5 Takeaways From Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers’

Five years after DAMN, Pulitzer Kenny (aka Kendrick Lamar) is back with his most controversial album yet. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers takes the listener on a trip through the darker parts of his mind and even gives them rare glimpses into his personal life. Here are the five biggest takeaways from Kendrick Lamar’s fifth studio album. 

Videos by American Songwriter

1. This is Kendrick Lamar’s last album with Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE). 

TDE is an independent record label founded in 2004 by Anthony Tiffith. They represent some of the largest names in hip hop and R&B, such as Jay Rock, AB-Soul, Schoolboy Q, Isaiah Rashad, SZA, and SiR. Lamar signed with TDE in 2005 and has been with the label for 17 years until he departed to create his own media company pgLang.

pgLang is a multi-disciplinary media company that serves as a record label, production house, and publishing unit. It was founded by Lamar and his business partner and former Co-president of TDE, Dave Free. In its artistic statement, pgLang goes further than these three basic functions as it figures out “how to speak the evolving language of this generation without fading into the white noise or pre-assigned market share.”

“None of the tactics we used back in the day to break Kendrick, Ab-Soul, Jay Rock, or ScHoolboy would work now, none of ’em,” Free shared with Vibe. “They felt as though it was time for a change.” 

2. Double the album double the trouble

This is a double album. Before the album’s release, Lamar tweeted a picture of a book with the title Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers along with two separate CDs titled Morale and Steppers. The album is 18 tracks split evenly into two sections, which reflect the changes and new conclusions that Lamar makes to his psyche.

Some suspect there is a book that goes along with the album. If you look closer, the book looks Bible-esque leading the audience to a key theme of the album—Lamar’s struggle with religion.

3. Taboo lyricism

The themes that surround Lamar’s work include childhood and generational trauma, fatherhood, masculinity, religion, gender identity, infidelity, therapy, cancel culture, the pressures of fame, and his shortcomings. Because the album is split in two, the first part (The Big Steppers) serves as a purging of emotions from these themes. He sets up the surface issues and then dives deeper into them on the second part (Mr. Morale). In the second half, Lamar takes greater contemplative measures, and meditative action, and weighs the themes against his morality and conscience. 

4. Artistic choices

Among controversial themes, Lamar also periodically includes a controversial figure on the album—Kodak Black. During the past couple of years, Kodak Black has faced charges of sexual assault and later pleaded guilty to lesser assault charges. By including the Florida rapper, Lamar presents an overarching concept of contradictions while making a political and artistic statement. The physical effect of placing Kodak within the album mirrors the tensions that Kendrick includes in the lyrics. 

He specifically does it in the line I’m done with the sensitive, takin’ it personal, done with the black and the white, and the wrong and the right on “N95,” which contrasts the lines in “Mother I Sober” where he declares I’m sensitive, I feel everything, I feel everybody. His contradiction of himself in these separate songs shows how Kendrick grows from previous opinions and comes to terms with themes that he previously struggled with, like masculinity. 

5. Family ties 

Along with Kodak Black, Lamar includes his cousin, Baby Keem, on the album. Familial bonds and generational struggles command Lamar’s thoughts. Samples of Lamar’s wife, Whitney Alford, serve as the intro and outro of songs as he learns how to be a better husband and father. He addresses daddy issues and toxic masculinity as the source of the struggle between the pair in “Father Time,” and opens up about sexual abuse as it transfers through generations in the songs “Mr. Morale” and “Mother I Sober.” Ultimately, Lamar chooses his family and self over the prophet figure that many see him as to alleviate himself from fame’s pressures.

Photo by Santiago Bluguermann/Getty Images

Leave a Reply

Review: Steve Earle Offers His Mentor Some Added Adulation