You’ve already formed your opinion on Kendrick Lamar and Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers. Here’s our take, not one of authority, but one of empathy, curiosity, complication, and admiration.
What is there to say about Kendrick Lamar that someone else hasn’t said better or that we said in this upcoming almost 4000-word conversational review? Probably not much. New music from Kendrick is a monumental thing in music, transcending genre for the most part ever since enrapturing entire generations with his previous works like good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp A Butterfly. Me and Landon are fans, but we’re in over our heads here. What’s down below is a long, barely structured, non-conclusive discussion on the album, some of if its larger sticking points and controversies, and some of its greater implications, all while staying in our respective lanes and attempting not to overstep into conversations we really don’t belong in.
We’d love if you read it and even provide your own thoughts in the comments if you wish. We’d love it even more if you also take the time to read and listen to the thoughts of others linked throughout the piece to get additional, more relevant perspectives on this newest Kendrick Lamar album. Personally, I’d highly suggest Dead End Hip Hop‘s review of the album – I love those dudes and the ideas and theories they bring to the table on this and other music. I’ll also point to Shawn Cee and specifically his review – you’ll find another video of his linked within the review itself below. And finally, HipHopMadness dropped a video going over some of the key themes of Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers that’s well worth a watch. Simply put: support Black creators.
David: Hey pal Landon, how have you been doing?
Landon: Finally getting over this awful cold/flu thing (surprisingly not COVID)! But good other than that – definitely needed an opportunity to rest. How are you?
D: That’s always good. Not the sick part, but the rest part. Sad that in today’s age we need something like an illness or otherwise not great thing to push us to take care of ourselves. We must be kind to ourselves, and each other! A theme that kind of rolls into our subject of discussion today, huh?
L: Oh absolutely. That, and a lot of other themes as well. But maybe before we dig into those and the record at hand, I’d be curious to hear about your relationship with Kendrick Lamar and his output before this record
D: Yeah, of course. I came on with good kid, m.A.A.d city back in 2012 like many people did. I believe that was his breakout record withTop Dawg Entertainment. Really loved his take on West Coast rap. It was thoughtful and touching; street smart and experiential. I was a fan ever since. Next, of course, was the cultural touchstone that was To Pimp A Butterfly in 2015. Needless to say, I thought it was amazing, much more conceptual and deeper than even good kid was and it was at that point that Kendrick was a monumental celebrity in hip-hop. Everyone had an opinion on him and his music, and everyone made sure you heard it.
Controversial opinion: but I wasn’t huge on untitled unmastered., but there was still some heat on there. DAMN. in 2017 hit at first, but died off relatively quick, especially when compared to TPAB and good kid. Naturally, I went backward to Section.80 and Overly Dedicated, found a lot of stuff to like there in his early years, branched out to other TDE artists over time like ScHoolboy Q, Jay Rock, SZA, Ab-Soul, etc. Can’t go much of anywhere in rap’s sphere without hearing about at least one of these artists, Kendrick being chief among them. What about you?
L: I had kind of fallen off hip-hop for a number of years prior to TPAB coming out, so that record both got me into Kendrick Lamar and a lot of more contemporary hip-hop. TPAB definitely blew me away, from the instrumentation and genre-crossing to the concept and pacing of the record, not even to mention Kendrick’s lyrics and performance. A lot of the lyrics on that album helped me to engage more fully with issues that I had not before. From there, I went to good kid, m.A.A.d city. Even though I know it doesn’t have the same legendary status as TPAB, it’s still the Kendrick record I go back to the most. I think it’s a really intimate, personal record while still having some hooks and beats that still hit me years later. DAMN.was a cool record for me, and honestly “DNA” and “HUMBLE” are some of my most listened to Kendrick songs. I appreciated the experimentation and concept, but, like you, it didn’t have me coming back again and again like good kid or TPAB, even though it has some great songs.
Did you have any hopes or expectations before Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers came out?
