Kendrick Lamar - Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers
May 14, 2022 (updated May 18, 2022)
90
NEW KUNG-FU KENNY

If there is any artist that’s received “fuck you credibility” from music nerd circles comparable to that of music legends like Radiohead, it’s rapper and poet Kendrick Lamar. That’s not to say Kendrick has never released anything not great or bad, but when you’ve released, depending on who you ask, four of the most noteworthy albums of the decade and, in my opinion, two all time classics, you earn a type of respect and patience from the masses that few rarely see. Hell, Kendrick was on two of the worst singles of the 2010’s and none of the stink stuck onto him. As an artist with mountains of commercial acclaim and critical adoration, K.Dot has earned so much praise and acclaim in recent years that it feels like the world stops in its tracks whenever any news about him is released or whenever he has any new musical output. This is especially the case with his newest album as it’s been five whole years since his last studio album - the longest we’ve ever had to wait for a new record from him. The world today is very different from what it was during the release of “DAMN.” There’s been an alt-right presidency, a pandemic, a larger awareness of BIPOC issues, institutionalized racism, and global protests. It felt like when the world needed a Kendrick album the most, he was nowhere to be found. Everyone wondered what he was up to and what he thinks about this new world we live in. And finally, after five long years of waiting, Kendrick Lamar finally answered with his fifth studio album and final one with his label TDE, “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers”.

Billed as a double album, “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” with many thoughts, ideas, and concepts that I’m sure many will be spending the rest of the year trying to unpack. While I will definitely be spending a lot of time trying to fully grasp everything being said and done on this album, there are a few things that are immediately pretty clear, one of them being that this album is presented as a therapy session. Kendrick has always been a personal rapper and has spoken many times in the past about his depression, but on this album specifically he is talking about what is getting to him and what’s been affecting his mental state head on. Very early on in the project K.Dot writes about how he’s been going through something and how he’s been having a years long writer’s block, and it seems like he’s trying to open up to be able to create again. This concept of Lamar going through a therapy session allows him to explore what has been weighing heavy on his mind, with two ideas in particular actually tying into the album’s title, “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers”.

To address the former, I think “Mr. Morale” relates to Lamar’s struggle with what I think to be a need to hero for his audience. Kendrick seems to feel pressure to always be doing the right thing, delivering an uplifting message, feeling the need to speak on world issues, actually having an impact to make people’s lives and circumstances better, the fear that people are going to turn on him. From the very beginning Kendrick has positioned himself as a rapper with a message, and over time he’s garnered an almost biblical mythos - just look at how some people talk about his music online. That position of being “Mr. Morale” is one that comes with a lot of pressure, and it seems to be cracking him. Kendrick spends this therapy session coming to terms with the fact that his message is not always going to resonate with everyone and recognizing that sometimes it’s okay to be focused on himself and his priorities in his personal life instead of trying to be the world’s musical prophet like he is often painted. He’s a human being who makes mistakes (which, don’t worry, he goes into many of them here) and has his own issues and responsibilities, he’s not a savior, and this album is him trying to stop putting the responsibility of being a savior on himself.

Meanwhile, “The Big Steppers” refers to Kendrick’s struggle to be vulnerable and address what’s going on with him. Obviously, “Steppers” is a reference to stepping and dancing, and throughout the record Lamar will often use the sound of dancing to cut himself or someone else off whenever it seems like they’re getting deeper than he’s willing to go. At one point, K.Dot’s fiancé literally spells it out by saying “stop tap dancing around the conversation”, reinforcing the motif that he’s avoiding dealing with this problems. On multiple tracks, Kendrick talks about how he’s afraid to address his emotions and be vulnerable, worried about how people will think of him and if they’ll still be willing to accept him or will it be too much for them. This ties into another big theme throughout the album, and that is generational curses and toxic masculinity.

Kendrick seems to be exploring the idea of inherited trauma and how the bad behavior and harm somebody does to someone else can often lead to the hurt person repeating the same or similar mistakes later in life or developing bad coping mechanisms. Kendrick cites his relationship with his own father being the root of many of his flaws, including his struggles to be vulnerable and show emotion as I just mentioned, as his father rarely showed him affection and would discourage him to express his feelings. He goes on to address the fact that men bottling up their emotions often leads to them making their partners emotional punching bags. This is later explored further on “We Cry Together”, where Kendrick and actress Taylor Paige act out an explosive couple’s argument showing them being cruel to the person they love, with Kendrick going as far as to go on what I’m sure he would recognize as a misogynistic rant. Kendrick also addresses the trauma that was caused by him hearing his own mother being abused when he was too young to be able to do anything to stop it and how that lead to his mother insistently accusing Kendrick’s cousin of molesting him even though they didn’t. All of these traumatic instances and the pressure that Kendrick is feeling has resulted in him having a repeated issue with infidelity, which is what has lead to Kendrick going to therapy in the first place. K.Dot is coming to terms with how the pain he’s felt has lead to influence his behavior and act out and then proceeds to recognize how this is often the case for other people, especially black people - individuals making bad decisions as a way to cope with the pain they’ve experienced. At the end of the album, Kendrick seems to make a vow to address the issues that’s getting to him and work on bettering himself so he doesn’t hurt his children like others have hurt him, hopefully being the one to end the generational curse in the process.

