The Intercollegiate Student Magazine

Album Review — Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers


Kendrick Lamar – Not Your Savior

Five years off his Pulitzer Prize-winning album, DAMN., Kendrick Lamar has blessed us with his most universal and timeless record to date, Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers. As opposed to his previous work where he highlighted the world’s injustices, Kendrick shifts the attention to himself and his internal struggles, dispelling the notion of the savior complex often attributed to him. By deliberately separating the album into two cohesive units, he draws a distinct line to indicate the dramatic change his perspective undergoes. In the front half of the album, he projects his personal conflict on the external world, looking outwardly for change and evading the true path for transformation. During the beginning of the second half, Kendrickadopts an inward focus in which he recognizes that he alone can produce the internal growth that he seeks. As the record culminates, he sheds the layers of trauma, guilt, and struggle that previously crippled him, and he metamorphoses into an individual of humility, acceptance, and love. While knowledge of the finale may paint a rosy picture, Kendrick ensures that we are not blinded by the destination and understand the necessity of struggle to attain peace.

As the album opens, he foreshadows his eventual equanimity with a sweeping, angelic chorus “I hope you find some peace of mind in this lifetime,” but just as soon as the sweet harmony registers, the song shifts to a more serious tone when his partner pleads for vulnerability. “Tell them, tell ‘em, tell them the truth / tell ‘em, tell ‘em, tell ‘em, tell them your—.” As her voice is cut by an abrupt piano note, Kendrick warns us that we must be first dragged through hell before fully understanding what one must endure to grow psychologically. “Onethousand, eighthundred and fifty-five days / I’ve been goin through somethin’ / Be afraid.”

The album’s first track “United in Grief” gives a different perspective on our favorite socially aware rapper: one in which he is completely open about his mental health struggles, yet is paradoxically self-righteous in being so. He hints that these struggles may stem from an unfaithful relationship with a woman while on tour. But, Kendrick opens up no further, and in defiance of true humility, he repetitively declares, “I grieve different!” In revelatory fashion, we hear an omniscient voice respond to Kendrick’s ignorance with an atmospheric “Everybody grieves different.” However, he closes with a final prideful claim to unparalleled grief, exhibiting the ocean of growth he’s yet to cross.

In the following track, aptly titled “N95,” Kendrick expresses his dissatisfaction with the facades people put on both through their behaviors and their material possessions. While much of his commentary is a much needed wake-up call, when looked at from the context of the album as a whole, “N95” serves as a projection of Kendrick’s internal conflict. Whether the result of his own beliefs or the pressure of his supporters, The Big Steppers, a large portion of the album’s front half shows Kendrick’s struggle to take off his own mask. This theme continues in “Worldwide Steppers,” as Kendrick gives further insight into his lust addiction and escapades of infidelity while on tour, although he nearly excuses his bad behavior by noting that everyone is a “silent murderer.” 

The first flash of Kendrick’s growth comes in “Father Time” in which he recognizes how the lack of emotional vulnerability and “alpha” mentality of his father has led to his inability to express his raw, unadulterated identity and form fulfilling relationships. Still carrying a slightly prideful edge, he asks for help, understanding he’s been blind to the toxicity of his upbringing. “What’s the difference when your heart is made of stone / And your mind is made of gold / And your tongue is made of sword / But it may weaken your soul?” While Kendrick takes an invaluable step toward self-actualization here, he continues to gaze outwardly for answers to his internal conflicts. But finally, in “Rich Spirit,” he recognizes the preliminary steps he needs to take for psychological maturation, albeit in a similarly prideful manner as the album’s opening. “B—-, I’m attractive / Can’t f— with you no more, I’m fastin, ugh.” The always-needing-to-please Mr. Morale must disconnect from The Big Steppers and look inward for individual peace and acceptance before he can return from his social fast. 

Kendrick starts to close the album’s first half with perhaps one of his most artistically ambitious pieces yet. In “We Cry Together,” we listen in on an uncomfortable yet thought-provoking argument of a highly charged couple that climaxes with sex, leaving an unresolved conflict left on the table. The track closes with the words “Stop tap dancing around the conversation,” elucidating the symbolism of the intermittent tap-dancing sounds throughout the album. Whether a conversation with ourselves or others, starting the conversation is great but futile if not carried out to a true resolution—one that’s reached when both parties come from a perspective of love as illustrated in the half’s final track, “Purple Hearts.”

The second half opens with a beautiful chorus foreshadowing the deep dive we’re about to take into Kendrick’s tortured psyche. This sentiment is echoed before the first verse of “Count Me Out” with his partner Whitney’s declaration, “Session 10, breakthrough,” which serves as a call back to “Therapy Session 9,” the unreleased title of “United in Grief.” This track begins with a remorseful verse in which Kendrick vows to right his wrongs—starting with removing his mask and accepting himself as a flawed human. 

At this point in the album, Kendrick has relinquished all concerns of public perception and has turned entirely inward, so when he states, “I love when you count me out,” he’s speaking to himself and fighting his inner demons in hopes of achieving a fulfilling, self-actualized life. The personification of his internal struggle is further solidified with the line “Ain’t nobody but the mirror lookin’ for the fall off,” along with the use of sporadic visceral shouts resembling night terrors. The piece ends with Kendrick fervently proclaiming self-affirmations, revealing that he is now empowered for transformation. 