D: good kid is still my favorite of his, simply because I can take songs out of it and just listen to them for them. There’s TPAB songs I can do that with like “King Kunta” and others, same with DAMN. and “HUMBLE”, but lately his projects have been so conceptual and whole that it’s hard to take songs out of context for sheer enjoyment. So I feel you on all of that basically. For me personally, someone that likes to put a huge-ass rap playlist on shuffle and just vibe, it’s hard to do that with his work, Mr. Morale included.
I really didn’t have any expectations for this album except for it to be good and thought-provoking, and boy did it deliver. A lot of people understandably had sky-high expectations and I just didn’t want to do that to myself, or Kendrick really. It’s been five years since DAMN. and I really cooled down on his work as a whole over time. It made for an experience that I could take in as much of a vacuum as possible, not really comparing it to his previous stuff that much, just… enjoying it. Wild concept, I know. How did you deal with the hype train?
L: I really agree with you about that balance of concept and standalone quality, and I would echo that Kendrick’s newer releases are a lot more about being absorbed as a whole than standalone tracks. I imagine Kendrick feels this way too, considering that no singles were released before Mr. Morale dropped.
I tried not to get too caught up in the hype, but I was still curious. After hearing his Baby Keem features, I basically felt that Kendrick no longer felt he had anything to prove, and was just kind of doing whatever he wanted without concern for his legacy. The lyrics in “N95” kind of support that conclusion. Once I saw the cover art, I kind of figured that the lyrics would dive into parenthood, legacy, race, and poverty. The crown of thorns imagery was particularly interesting once I heard how it juxtaposed with the song “Savior”.
While I know a lot of people dig into Kendrick’s lyrics more than anything else, I was curious how the instrumentation and beats would shape the release. I think Kendrick’s decisions around the beats he uses give his albums definition and uniqueness, whether its the more traditional beats of good kid, the funk/jazz of TPAB, or the more contemporary pop hip-hop of DAMN. I was pretty stoked to hear how much of a foundation piano is on the new album.
Should we dive into initial impressions?
D: Sure, let’s get into it, and I will say that, honestly, I’m still kind of in my initial impressions stage, having only listened to it a handful of times. It will obviously take a lot of time for me and others to really get into everything that’s buried here, but there’s still plenty to talk about.
My first listen or two was very positive. I saw obvious thematic through lines for the album. I liked and appreciated the more traditional hip-hop instrumentation (pre-release loosey “The Heart Part 5” hinted to more of a soul approach again, but that wasn’t the case here). Immediately there were songs that really, really stood out for one reason or another – “We Cry Together”, “N95”, “Father Time”, “Purple Hearts”, “Silent Hill”, “Savior”, “Auntie Diaries”, “Mother I Sober”. Damn, I listed about half the album, but that’s the kind of quality we’re dealing with here. There were songs that made me go ‘ooooh’ with some of their bars or themes, some that made me wince, others that made me quite emotional and tear up, etc. All things I come to expect from Kendrick in addition to those greater discussion topics like race, generational trauma, grace, and the idea of hurt people hurting people. It’s… a lot.
Since then, I’ve listened a few more times in full, caught more lines I didn’t before, solidified my favorite tracks (mostly previously mentioned ones), and come away with the idea that Kendrick is in a different mode here. He made a lot of decisions with this record that show he’s past being the savior people have made him out to be. He’s not perfect, he’s not out to be that heroic ‘voice of a generation’ type, but, to me, the irony in that is that he’s perhaps made himself more relatable to our generation that is caught firmly in the midst of a war between the way things were and are, and the way things should or could be. We’ll get into all that for sure.
L: Yeah, I have to agree with you. I have to be honest that it is going to take a long time to get really into this record. It’s no secret that I am intimidated by long records, and this is a double album, no less from one of the more deep lyricists in the scene.
I’ve also been listening to this album while I have been really sick, so I feel like I have been a bit more foggy than I would like to be when engaging with something this layered.