There’s two more things that I want to quickly address before I get into my final thoughts on the project. One of those this is the production; I haven’t really dived deep into the production like I usually do just because of how lyrically dense this project is. That said, I think the production is fantastic. I love how the piano is what ties the sound of this album together, with piano being on practically every song with some tracks featuring just piano and maybe some backing vocals or light strings - not only that not something you often see on a rap album, but it gives the project a very emotional weight. I love the sound of the synths on this project, the drums are punchy and hard hitting, and the strings are heavenly.

The second thing I want to address is the song “Auntie Diaries”, which I feel like I have to address considering how notably queer and trans I’ve presented myself. To sum it up, Kendrick tells about how his uncle and cousin both came out as trans, how both were treated differently when they came out of the closet, how Kendrick learned to understand and accept them, how he decided to stand up for them even against his friends and his church, and how he learned about the importance of his language and how harmful it could be, even when he’s just joking and not trying to be cruel. I just wanted to highlight this track because a) it sounds gorgeous and features incredible storytelling and lyricism and b) while I have some issues with the delivery, I do think this is overall an admirable message to have in a rap song in 2022. Hip-hop hasn’t had the best relationship with queer people in the past, and we’re currently living through a time where our government is trying to crack down on taking queer rights away and transgender murders are higher than they’ve ever been. I think an artist with as much mainstream appeal Kendrick taking a public stance in support of the transgender and gay community is a huge deal that will hopefully make some homophobic and transphobic people reconsider their stances. Like I said, I don’t think the delivery was perfect, and my approval heavily relies on the assumption this is the last time he’s going to use messaging like this, and if you’re more unsure about the song or flat out think he was too far out of line, that is absolutely understandable and I don’t think you’re wrong in thinking that whatsoever. I think this is a complex conversation that’s nuance couldn’t be captured with a tweet, a TikTok, or a music review. On top of that, if you’re straight and/or cisgender, it is not your place to lecture queer people about what they should or shouldn’t feel about the track, and saying they need to be grateful or calling them snowflakes for not being okay with it is at best out of pocket and at worst actively attempting to silence a marginalized group. All that said, I think a personal, emotional song showing gay and trans solidarity, even with muddled messaging, is an overall net positive.

On top of everything else, what really amazes me about “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” is how hungry Kendrick is even ten years after my favorite album from him. So many rappers that are often name dropped in the same conversation with him seems to coast after they hit a certain achievement or goal, but K.Dot still raps like he’s got something to prove and constantly manages to surprise and subvert audience expectations. Not only that, but while other conscious rappers often feel like they’re preaching or lecturing, Kendrick manages to make his message feel like a dialogue, life lessons he’s learned that he’s hoping will help others who need it, as well as being the first to acknowledge he doesn’t have all the answers and still has room to grow. After eleven years and a five year silence Kendrick is still proving to be consistently great and a notch above the rest. While I’m sure that this is going to be a divisive album, I think its greatness will show with patience and repeated listens, as it certainly has for me already. I just hope that K.Dot tales his own advice and starts to go easier on himself moving forward, he’s certainly earned it. Kendrick Lamar finally got a long overdue therapy session to address what he’s been going through, baring his soul, and I hope with “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” he is finally free.

Oh, and in case anybody asks:

gkmc>TPAB>MM&TBS>S.80>DAMN.

21 Comments
2mo
the queen has return with an epic length review, btw how was christian mom?
2mo
@AyeItsJoey life changing. One of the best live shows I’ve seen and was the absolute sweetest when I met her
2mo
omg hi! yeah this review is so good. it's like it's saying MM&TBS is the Kid A of hip hop and this generation too lol
2mo
The review I’ve been waiting anticipating.
2mo
@tintool Thank you! Im glad you enjoyed it! Im not sure if I would make that comparison as I don’t see a lot of similar characteristics between the two, but I’d love to know your reasoning for why you think that
2mo
@ClayDJs03 I’m happy to hear that! I hope I delivered lol
2mo
Aw, I figured she was a sweetheart in person, i can only imagune what her screams sound like live, I'm glad you had fun!
2mo
Nice review! Loving this album, I'm surprised so many people are not into it! it's brilliant imo
2mo
@AugustYours thank you so much! Yeah it’s been pretty divisive, it is what it is. Pretty much every Kendrick album has had some pushback when they were first released, including GKMC and TPAB. There’s a lot of reasons why, but I think a big thing was the 5 year wait and people committing to their version of what they wanted a new Kendrick album to be like in their heads. That’s not the only thing obviously, but I think it plays a big part. We’ll see how it plays out with more time
2mo
Wow! Great review as always. It´s interesting to hear your insight on Auntie Diaries. I also completely agree with your ranking of his albums from favorite to least favorite except I have the last 2 flipped! You´re awesome!:)
2mo
Good review, but also bad review. Take this ratio
2mo
@calebmullings54 thank you! I really appreciate it!!
2mo
@BradTasteMusic I’m glad you liked it ☺️, but also I’m sorry you didn’t like it 😔
2mo
Great review! Plus, I agree we shouldn't police queer people's feelings towards auntie's diaries, cause they also have a good point too.
2mo
baaased
2mo
i agree with your opinion about "auntie diaries".
i mean, it could have been done in a better way.
but there are a lot of rappers who treated the argument poorly/badly unlike Kendrick did so that's a point
2mo
@emomu @TomBejoy @okwowsuchok thank you all for the kind words! It truly means the world to me.
2mo
Fantastic review. Can't believe i missed it until now. Fucking excellent writing as always baddie
2mo
Very good review, as always I would say!!! :)
2mo
@Neo_Fascination @AndreManfre93 aww thank you both so much ☺️☺️☺️
2mo
all i really said was "baased" but you continue to be the sweetest person in the world
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