Kendrick Lamar’s fifth studio album, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, is a critique and rejection of present day culture. As a cultural icon himself, the Pulitzer-winning hip hop artist uses his new album to declare unequivocally that he has chosen himself over said culture; he has chosen his truth over his celebrity. Throughout the double album, Kendrick Lamar unpacks exactly why he came to this conclusion, what it means, and why he feels the need to continually remind you that “[he is] not your savior.” By addressing taboo topics, sharing intimate confessions, and exposing painful accounts of family trauma, Kendrick Lames hopes his sacrifices will set us free.
A lot has led up to this complicated moment for Kendrick Lamar. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers finds him turning inwards and becoming more cynical than ever before. But this should not come as a surprise to anyone who has followed his journey closely, as his previous projects have all shown signs of an artist growing world-weary, whose success has been both humbling and disillusioning. It’s worth taking a step back to examine the journey that led Kendrick Lamar to make Mr. Morale, and how that evolution illuminates many of the album’s central messages.
Kendrick Lamar released To Pimp A Butterfly in March of 2015, and it didn’t take long for the sprawling 78-minute album to become hailed as the unrivaled hip hop masterpiece. No album in the genre’s 40+ year history had achieved what TPAB did by blending bold concepts, theatrical lyrical performances, progressive instrumentation, and sharp social commentary — all while managing to maintain mainstream appeal. Its artistic excellence was remarkable, even by Kendrick’s standards, and it reimagined what was possible for a hip hop record.
To Pimp A Butterfly is at least partially an album about the identity crisis Kendrick faced as he became famous and successful. Nowhere on To Pimp A Butterfly does his identity crisis, and the album’s overarching theme of feeling conflicted, come across more starkly than on the consecutive songs u and Alright. The juxtaposition of these two songs creates a strong tension between Kendrick’s depression and hopelessness versus his pride and resilience. It’s a demonstration of how very little separates such vastly opposed emotional states. Stylistically the songs differ as well. While u is a favorite among hardcore fans, it is one of the album’s deep cuts. And not surprisingly so: hearing Kendrick drink away his pain and contemplate suicide over frantic horns and spooky synths is not for everyone. It’s an uncomfortable and jarring visit inside his conscience. The following song, Alright, is the opposite in both subject and style.
Where u is about struggle, Alright is about overcoming. Where u is uncomfortable, Alright is a banger. But Alright became more than a banger and a fan favorite, and so much more than a hit rap song. It became the anthem for the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement. The song’s simple yet encouraging lyrics, “We gon’ be alright,” made it the perfect slogan to be chanted at protests denouncing police brutality and systematic racism. In the wake of Alright becoming the BLM anthem, Kendrick and his music became associated with the movement itself, and this association was enough to thrust him into the center of the national political conversation. Alright went from symbolizing the hopeful, triumphant side of Kendrick’s inner conflict to becoming the song that would make him guilty by association in the eyes of his critics. This is the moment when Kendrick’s celebrity and his music starts to get politicized (or pimped), and it serves as the unofficial beginning of Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, and the path that led to Kendrick’s rejection of self-described culture.
Being in the political spotlight is, by definition, challenging. But it is only getting worse in the current era of social media and ultra-polarization. Fox News recognized that Kendrick had become a major figure in the BLM movement, and took to criticizing him on their show after Kendrick performed Alright live during the 2015 BET Awards. Audio clips of Fox News reporter Geraldo Rivera’s comments in reference to his performance were sampled on DAMN’s opening track DNA: “This is why I say that hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years.” Kendrick followed up directly on the the following track YAH, saying “Fox News wanna use my name for percentage, my latest news is my niece, she’s worth livin’,” then continues: “somebody tell Geraldo [Rivera] this n**** got some ambition.” Kendrick took the moral high ground in this instance: rather than passionately firing back at his critics, he turned his attention to his niece and to the fact that he has ambitions as a family man and as an artist. He’s more concerned about taking care of himself than he is about winning an argument with a Fox News anchor. Along the way, he learned a valuable lesson about how the media will distort his message to make him, or anyone, the bad guy, as long as it fits their narrative. That lesson stuck with him, and would become a central thematic pillar on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers.