All that said, I think I have been struggling to identify stand out tracks here. None have quite hit me the way that previous Kendrick singles have, at least right now, and maybe that’s not the point. Once again, I think the choices here are about digesting this massive work as a whole as opposed to coming back to standout tracks. Even the music itself, which I would argue is generally the most understated of any Kendrick release, really puts the focus back on the lyrics and vocal performances.
Nonetheless, I have to agree with you – I think we see Kendrick trying to discard the labels and pressures that come with being seen as a savior or hero. Not that Kendrick has shied away from vulnerability in the past, but he really shows his challenges and inner conflicts here.
D: Yeah, and it’s wild to see the lengths he goes to to achieve that. There’s so much reflection on this album, about a ton of subjects, approached in a lot of ways, many ways we’re both ill-equipped to really cover with any authority or depth required, but there’s still a lot of relatable content here. “Savior” is the one song that addresses this the most.
‘Kendrick made you think about it, but he is not your savior
Cole made you feel empowered, but he is not your savior
Future said, ‘Get a money counter,‘ but he is not your savior
‘Bron made you give his flowers, but he is not your savior’
He goes into that, while many celebrities and people in the limelight may empower you, make you think, provide someone to look up to for various reasons, they’re not to be worshiped. They’re not to be placed on that pedestal just as Kendrick has been. A very telling line is one from the first verse – ‘Like it when they pro-Black, but I’m more Kodak Black’ – which leads to another way in which Kendrick really bucked these labels and expectations.
Kodak Black’s inclusion on this album, in a couple areas, was really a source of controversy for a lot of people. He’s been a real polarizing figure in hip-hop for a while now, being arrested several times for everything from drug and weapon possession up to sexual assault of a minor. I’d encourage everyone to read the ‘Controversies’ and ‘Legal issues’ sections of his Wikipedia page for some context, but suffice it to say he’s not someone that fans expected to see Kendrick feature prominently on his music, nor support in that sort of way period. And it left a lot of fans questioning why and if Kendrick was wrong for doing it. Really though, you don’t have to look far to see reasons why, from Kendrick’s own mouth.
I get why people would be put off by hearing Kodak on more than one track on here – I’m not particularly a fan either – but it’s a purposeful move by Kendrick. He’s not doing it just for the shock factor, he’s doing it because he sees a commonality between him and Kodak, one that he explores with the music. There’s so much talk about abuse on here, the cyclical nature of it, and breaking free of it, whether from a community standpoint, interpersonal, or familial. Going back to that ‘hurt people hurt people’ thought process, a generous interpretation of it all can be saying Kodak’s a victim of his own traumas, and it’s inevitable that he too would victimize people by virtue of his surroundings and victimhood himself. There’s valid pushback to even that though – something I’d recommend watching is Shawn Cee’s take on the matter or F.D Signifier’s reaction/reflection on it as a whole, both Black men that can speak to this sort of thing way better than I could.
If you know the history of it all, it’s uncomfortable to see Kodak Black on here, but that was the point. I won’t excuse his more extreme behavior whatsoever for any reason, but I’m also not going to go out of my way to condemn this man more so than I would anyone else simply because I don’t know what he’s been through and the intricacies that come with it. I don’t think that’s my place. I hope he gets help though. I hope the people in his corner help him get to a better place where stuff like that won’t ever happen again. I hope his victims are able to move forward in meaningful, healing ways. I won’t listen to his music, likely won’t for the foreseeable future, and I’ll just leave it at that.
L: I have to admit that I’ve been struggling to come around to this album, and Kodak Black’s significant contributions to the record are a part of that barrier for me (“Auntie Diaries” being another one, but we can talk about that). I don’t think I have a lot to say that you haven’t, and I also think the sources you listed bring more qualified voices to the table than I have. Suffice it to say, I think we as an audience can help hold people accountable to their actions and encourage them to take responsibility for their actions, and it’s unclear to me whether Kodak is taking those steps or not. I write about my feelings on this in much more depth here.
