexual abuse and then her subsequent fear that Lamar may be experiencing assault as well. This leads Kendrick to question himself as a young boy, and the trauma from that still stays with him in the present day. The chorus is equally as crushing, “Ooh, I wish I was somebody / Anybody but myself”. However, with Kendrick divulging his experience, his daughter is not subject to the ‘generational curse’ of sexual abuse in black families. Hence the last line, sung by Sam Dew, is: “I bare my soul and now we’re free”. The closer, ‘Mirror’ reaffirms the rebuttal of his image as a saviour, as he sings “Sorry I didn’t save the world, my friend / I was too busy buildin’ mine again / I chose me, I’m sorry”. Whilst not a particularly complex song, it rounds off the narrative of the record smoothly.
The focal point of the album, explored in almost every song, is Kendrick’s relationships. He speaks on how his past experiences from his upbringing have affected his relationships with various properties of life; his warped relationship with money, women and lust, his father, fame, gender, sexuality and trauma. Thus, the overall arc on the album is that of transformation and redemption, on both the personal and cultural levels.
Image credits: @topdawgent on Instagram
Track by track, he examines the ontology of such problems and works past them, like a sort of personal, meditative therapy. In order to achieve this, however, he must drop his somewhat inflated ego and awaken his conscience, in line with the teachings of spiritual philosopher Eckhart Tolle whose name is dropped directly at the beginning of the track ‘Worldwide Steppers’.
It seems that speaking out loud about your experiences and pain, rather than harbouring it all inside and waiting for someone to save you is Kendrick’s credo, deeply embedded into almost every track on this LP. ‘Mr Morale & The Big Steppers’ is a call to action, to confront facts about your life and your past experiences that you don’t want to. Kendrick achieves self-realisation throughout the tracks but is still on the lifelong mission of self-realisation, as we all are. Overall, the album is a thematic and lyrical success. It sees Kendrick almost entirely reinvent his sound with this latest chapter, clearly taking inspiration from different corners of the modern-day music scene, which all come together to create an excellent and highly moving front-to-back album listening experience.