Despite creating the BLM movement’s adopted protest anthem and being hip hop’s de facto torchbearer, Kendrick began transitioning away from the spotlight after executive producing Marvel’s Black Panther soundtrack in 2018. Then 2020 rolled around, and the Covid pandemic hit. Then on May 25th, George Floyd was killed by a police officer in broad daylight in Minneapolis. Protests took place around the world, and conversations about systematic racism, policing, and the difference between protesting and rioting dominated dinner tables everywhere. That summer there were peaceful protests, destructive riots, clashes between Blue vs Black Lives Matter camps, and everything in between. With Trump in the White House, and most Americans isolated in their homes, there was a void in leadership in the county, which only made tensions higher. Everyone was forced to choose a side — stand unequivocally against systemic racism or be a racist — and celebrities, politicians, and everyday citizens used their platforms as megaphones to declare exactly which side they were on. During this time, when people across the country were looking for role models and influential artists to fill the country’s leadership void, Kendrick Lamar’s voice was noticeably absent. Because of this, Kendrick was continually criticized and attacked by many who believed he was failing them; he was not arising to the moment the way a cultural icon and self-proclaimed prophet must.
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is Kendrick Lamar’s unapologetic and courageously personal rebuttal of this criticism. Over the course of the album, he explains to his critics exactly why he went quiet during the George Floyd protests and the pandemic. Put simply, he is not their savior. He does not have a magic wand he can wave to make things better overnight. He does not have the superpower to change the minds of Fox News anchors. However, while he cannot be your savior, he does have the capacity to be the savior of his family, his relationship, and himself. But in order to save his inner circle, he needed to stop trying to save everyone else. He ruminates on this in Crown: “I can’t please everybody, I can’t please everybody…,” before summing up his decision on the album’s closing track Mirror: “I choose me, I’m sorry.”
In the third verse of Mirror, Kendrick doubles down on his rejection of the savior complex. The verse is in response to an unnamed female critic who had called Kendrick out for his lack of recent social activism. The lyrics are likely in reference to a Tweet in which female rapper and social activist Noname called out “top-selling rappers” for not doing enough to support the Black community during the George Floyd protests in 2020. In defending his decision to choose himself over saving the world through activism, Kendrick addresses his critic, explaining that his dedication to therapy and family values are more important: “Baby, I just had a baby, you know she need me, workin’ on myself, the counselin’ is not easy.” Kendrick has been open in the past about his self-doubts and depressive thoughts, and with two children to take care of now, he’s “sorry he didn’t save the world,” but he’s “too busy building [his] again.”
Kendrick uses this dialogue with an anonymous critic as a microcosm to reject cancel culture more broadly. He doesn’t believe the woke mobs’ approach to social media activism is the saving grace for a hyper-polarized world. On Savior, he dismisses virtue signaling on social media: “even blacked out screens and called it solidarity, meditating in silence made you want to tell on me.” These lyrics echo the tone he struck in his feature on Baby Keem’s Grammy-winning song Family Ties: “I been ducking the pandemic, I been ducking the social gimmicks, I been ducking the overnight activists.” For Kendrick, this form of activism is riddled with false intentions, which ultimately distracts us from achieving real activism at home in the form of personal growth, family responsibility, and community healing. As he reminds us again and again on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, he chooses a personal form of activism. He’d rather set an example than set a trend.
Therapy, still taboo in hip hop and society at large, is a towering subject across Mr. Morale. Kendrick repeatedly touts the liberating impact it has had on his own personal growth — growth which has provided him the courage to divulge his deepest truths. He discusses how he has found new ways to heal, and is ready to lead by example in hopes that others will share his penchant for vulnerability and honesty. Many of the things society values and perpetuates are antithetical to the practice of healing. Kendrick has a problem with that, and he’s not afraid to take the gloves off to take a stand against what he sees as backward incentives. The pre-album single The Heart Part 5, which was later added to the official album on streaming services, introduces all of the major themes of Mr. Morale: trauma, denial, sacrifice, and healing. With an accompanying deep fake video showing Kendrick morphing into various Black male celebrities of varying levels of notoriety, he uses the first verse to summarize how he believes the culture has become synonymous with violence, pain and normalized trauma. He goes on to reject the damaging effects of pain denial and insensitivity, ultimately rejecting the entire cultural landscape that promotes this cycle of grief: “In the land where hurt people hurt more people, fuck calling it culture.”
In the third verse of The Heart Part 5, Kendrick strikes a more uplifting tone, and focuses on the healing powers of making sacrifices: “Sacrifice personal gain over everything, just to see the next generation better than ours.” The recurring theme of personal sacrifice across Mr. Morale invokes a strong parallel to Jesus Christ, who sacrificed himself for the sins of humanity. Kendrick, who has used music to ponder the idea of being a prophet before, uses imagery on the album cover to make the comparison more obvious. Wearing the crown of thorns and a white tee-shirt, holding his daughter in his arms, Kendrick looks out from a bare room, while his fiancée Whitney holds their infant son on a mattress behind him. But Kendrick Lamar knows he is no Jesus Christ… he made it very clear he is not your savior. But by being a hero for his family, rejecting violence, and promoting therapy, he might be able to empower others to become their own saviors. And that ties back to the text at the beginning of The Heart Part 5 video: “I am. All of us — oklama.” Kendrick might strive to be a Jesus Christ figure in his family life, but he’s really just a flawed, complex soul like everyone else. His strategy on the challengingly personal and honest songs on Mr. Morale is to remind us all just how ordinary he really is – forget being a prophet or a savior — he’s in therapy working through personal trauma, sex addiction, and self-doubt. His taking his N95 mask off to show the world who he really is.