But I agree with your analysis that lines from “Savior” or “N95”, plus the inclusion of Kodak, all support this theme of rejecting the way Kendrick is lionized in contemporary culture. I think Kendrick is trying to say that he’s a human with his own struggles and vulnerabilities, and he doesn’t have all the answers. A lot of songs on this album contribute to that theme, and some in pretty intense or uncomfortable ways. We could talk about a few tracks, but the one that I keep coming up against, especially as a non-binary person with a lot of queer friends and family, is “Auntie Diaries”. Should we get into it?
D: Oh yeah, let’s just dive in. Uhhhh, I will lead by saying I do like this song overall. I am a queer person of the ‘if you’re cute, I’ll probably like you’ kinda way – I am cis as hell though. I am also a very much reformed and matured edgy guy who used to have pretty lukewarm thoughts and opinions on trans people and their issues. I used to say homophobic slurs and more for humorous reasons. It was funny to me and my friends, but that’s where it really ended. Over the years, I’ve gained a lot of queer friends of all types, gained new perspectives from them and other voices bold enough to call out the kind of behavior I engaged in, and I grew empathetic.
I say all that only to contextualize what I’m about to say and that’s that I really relate to this song, even though it wasn’t made for me – more on that later – even though it’s messy as hell. It’s such a raw perspective of having someone trans in your life, right down to the occasional misgendering, having to come to terms with that change, being compassionate, standing up for them, and everything else that comes with it. I do not for a minute blame any queer and/or trans people having issues with this song. There’s frequent misgendering and deadnaming of trans people, the very controversial use of a homophobic slur several times. This kind of stuff can be triggering.
In spite of that, I consider it a beautiful song, showing how Kendrick grew to accept two of his trans family members after some uncomfortable and bumpy interactions, fighting through those biases that we just seem to inherit from living in a hetero- and cisnormative society. What I especially like is how he challenges the outlook of modern religions on those matters. When a preacher talks down on Kendrick and his family for having a trans person in it, he confronts and points out the hypocrisy.
‘’Demetrius is Mary-Ann now
Church, his auntie is a man now,’ it hurt
You the most ’cause your belief was close to his words
Forcing me to stand now
I said, ‘Mr. Preacherman, should we love thy neighbor?
The laws of the land or the heart, what’s greater?
I recognize the study she was taught since birth
But that don’t justify the feelings that my cousin preserved’
The building was thinking out loud, bad angel
That’s when you looked at me and smiled, said, ‘Thank you’
The day I chose humanity over religion
The family got closer, it was all forgiven
I said them F-bombs, I ain’t know any better’
I think the most important part to keep in mind is that Kendrick isn’t preaching to the choir with this one. “Auntie Diaries” isn’t aimed at trans fans or listeners necessarily. It’s aimed at people who may not be all the way there with acceptance of queer people in their lives or in general, but are open to learning and accepting. Specifically, it’s aimed at those types of people in the Black community. I can respect it for that reason alone for sure, even if done in what I, and many others, consider a sloppy and potentially harmful manner. If it starts conversations between people that lead to more compassion and seeing the humanity in all of our community members, that’s a huge win to me. I will of course take this time to recommend this critical piece from a Black trans writer on “Auntie Diaries” hosted on OkayPlayer. It’s a great and fair assessment in my eyes.
L: Honestly, I think you have a really thoughtful take on this. I really struggled with this song, and consequently this whole album, when I heard it for the first time. The deadnaming, the slurs, the infrequent correct pronoun usage all hit me pretty hard, even though I knew that Kendrick’s heart is in the right place.
After talking with you, and reading/listening to the perspectives of Black trans individuals, I have tried to revisit my perspective. I do think that the song is, like you said, a representation of the inner conflict one can sometimes face in understanding and supporting trans people. Maybe showing that is a step that’s important in coming to be properly supportive and accepting – I think that’s what Kendrick is trying to do here. I do worry that the deadnaming, slurs, and infrequent pronoun usage might model some harmful ways to talk with and about trans people, but I also hope that the song may be the start or continuation of some important conversations that need to be or are happening in different communities.
