After the 2017 release of his Grammy-winning album DAMN, Kendrick Lamar seemingly vanished into thin air, leaving fans begrudgingly stuck in a loop of listening to his critically-acclaimed discography for five long years. On May 13, the Compton rapper finally resurfaced from his hiatus with Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, officially marking the grand finale of his run as the king of his record label Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE). The project, an 18-track double album, is a reintroduction to the new Kendrick Lamar: a son, a father, a lover, and a spiritual being striving towards a higher frequency. But as good as the new album sounds (it is Kendrick, after all), it doesn’t exactly feel that good because of certain stances espoused in his lyrics. Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is Lamar at his rawest, and it’s left some of us raw, too — just not in the best way.
Since he first hit the scene in the early 2000s, Lamar’s music has resonated with audiences across demographics. A talented wordsmith, the rapper has always been able to tell a story through his music (hence the reason he became the first rapper in history to ever win a Pulitzer Prize in 2018), and his work speaks to everything from typical rap braggadocio (“Control” and “King’s Dead”) to more serious topics like addiction (“Swimming Pools (Drank)”) and police brutality (“Alright”). In the more recent years of his career, Lamar has settled into a pocket of sociopolitical and personal commentary, using his skill as a storyteller to spark discourse on the troubling state of the world today from his unique vantage point. Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is the rapper’s most candid expression of that perspective yet.
The project unveils a world weary (and wary) Lamar, a man who’s lived through the difficulties of the past few years, and like so many of us, is attempting to make sense of all of it by going to therapy. Putting the pieces together leads him to uncover many of the deeply rooted issues that have shaped the course of his life. We learn of the things he’s been working through in his sessions, like the gaping emotional void created by the conditional relationship with his dad (“Father Time”), the toll of excellence on his mental health (“Crown”), and the near-destruction of his longterm relationship with his partner due to his own repeated unfaithfulness (“Mother I Sober”). Lamar is telling on himself in Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, pulling the messiest, most intimate details from the diary tucked under his pillow in hopes that his listeners may learn from the ghosts of his past still chasing him today. As beautifully composed as the production is, the album is, at many points, uncomfortable to sit with because he’s bearing it all without a censor. (I actually had to lay down and decompress after listening to the toxicity of “We Cry Together.”) However, growth is supposed to be ugly and exhausting at times; healing is rarely ever a pretty process.
Lamar’s public introspection on the album is multi-layered and vulnerable, but the potency of his message is undercut by some of the other choices he made on the project that left many of us scratching our heads. One such creative decision involves the choice to recruit fellow rapper Kodak Black to appear on Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers on multiple tracks. As Lamar waxes poetic on the generational trauma of abuse and describes how violence (emotional, physical, and sexual) negatively affected him and his family, he simultaneously seems more than willing to hold space for an alleged abuser. Kodak Black was accused of assaulting and raping a teenage girl in South Carolina in 2016, and when the case went to trial in April 2021, the rapper ultimately took a plea deal and plead guilty to the lighter charges of first degree assault and battery. Soliciting Kodak Black’s bars on an album about personal growth and healing feels like a huge contradiction. But the feature also ties into Lamar’s other big theme on Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, which is an especially critical stance against cancel culture.
Lamar’s public introspection on the album is multi-layered and vulnerable, but the potency of his message is undercut by some of the other choices he made on the project that left many of us scratching our heads.
If you ask Lamar, the world is too quick to judge people (especially Black men), and he’s had enough. On “The Heart Part 5,” Lamar goes as far as employing deep fake technology to highlight prominent Black men like Kanye West, OJ Simpson, Jussie Smollett, and Will Smith, with lyrics discussing the hypocrisy of our culture. He continues in that same vein in Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, dedicating several bars to denouncing cancel culture and the censure of political correctness. “Bite they tongues in rap lyrics/Scared to be crucified about a song, but they won't admit it,” Lamar raps with venom on “Savior.” “Politically correct is how you keep an opinion/Ni***s is tight-lipped/F**k who dare to be different.”
The problem? Cancel culture isn’t actually real; most problematic people get away with being problematic every single day, especially when their offences directly impact Black women. Even though R. Kelly’s crimes against women have been well-documented over the course of the past decade, his music is still being played at family barbecues and at clubs, with each stream putting money in his pocket while he awaits trial behind bars (Lamar even threatened to have his music pulled from Spotify if they removed the catalogues of noted abusers Kelly and XXXTentacion). Kanye West’s infamous “slavery was a choice” soundbite and the pro-Trump rhetoric that followed didn’t keep him from anyone’s GOAT list. Dave Chappelle is still on tour even after public outcry against his transphobic comedy special on Netflix. Trey Songz is still performing around the country despite being accused multiple times of sexual and physical violence. Kodak Black was able to walk away a free man even after admitting to abusing a woman because she didn’t want to have sex with him. And so on, and so forth.
With all of these examples of cancel culture not ever actually canceling anyone, it’s hard to reconcile Lamar going so hard against the “hypocrites” and the “sensitive” while defending bad men who abused Black women. The dismissal feels callous coming from a person still grappling with trauma himself. And as a Black woman listening to the album, it feels particularly isolating. As he’s working through the pain of his past, a lot of Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is triggering fresh pain for others — deadnaming his trans family members and repeatedly using a homophobic slur to make a point (“Auntie Diaries”), defending his right to collaborate with an abuser (“Savior”), shirking the responsibility that comes with being a high profile person with a platform (“Mirror”).
Clearly, Lamar’s self-imposed time out of the limelight has resulted in some serious heart work, because the artist of the To Pimp a Butterfly and DAMN eras is not the man we see today. Unlike other projects that felt personal but simultaneously universally applicable — “Alright” and “i” are considered anthems for a reason — Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is a pointedly subjective work, pages torn out of Lamar’s journal and turned into song for the sake of personal liberation. By speaking his truths aloud, he’s attempting to free himself from the emotional constraints that have bound him his entire life. However, the new album also highlights the fact that the evolution of Kendrick Lamar is far from over; there’s still some work to be done. And he’s doing it for himself, not us, so there is a possibility that we won't be able to connect with the “new" Kendrick. If this album is any indication, I don’t know that Lamar even cares.