While his metamorphosis will certainly drag him through the full array of human emotions, it will be raw and authentic as we see in the next track, “Crown.” This may be one of the more pivotal songs in the album as it’s the first time we see Kendrick unabashedly vulnerable. He invites us into the ocean of his soul where we dive to the deepest parts and drown under the overwhelming pressure he places on himself. At his core, Kendrick values himself in his ability to please those around him, especially The Big Steppers. He realizes, though, that this conditional love is unsustainable and insidious, consuming him as he continues to be drawn in by it. We hear the internalized manifestation of this pressure as we’re seated in the mind of Kendrick with the music intensifying and the piece becoming all-consuming: “Heavy is the head that chose to wear the crown / To whom is given, much is required now.” Here lies the strange duality that must be overcome. One will never feel fulfilled until they can selflessly actualize their responsibility to the world, yet in order to give yourself fully, you must first find yourself and accept your experience as it is. Previously echoing Christian sentiments in his older albums, Kendrick now views his life through a more Buddhist lens. “I can’t even please myself / I thought a new car would help / But when that new car get old / I’m sure to want something else.” He recognizes that he’ll ultimately never be able to satisfy his desires and that true selflessness requires unfiltered acceptance and humility.

However, total acceptance isn’t always readily welcomed by those around you. In “Savior,” Kendrick expresses his concerns about the strings attached to the love from his supporters. “Are you happy for me? / Really, are you happy for me? / Smile in my face, but are you happy for me?” He then goes on a tirade, verbalizing his concern for the lack of integrity in the world and our inability to hold truthful, difficult conversations. But, the truth, he stresses, is not found by blindly following our idols, nor does he want us to take what he says as gospel. “The cat is out the bag, I am not your savior / I find it just as difficult to love thy neighbors.” We must use independent thought through a lens of love and compassion to uncover the truth, often requiring a break from the manic buzzing of our ever-connected world. If not already inferred from the album leading up to this point, he explicitly tells us why he’s been gone for so long. “And they like to wonder where I’ve been / Protectin’ my soul in the valley of silence.” Solitude was necessary to end Mr. Morale’s ego being perpetually fed by The Big Steppers.

Now able to find solace in himself and his flaws, in the following track “Auntie Diaries,”he’s able to fully extend his acceptance to his trans cousin and uncle. Amid being mocked and told of their blame for the world’s damnation, Kendrick stands up defiantly in the middle of the congregation, proud and fueled by love. “Mr. Preacher Man, should we love thy neighbor? / The laws of the land or the heart, what’s greater?” In acknowledging the contradictions within the Christian faith, Kendrick is also made aware of his past contradictory behaviors and has finally seen the day where he can right his wrongs as alluded to in “Count Me Out.”

Briefly mentioned on other pieces, the most damaging of these wrongs, his infidelity toward his wife, is finally fleshed out in its entirety in one of his most emotionally moving tracks to date, “Mother I Sober.” A dark cloud of sorrow hovers heavily over the piece through the somber reverberation of the hook, “I wish I was somebody / Anybody but myself.” Words cannot convey the pain, regret, guilt, and shame Kendrick expresses as he recounts his inability to protect his mother from being physically abused when he was five years old. Even more hard-hitting, he eventually learns that his mother’s constant worry that he’s been sexually assaulted is rooted in her own victimization in Chicago. Although born of care and concern, his mother’s relentless fear led him to question his manhood, which ultimately resulted in his desire to prove his masculinity by having sex with numerous women while on tour.

In an effort to atone for his transgressions, Kendrick uses the rest of the song to broadcast the ubiquitous cycle of sexual abuse that plagues the Black community. “A conversation not bein’ addressed in Black families / The devastation, hauntin’ generations and humanity / They raped our mothers, then they raped our sisters / Then they made us watch, then made us rape each other / Psychotic torture between our lives.” He continues, “I know the secrets, every other rapper sexually abused / I see ‘em daily buryin’ they pain in chains and tattoos / So listen close before you start to pass judgement on how we move / Learn how we cope.” Here, Kendrick acknowledges the cyclical nature of trauma and victimization that afflicts both himself and those around him, echoing a key theme from his single released prior to the album, “The Heart Part V,” in which he declares, “Hurt people hurt more people.

Yet, he concludes by relinquishing the chains of trauma shackled to himself and his community in hopes of moving forward with peace and selfless love. “So I set free myself from all the guilt that I thought I made / So I set free my mother all the hurt that she titled shame // So I set free the hearts filled with hatred, keep our bodies sacred / As I set free you abusers, this is transformation.” As the track closes, we hear his partner oppose the restricted love shown by The Big Steppers through an unconditional acceptance of Kendrick in all his shortcomings: “You did it, I’m proud of you / You broke a generational curse,” followed by heartwarming gratitude from his daughter “Thank you daddy. Thank you mommy.” In spite of all his shame and guilt, Kendrick ensures the cycle ends with him—his children will be born into a house of warmth and compassion.

After putting his vulnerabilities on display for the world to see, the album achieves closure with the finale “Mirror.” Kendrick ultimately accepts that his emotional strife was critical for transformation, calling back to the album’s first track, “United in Grief.” “Do yourself a favor and get a mirror that mirror grievance / Then point it at me so the reflection can mirror freedom.” He then reiterates the sentiment shared in the album leading up to this point with a straightforward yet powerful hook: “I choose me, I’m sorry.” What’s interesting is how his pronunciation of “choose” shifts to “chose” as he repeats this phrase. On the surface, changing the phrase to “I chose me, I’m sorry” is a declaration of Kendrick’s regret to both his partner and the world for the mistakes of his past. But on a deeper level, it again emphasizes the paradox of selflessness. You first have to take a step back from the external world around you and be selfish in order to accept yourself wholeheartedly. This realization is often misguided for many and manifests itself as pride, preventing love from extending beyond the bounds of oneself. Kendrick recognized the dangers of pride in his previous album DAMN., but he never actualized this view until now. As his voice fades away, mirroring the dissolution of his ego, he gives a final apology—not one containing guilt and shame but rather peace and hope. “Sorry, I didn’t save the world my friend / I was too busy building mine again.”​​​

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