I know we’ve been talking for a bit now. Any closing thoughts or big revelations you want to cover before we wrap up?
D: Well, I suppose we’ve been revelating through most of the review, so I’ll take a moment to shout out the production on here. “Father Time” is a standout, a song that talks frankly about ‘daddy issues’ as Kendrick puts it – there’s a lush feeling to the production, slow and pensive like his lyrics. “We Cry Together”, probably the most uncomfortable song behind “Auntie Diaries” as it’s just a literal (well, acted) domestic violence situation. Still, The Alchemist set up some grimy piano-based production for the beat that matched the very raw feeling. This could have been a beat for Conway The Machine or Benny The Butcher. Oh, and big shout out to Taylour Paige who absolutely steals the show as Kendrick’s foil during this track. She was so emotionally invested in this, her voice was strained from yell-rapping – very believable, had good flow and cadence that still had a melody to it. So good.
Also loved the throbbing bass on “Mr. Morale”. “Silent Hill” was a knocker as well, very trappy which I think made Kodak Black comfortable to do his thing on. “Purple Hearts” is exquisite and rich hip-hop production, kind of a boom bap feel, but modern and textured. Awesome stuff to hear Ghostface Killah on, and what a feature that is. So much diversity and variety here. If you like the more poignant and calmer stuff, you still get songs like “Crown” and “Mother I Sober” which are absolutely no slouches – in fact, the latter is probably my favorite song on here overall because of its wrenching take on generational trauma, coping with it, and healing over this very sparse instrumentation led by piano. Lots of beautiful stuff to bask in on this record.
L: Yeah, I have to agree with you about the production. While I miss some of the harder hitting productions of previous records, I think the production and instrumentation on this album really reinforces the mature, reflective tone and lyrics Kendrick is focusing on here. It’s really understated, at least as far as Kendrick’s discography goes. I also have to shout out Duval Timothy’s performance all over the album – I really love the way his tasteful, minimalist piano performances tie together a number of the tracks on the record.
Despite the amount of times I’ve listened to this record in the past few weeks, I still feel like I am developing my opinion on it, and unpacking all of its layers. I think that makes for a rewarding but challenging listen, but I am excited to spend more time working to understand and appreciate Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers.
D: I definitely am as well. It’s hard for me to return to music unless it’s for pure leisure, but I do want to see how this all unfolds, consider other thoughts and theories, and hey, maybe Kendrick drops some videos for the songs on here that give new angles and things to consider. The video for “N95” alone already did that, and that was fairly straightforward.
I think back to “Mortal Man” on TPAB when Kendrick asks ‘When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?’ My answer for that is yes. I greatly enjoy his work, even if I don’t agree with it all, even if I think it could have been handled better, even if I’m saturated in it from everyone and their grandfather’s dog talking about it. Just as his music is well worth listening to, it’s worth talking about – I think I would just urge people to consider your place in the deeper conversation, and I hope we’ve done just that here while providing our scattershot thoughts on it all.
Landon, my pal, do you have any other closing thoughts?
L: I agree with you in that music only really gets my replays for enjoyment, but I think Kendrick provides an album that manages to be enjoyable upon repeat listens while also revealing more layers each time. In terms of closing thoughts though, I think I’ll leave it to Kendrick and some lines that, at least to me, seem to sum up a lot of my feelings, and maybe Kendrick’s intentions, about the album: ‘It’s a real world outside / Take off your idols’.
D: Amen. Y’all, be sure to not get too deep in those parasocial relationships and expectations of celebrity figures. We all enjoy art and what these kinds of people provide, but, just like Kendrick did with this album, sometimes you gotta choose you over others and what you provide them. Look after yourself above all, but be compassionate and empathetic to those living different lives than you.