Kendrick Lamar's "Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers" offers unsettling insight into the rapper's otherwise sheltered personal life, exploring the dichotomy between Kendrick Lamar - the rapper, and Kendrick Lamar - the person.
In the past five years, Kendrick has become increasingly reserved in the public eye. The acclaim of DAMN. earned him a Pulitzer Prize, making him the first rapper to be awarded the esteemed accolade. Then, he curated Black Panther: The Album – another gold star in his growing catalog. It felt as if Kendrick couldn’t miss, even if he wanted to. Despite all the praise he's received over the years, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is a testament that there’s little satisfaction in external validation if it comes at the expense of his peace of mind.
“I’ve been going through something. 1855 days. I’ve been going through something,” Kendrick utters with complete deadpan on the album opener, “United In Grief.” For every moment where his silence was criticized as controversy erupted in the culture, Kendrick Lamar confronts these issues head-on. Kendrick stands militant on songs like “N95” and “Savior,” where he addresses the hypocrisy of capitalism and performative activism throughout the past two years of the pandemic. Kendrick scoffs at political correctness but not as a means of rebellion or being edgy. Whether it’s the divisiveness of mask mandates, the vaccine, or systemic inequalities, there’s a safety net of opinions that many fear to go against. Across the project, Kendrick argues that the current status quo is stalling critical conversations that can ultimately lead to personal and societal healing. At the same time, he parallels how censorship and cancel culture has revoked the poetic license of many artists. Kendrick is willing to fight for it.
Self-care and healing are the central forces across the double-disc effort. His observations on race, sexuality, spirituality and gender roles are carefully woven together as an hour-and-18-minute therapy session. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers offers unsettling insight into Kendrick’s otherwise sheltered personal life, capturing the highs and lows of his celebrity via the dichotomy between Kendrick Lamar the rapper, and Kendrick Lamar the person. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers combines the density of To Pimp A Butterfly, the autobiographical narration of good kid, m.A.A.d city, the fluidity of DAMN., and the social commentary of Section.80 to form Kendrick’s most personal album to date, as well as his most challenging. The cover art for the project says as much with Kendrick’s fiancée, Whitney Alford, holding their newborn son and Kendrick carrying his firstborn daughter with a diamond-encrusted crown of thorns on his head and a pistol tucked behind his pants. It’s the voices of Whitney and their daughter across the project that drill home the urgency in Kendrick tending to his family life before anything else.
As a father himself, there’s the inherent need to protect his family that goes beyond the immediate threats that come with raising Black children in America. On “Father Time” ft. Sampha, Kendrick dives into the root of his insecurities, and how that stems from an emotionally vacant relationship with his own dad. Whitney says, “You really need therapy,” before Kendrick quickly dismisses the suggestion. “Real n****a don’t need no therapy,” he quips before Whitney urges him to call on Eckhart Tolle, a self-help author whose voice is heard across the album. The production, handled by Grandmaster Vic, Duval Timothy, BÄkon, DJ Dahi, Beach Noise & Sounwave, is warm and nostalgic, allowing Kendrick to fully divulge the childhood experiences that inevitably informed his worldview and the relationships he has with women. And he extends this sentiment to those who didn’t grow up with a father in their lives in hopes that they can have their own moments of realization for the betterment of their kids.
“Father Time” is among the many moments in the project where Kendrick confronts toxic masculinity as a double-edged sword. Taylor Paige’s stunning performance on “We Cry Together” digs even deeper into the root of toxic masculinity. While “Father Time” explored the societal standard that prevents men from showing any vulnerability, “We Cry Together” produces a realistic depiction of a domestic dispute from both a man's and a woman’s point of view. “This is what the world sounds like,” Whitney says before Alchemist’s harrowing piano-laden production strikes. Taylour Paige’s pain is met by Kendrick’s deflection as each dish cavernous insults. The end result, however, is the return to the cycle of abuse where physical gratification is a temporary solution to deeply rooted problems.
“Stop tap dancing around the conversation,” Whitney says at the end of “We Cry Together.” This is the thematic statement of the album, accompanied by actual tap dancing from teenage tap-dancing sensations, Freddie and Teddie Tisdale. The voices of Whitney Alford and Eckhart Tolle allow for seamless transitions between songs but Kendrick also uses vocals as a tool to drive production. The production of “Rich Spirit” and “Mr. Morale” ft. Tanne Leone rely heavily on vocal samples for infectious bops. Kodak Black’s voice also remains a pivotal aspect of the album. He’s weaved across the project on the intro of “Worldwide Steppers,” “Rich Spirit - Interlude,” and “Silent Hill,” where he offers a verse of his own. Kodak Black is a generational talent whose influence can not be denied, despite the controversies surrounding his name. Is there redemption for someone like Kodak, whose career has been riddled with prison stints, sexual assault allegations, and a political alignment with Donald Trump? “Like it when I’m pro-Black but I’m more Kodak Black,” Kendrick raps on “Savior," drawing the parallels between the environments that he and Kodak Black were raised in. The line, in particular, is a strong indication of where Kendrick stands on the topic of “cancel culture” but it’s fair to feel as if Kodak’s presence is contradictory to an album dedicated to self-care and healing.
In “Auntie Diaries,” Kendrick reflects on his own journey toward ridding his homophobic and transphobic mind state, especially since it deeply affects his own bloodline. Following controversies with artists like Boosie and DaBaby, Kendrick’s accountability is a stern reminder of how transphobia and homophobia have a deeper impact beyond those who identify as LGBTQ+. To be able to destigmatize the social ills of discrimination is to defy the norms that allowed them to exist in the first place. However, Kendrick’s overt and repetitive use of the F-word feels unnecessary after the first time.
The conversations that are the hardest to have are also the most necessary. And in the past five years since Kendrick Lamar released DAMN., political correctness, cancel culture, and overwhelming sensitivity – on both ends of the political spectrum – have led to boycotts and corporate interest in the sake of “solidarity” and “activism” that feels nothing shy of disingenuous. In the midst of it all, a legion of rap fans have wondered: Where does Kendrick stand? On his latest album, Kendrickdirectly responds to societal issues that have opened dialogue surrounding gender roles, sexuality, and race and how each of these topics intertwines with each other. Mr. Morale And The Big Steppers is a two-disc summary of online conversations that have turned Twitter into a cesspool of thoughts. But at the center of these conversations are the experiences of real people, one of which just so happens to be Kendrick Lamar.