Three professors unpack the themes on Kendrick Lamar’s album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers
The highly-anticipated fifth studio album from Kendrick Lamar is here.
It’s been five years since the Compton rapper released DAMN. and on his final Top Dawg Entertainment release, Kendrick has a lot to say. Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is a raw, confessional listen: one that sees the artist admit to infidelity, sex addiction, his learnings, his flaws. As with any Kendrick release, it’s incredibly layered and we’re still in the process of analysing its multitude of references, which range from biblical imagery to that time he asked a white fan to self-censor a racial slur onstage.
So where do we begin? We asked three professors – who have all taught courses on Kendrick Lamar – to weigh in on their chosen themes. We hit up Adam Diehl – an expert in hip-hop culture and lyrical analysis – along with Anthony B. Pinn and Dr. Christopher Driscoll, who both co-edited the book Kendrick Lamar and the Making of Black Meaning. Pinn is an American professor whose work lies at the intersection of African-American religion and humanist thought; Driscoll is a scholar of race, religion and culture.
We won’t claim that this list uncovers every theme or reference across the entirety of Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers – it’s safe to say there’ll be more revelations as time goes on – but here, Diehl, Pinn and Driscoll lend their expertise. Scroll down for their thoughts on specific topics across the album; ideas that span across Christianity, therapy, self-love and more.
The central question on 2017’s DAMN. is: “Is it wickedness or weakness” that causes Black America to face the oppression and plights it does? Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers turns the mirror away from society and instead focuses on the individual – and none more clearly than Kendrick himself. This ‘self’ ultimately extends to his nuclear family, which includes his longtime fiancée Whitney Alford, as well as their two children Uzi and Enoch. Hence, he is Mr. Morale to Whitney’s Mrs. Morale, and the Big Steppers could be their offspring.
Kendrick is seemingly the officer in charge of the unit – both for command purposes and for morale – and yet, he shows through his actions and his words that he has not been faithful and uplifting to his betrothed. Maybe these wrongs are what lead him to make the big step of going to counselling, though. He uses several songs to unpack the traumas and destructions that led his mother to suspect that he was abused (even though he reports that he wasn’t). These situations also suggest why his father raised him with strict discipline and stoicism, which he ultimately examines on Father Time (feat. Sampha). Certainly, his own upbringing is on his mind as he parents his little ones, and he wants to make the home a happy, peaceful, safe place, such that his children don’t have to face the same adversities he has. Sustaining high spirits in the house is his foremost calling, if the title and album cover tell us anything; and as he stands vigilantly watching out for his family on the cover, he will sacrifice any comfort necessary for their protection and wellbeing (financial, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual).
Even more inscrutable than the title is Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers’ cover. Its setting? A safe house. Its plot? Something has forced them out of the friendly confines of whatever posh LA neighbourhood they typically stay at in favour of this survival mode squatters nest. The monochrome brown colour scheme is not so much minimalist as simply sparse, and it reflects the impermanence of this room as a single family home. Kendrick holds their daughter and looks off to the right, crowned with a bullet-and-rope crown of thorns. Whitney, meanwhile, is watching caringly while their son breastfeeds. Only the young girl looks directly at the camera. Down the back of Kendrick’s pants is a firearm of indeterminate size – it could be a revolver or a sawed off shotgun – and he is prepared to fight to the death to protect his family. Ironically, the gravest dangers all four of them face are within the four walls of the safe house. These dangers come through viscerally in the songs of the album, i.e. the most explosive things that can happen to a person (adult or child) are statistically likely to occur in the place where they should feel the safest: home.
Since To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick has been conflicted about his calling to be a Moses to Black America, leading them out of an enslaving, destructive land – as mental and spiritual as it is physical and material. On DAMN., the introductory track BLOOD finds Kendrick trying to help “a blind woman” only to have her shoot him for his efforts. This first shot signals a war he will wage with “the culture” against the damnation he sees in store for Black America; however, on Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, the campaign is looking increasingly pyrrhic. Now, he has to rally the rank and file, who have endured two years of global pandemic – not to mention high-profile violence against Black men and women. The turmoil has created all sorts of trauma, and Kendrick has his hands full with his own transgressions (N.B. ‘transgression’ comes from the Latin word for ‘stepping over’).
The Big Steppers, then, can be Kendrick making Black America the metaphorical Israelites, tip-toeing and tap-dancing in the wilderness instead of taking the Promised Land as Yahweh has commanded them (Deuteronomy 20:16-18). Perhaps with this release, Kendrick – like Moses – concludes that he will not set foot in the Promised Land himself. But maybe his children, Uzi and Enoch, will feast in a land of milk and honey after he is gone.
Christianity and religion
As he wears the crown of thorns – well, bullets – Kendrick evokes obvious comparisons to Jesus Christ. However, in Savior he says: “Kendrick made you think about it, but he is not your saviour.” Perhaps the saviour complex that leads to a martyr mentality has affected Kendrick in the home with Whitney and the children.
One thing that Kendrick ducks on this album is preaching. Standing in profile on the cover, he looks poised to listen for the voice of God, rather than announce it to his audience (in this case, his family). The allusions and confessions to infidelity and “lust addiction” could have driven him from feeling like he was in God’s good graces. Even so, the idea that he’s got a gun ready to blast could mean that he’s ready to decimate whatever temptation would entice him. It brings to mind an obscure verse he had on a 2013 track by 50 Cent called We Up: “I made my first million… bought a Bible.” That Bible (or one like it) graces the cover of Section.80. Kendrick’s journey with Christianity has been the common thread in all his work thus far – along with the neighbourhood of Compton and all that comes with it. If the final lyric of Savior is anything to go by, it’s an explanation of just where the safe house is: “Protecting my soul in the valley of silence.” His ear might be turned to Heaven, after all.
