Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers: Divisions and Divulgences

Kalli Zhu

In his latest album, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, which broke over five years (or, to be exact, 1,855 days) of silence, Kendrick Lamar incorporates his signature spitting flow into what seems to be an extended therapy session as he takes listeners through 73 minutes of musings about familial relationships, religious revelations, infidelity, and internal strife. A departure from the streamlined, “mainstream” sound that characterized his last album, he pushes the boundaries of rap and hip-hop alike with unconventional instrumentals and cruel truths—ones that seemingly expose every last confession and revelation in his being. It is, as Lamar himself proclaims, “The catalyst of my self-expression.”

The double album in which the songs were released is split into two sections: the first being Big Steppers, the second Mr. Morale. This marks the division between corruption and clarity—the spiritual journey of self-healing he takes interspersed with short monologues by his partner Whitney Alford and Eckhart Tolle, a spiritual teacher whose work has seen wide international acclaim. The first side, whose production is centered more on mass appeal, brings listeners through a flurry of emotions as Lamar mulls over political and societal problems, and the ways in which he himself has either contributed or fallen victim to such complications. Gaps of silence are filled with the staccato sounds of tap dancing that reverberate through each song they’re present in. 

It’s introduced by “United In Grief,” where Alford incessantly urges him to “tell ‘em the truth,” until she’s halted by the reluctant notes of a piano that Lamar’s low drawl soon follows, and is subsequently eclipsed by a fast-moving stream of words seeming to pour from his mouth in a steady cadence. He speaks on the pitfalls of wealth and fame, citing his naïveté despite such circumstances as the basis behind his lust addiction and excessive spending habits. 

After the song fades once more into sparse piano playing, “N95” takes the stage as Lamar continues builds upon the themes of superficiality in the form of detrimental coping mechanisms—this time incorporating the political and social tumult of COVID-19 pandemic. “You hopin’ for change and clerical, I know the feelings that came with burial’s cries,” he declares, acknowledging the hope for a brighter future simultaneously marred by negative emotions. Here, as he spits rapid-fire lyrics rich with assonance and rhyme, his skill not only as a composer and writer but an equally accomplished rapper are apparent. 

The songs progress rhythmically until “Father Time” arrives, distinctive in its somberness and subtlety. A departure from the otherwise upbeat mood of the songs prior, the quiet, soothing beat of the instrumentals parallel his contemplations of the hardships he had to overcome as a result of the toxic masculinity possessed by his father. “Oh, this the part he breaks my humility just for practice,” he says, voice riddled with pain and tension. He addresses the stigma surrounding men and their mental health—a conversation that diverges from the machismo that is often conflated with hip-hop artists.

Nearing the end of the first part is “We Cry Together,” a composition more reminiscent of performance art than song. Skillfully combining poetry and music, Lamar and actress Taylour Paige argue senselessly with each other to the beat of the drums and stripped-down piano in the background. The six-minute feud is rife with expletives, as the couple’s efforts to one-up each other are made futile by the end of the song. And, at the end, Alford’s monotone voice makes an appearance yet again: “Stop tap dancing around the conversation.” Through this, Lamar is again able to critique societal norms and gender stereotypes—Paige argues, “You the reason we overlooked, underpaid, underbooked, under shame,” to which Lamar responds by calling her, “Fake innocent, fake feminist.” And, at the end, Alford’s monotone voice makes an appearance yet again: “Stop tap dancing around the conversation.”

The second part of the album, in contrast, is characterized by a more experimental and eccentric means of production. Funky instrumentals incorporated with elements of soul music are pervasive—even more so than before. Each song a stepping stone towards healing, he unpacks elements of his growth and emotional maturity.

With every track in the album being a small fragment of the full picture, the second-to-last song divulges the full reasoning behind why Lamar is the way he is; it’s the linking pieces that ties together and explains each of his personal developments and shortcomings. “Mother I Sober” taps into Lamar’s previously unspoken trauma, as he demonstrates that the only way to heal is to first recognize the root of his wounds. He dives into memories ranging from his early childhood to his current life, acknowledging that familial abuse and mistreatment were the underlying cause of his later flaws. An amalgamation of seemingly every battle he’s faced (some including maintaining sobriety, witnessing the abuse of his mother, and the pressure to adhere to gender roles), the song soars from soft whispers to increasingly loud theatrics, with his voice symbolizing the gradual enlightenment as he makes his ultimate breakthrough, as if liberating his soul after a profound session in a confessional. This purposeful, heart-wrenching storytelling is where he excels most—the culmination of the previous sixteen tracks into the revelations of these two works establishes Lamar’s position as one of the greatest storytellers in the hip-hop scene. 

“Mirror,” an upbeat track follows as the outro, which encapsulates the thematic nature of his entire album. Its psychedelic sounds evoke a feeling of ascension and surrealism, akin to the feeling of walking out of a movie theater after a two-hour-long movie. Sure enough, this song marks the ending to a 73-minute-long journey through the perspective of Lamar having fully examined and untangled all of his thoughts. He has one final revelation: “I choose me, I’m sorry.” 

Lamar isn’t without his flaws, and time and time again, his words can be found to be controversial: in “Auntie Diaries” he misgenders his transgender cousin and uncle while also repeatedly saying the f-slur in an attempt to share his experiences with transphobia; he excessively points out the prevalence of “cancel culture” despite being associated with several polarizing music artists who still have intact careers (case in point: Kodak Black); he equates himself to Jesus through the crown of thorns he wears on his album cover. 

Still, a mantra he repeats throughout the album is that, just like his audience, he is only human. “Kendrick made you think about it, but he is not your savior,” he states in “Savior,” reminding his audience that their idols are usually no better than them. Despite his imperfections, he turns the arduous, never-ending journey towards healing into something tangible to his listeners. And such faults ultimately serve as a reminder that in order to cultivate and encourage growth, it’s necessary to be vulnerable and honest with oneself; there is no such thing as a faultless character, and Lamar demonstrates that one’s willingness to change is just as important as the instilling of such changes themselves.