And then there’s Freddie and Teddie, two guests on the album that assist Kendrick in taking off his mask. They are possibly the last two people you’d expect to be prominent features on a new Kendrick Lamar album. Freddie and Teddie are the young tap dancing twins responsible for making Mr. Morale the first major rap-tap album. The twins’ tap dancing can be heard throughout Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers, most often filling the silence between songs. On the stellar We Cry Together, which is more avant-garde theater dialogue than recorded music, a couple’s argument, performed by Kendrick Lamar & actress Taylour Paige, turns into a hostile war of words in what is one of the bravest and most progressive songs in popular music history, and an impressive achievement in artistic realism. (It’s also so uncomfortable that it’s probably the last song you’d want to pop up on shuffle with the wrong audience). The argument culminates in the woman telling Kendrick: “See, you the reason why strong women fucked up, why they say it’s a man’s world, see, you the reason for Trump.” This is the musical equivalent of #nofilter; it’s the first season of The Wire; and it’s the secret video camera recording of our hidden personal lives. In other words, “This is what the world looks like,” as Kendrick’s fiancée Whitney says in the song’s preface.
At the end of the vicious back and forth on We Cry Together, Whitney’s voice returns, descending upon the scene like a Greek goddess taking human form, encouraging the couple to: “Stop tap-dancing around the conversation.” This is the essence of Kendrick’s message on Mr. Morale, and also the inspiration for the album title. He’s no longer afraid to show what’s behind the curtain; he’s out to prove that he goes through challenging human dilemmas just like you and me. No amount of success and wealth will erase the challenges we face in our personal lives, and Kendrick’s fed up with the culture that pretends it can.
So Kendrick stops pretending, and he wants everyone else to stop pretending too. In order to present his authentic self, Kendrick needs to sacrifice his ego and lay bare his truth. The sacrifice comes in the form of sharing intimate and painful details surrounding his transgender relatives, his struggles with sex addiction, his daddy issues, and the traumatic abuse his mother suffered. Sharing these stories is a sacrifice he is willing to make for the sake of encouraging others to face their own truths, present their own authentic selves, and quit tap dancing around difficult conversations.
No other songs from Mr. Morale, nor any from the rest of Kendrick’s discography, are charged with as much arresting honesty as are Mother I Sober and Auntie Diaries. When Whitney encouraged the arguing couple on We Cry Together to “stop tap dancing around the conversation,” these songs are golden examples of precisely how to rip down the facade, take the mask off, and embrace the truth at all costs. On Mother I Sober and Auntie Diaries, Kendrick Lamar removes all boundaries between art and artist, until all that exists is not Kendrick Lamar, but a universal human expression.
On Auntie Diaries, Kendrick discusses his relationship with two transgender relatives, and how its evolution has led him to overcome his own ignorance. By condemning a preacher’s rejection of his transgender cousin, Kendrick, an openly devout Christian, discovered the power of reality over ideology: “The day I chose humanity over religion, the family got closer, it was all forgiven.” Putting faith in himself and his family over his preacher’s words is another way of saying his core message: “I choose me, I’m sorry.” On Mother I Sober, Kendrick discusses the burden of guilt and trauma he’s carried from a young age, ever since witnessing his mother being abused. He even says he started rapping as a “coping mechanism” to help distract him from this pain. And while he didn’t smoke or drink to alleviate that pain, he did project his insecurities by “sleeping with other women.” As the song reaches its climax, Kendrick expands the song from personal anecdote to blunt confrontation of generational trauma, resulting in the defining moment of his entire discography, in which he sets free victims and abusers alike in the name of forgiveness, proclaiming: “this is transformation.”
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is the argument for truth over ego, humanity over culture, and reality over ideology; it’s as much a philosophical statement as it is an album. It’s the manifestation of Kendrick choosing himself and his family over being a savior or hero. But don’t let that mislead you to thinking he’s given up on the fight for justice. In his first live performance in support of Mr. Morale, Kendrick voices his support for women in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade, as he repeatedly, almost desperately shouts: “They judge you, they judge Christ, Godspeed for women’s rights!”
Kendrick Lamar grieves different, and he’s going to fight different. 🍑
[See also: Kendrick Lamar’s ‘The Prayer’ Is a Critique of How Society Values Art]