Speculation about this album has been rampant for the entirety of the pandemic, and the Michael Jordan I’m Back-esque pgLang announcement of Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers in late April added an oil tanker of fuel to the fire. If Mirror and Crown are enough to go on, Kendrick will retire from music after fulfilling his obligations for this album and its tour. Interestingly, the cover image could have a Christian connection: it could allude to Jesus and His disciples in the Upper Room, and the next place the saviour will be is on trial and ultimately on the Cross. The intimacy of the cover shoot (photographed by Renell Medrano) foreshadows the rawness of the subject matter, and the mixed emotions on their faces could be channelling the same ambivalence Jesus and the disciples felt on the eve of His death.
Many people have commented – and even hilariously made memes – about the white t-shirt, which could very well be the same one worn on the cover of DAMN. This gives some sense of continuation as well as encapsulation of what has come before the new album.
However, in an era of Easter eggs, one that puts the ‘b’ in subtle is Kendrick’s wife-beater, which hints at the domestic violence that the album implies and sometimes directly conveys, just as the ‘M’ on DAMN. sat directly over Kendrick’s head like a devil’s horns to imply the themes of wickedness and temptation. And similar to good kid, m.A.A.d city, the only person whose face is fully visible is the child’s.
Stretching back to Section.80, there are the bullets in King Kendrick’s crown. A final tip of the hat on the cover is that Kendrick holds a child, just as he does on the cover of To Pimp a Butterfly. And predictably, Kung Fu Kenny has a black belt.
Therapy and mindfulness
It’s been a good number of years since Alright, but for Kendrick we are still “fucked-up” and in need of some therapy. DAMN. gave us a sense of our condition – death and trauma that threaten our bodies and shape how we understand and experience ourselves in the world. And now Kendrick reminds us this condition isn’t just about our bodies defined by our DNA; we also are “fucked-up” because our minds aren’t right.
Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers tells us what we don’t want to hear – what we haven’t been told often enough. Blinded by the assumption of what we can buy, or who we can hurt, tells us something about our worth. Wrong – being hard isn’t the same as being healthy. It’s not long into the album before Kendrick makes clear we can’t buy our way out of this shit; can’t flex our way out. That only distracts from the real issues – a dehumanising sense of ourselves, self-hate, lack of love. Looking for comfort in what we can buy leaves us empty. Kendrick tells us money doesn’t make us bulletproof. The Rolex, the pools, the cars are signs of our grief not symbols of our success. We’ve been set up to substitute stuff for substance, to cover the holes in our psychology with loud cars and bright diamonds that only distract. There’s an emptiness that we mourn, but we “grieve different”. Can’t buy yourself out of a social world that despises you; instead, we end up “walking zombies trying to scratch that itch”.
This album isn’t simply a “fuck you” to the world. It’s psychological – a look inside ourselves, picking at our vulnerabilities and hidden anxieties. The white world has justified its abuse of Black people – its destruction of Black life by denying that Black people feel pain in the same way. They justified enslavement, beatings, lynching and murders this way.
I hear Kendrick reminding us that too often we have played into this dehumanising story of an unfeeling physical hardness by demanding psychic toughness – toxic masculinity, abusive relationships, a disregard for ourselves. What we hide, what we bury deep inside, hurts us. So, he exposes this mindset, and points out our humanity by naming our pain. The album tells our stories and in doing so holds up a mirror – making us see ourselves through all our anxieties, our insecurities, our wants, our needs; but that mirror also reflects back our strengths.
There’s vulnerability preached in the lyrics – an exposing of secrets in order to free ourselves. Kendrick reminds us that it’s complicated – and losing this complexity is to lose us, and to be content with the limited range of possibilities that makes a white world comfortable. But that situation kills us. Track after track we are pushed to look in the mirror and see us – and choose us.
For Kendrick, there is love. But what he means by love isn’t easy; it isn’t the stuff of my-heart-is-melting-love-songs. The album demands we see ourselves and each other as we are – the vulnerabilities, the trauma, but also the possibilities. In a word, love is mindfulness.
Anthony B. Pinn
Honesty and healing
Another dimension of his genius is expressed in what we might call his equal opportunity honest critique and self-reflection. For instance, Kendrick’s last several albums inspired thousands of young and old Black folks, people of colour, and white folks to take to the streets and demand that Black lives matter. Something of Kendrick’s existential need to feel OK within oneself, that ability to inhale and exhale peacefully when the very breath Black folks breathe is under literal threat, became the sagacious, if ironic, rallying cry “we gon’ be alright”. Kendrick wasn’t being an activist in that or those moments. He was being honest.
This honesty cuts in every direction within his music. His ongoing critiques of anti-Black racism and sexism occur alongside deeply morally pregnant reflections on issues internal to the Black community and Black life. For the Compton rapper it seems incumbent that he holds himself and his community to a set of moral standards. Within the intensely polarising times we live today, very few artists across genres have the skill and the willingness to be so responsibly honest. Hip-hop’s always been better than many cultural spaces when it comes to unflinching honesty. Kendrick runs with the latitude afforded by the hip-hop culture he loves. The results are healing.
Dr. Christopher Driscoll