Breaking Down “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” By Kendrick Lamar.
Over the last five years there has been no more anticipated album than Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, Kendrick Lamar’s most recent project. Since 2018 Kendrick has only popped up in a handful of features on Baby Keem, SiR, 2 Chainz, and Anderson .Paak albums leaving fans yearning for his newest body of work.
The album Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers serves as a reflection of the last six years since Kendrick’s last studio album. He speaks on social issues including the COVID-19 vaccine, the relationship between Black men and their fathers, LGBTQ+ issues, and much more. This album also gives us a more personal look into Kendrick than we’re used to getting.
Musically you’d be hard pressed to find a more dynamic album than this project. At times Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers feels like a theatrical Broadway play, at other times it feels like a trip to past Kendrick albums like Section.80, the Black Panther Soundtrack, and To Pimp a Butterfly. There are heavy jazz and blues elements at times, there is heavy use of string and piano arrangements, but there are also homages to Kendrick’s classic sound.
Let’s take Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers Track by Track:
United In Grief
“I hope you find some peace of mind in this lifetime,” are the first words of the album. The first minute of the song is reminiscent of something you’d hear on Broadway. The track is piano-focused, which is not uncommon for an albums intro track. It’s unique that drums don’t really come into the track until a minute thirty into the song.
United In Grief has a choral arrangement, a string section, piano, and an intermittent snare drum that Kendrick pops in and out of the pocket on.
The song focuses on grief and loss, Kendrick repeats “I grieve different” between classic Kendrick verses.
If this song is an introduction to the album, this is going to be a musically-complex album on pace with To Pimp A Butterfly.
Song title obviously refers to the COVID-19 recommended “N95.”
“Hello new world!” Kendrick sings before the first traditional rap beat drops of the album. N95 is a great pay off after the build up from the intro. The album starts with a heavy dose of social commentary to brace listeners for what’s to come.
Kendrick is masterfully rapping, singing, harmonizing, and switching flows consistently throughout the track. “What the fuck is cancel culture, dawg?” Lamar asks towards the end of the song as a distorted bass effect reminiscent of the 2012 sound plays the track out.
Kodak Black provides the intro on Worldwide Steppers saying “we are the Big Steppers,” which is half of the album’s name. The drumline-esque beat that accompanied the intro pivots to a classic Kendrick jazz-inspired beat. If you listen closely to the jazz-portion of the beat you’ll hear room noise which likely means Kendrick either sampled a record on actual vinyl or added that effect in post for feel.
Kendrick has always had the skill of changing his flows in sync with his production style. Meaning, he starts the track saying “i’m a killer, he’s a killer, she’s a killer” in a very slow melodic way – then around second 20 he’s drops his tone, begins rapping faster, and the vocals are layered louder so you can hear him clearly and the change in flow is more substantial.
Within 10 seconds – Kendrick mentions both “Baby Shark” and “a dust addiction,” not a lot of rappers have that range or skill set.
The body of this track is about Kendrick’s first few times “fucking a white bitch,” and the variety of feelings and thoughts he has about that. Then in the last minute of the track, the jazz element of the song pops back out just before the outro, which is the intro repeated.
This beat should have your shoulders swaying immediately. Blxst & Amanda Riefer are the first credited features on the album, even though Kodak did the last intro.
The style of Die Hard is a relatively new lane for King Kendrick, he’s always been comfortable singing but it’s rare to hear R&B Kendrick. Die Hard is comparable to “LOVE” off of “DAMN.”
“If I told you who I am would you use it against me,” is a standout line in this smooth little bop about heartbreak. I say “little” because the rest of the songs on the album thus far have been so huge and theatrical with beat changes, heavy snare drums, and orchestral arrangements that any song would sound smaller placed next to them. That being said, Die Hard is a breath of fresh air and likely serves as a transition point for the album musically.
Back comes the string section along with some tap dancing – until Kendrick proclaims “I come from a generation of home invasions!”
What sounds like a blues guitar takes the forefront of the beat, until a horn sound becomes more prominent. Sampha is doing amazing work on the hook and Kendrick is rapping-rapping.
On this track Ken talks about something that men and rappers rarely speak candidly about, having issues with their father. Kendrick continues to focus on themes like grief, frustration, and interpersonal relations throughout Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers.
Rich – Interlude
Kodak Black is back and he’s rapping poetically over a concert piano. This interlude is one long beautiful storytelling verse.
“When it’s all said and done, we ain’t leaving empty handed.”
Reminiscent of “Section.80.”
This song is an absolute throwback and will satisfy any critic who is disinterested in the concert pianos and string sections. Rich Spirit is some head nodding on the subway, rolling down the windows on the highway, dancing in the shower type music.
“Bitch, you know I’m attractive.”
We Cry Together featuring Taylour Paige
Kendrick has done back and forth toxic relationship tracks on other peoples albums, such as Mona Lisa with Lil Wayne and Love Game with Eminem, but as far as I can remember this is the first time he’s gone head to head with a woman artist. Taylour Paige is kicking down the doors on “We Cry Together,” aka her introduction to the public. Paige currently has no music on Spotify except for this feature on Kendrick Lamar’s most anticipated album.
This is the hip-hop version of Netflix’s Marriage Story. Kendrick and Taylour Paige fling vicious insults at one another filled with expletives. The MC’s are roleplaying as a toxic couple and using their relationship as a metaphor for men and women in the real world.
Paige draws comparisons to R. Kelly and insults penis size, while Kendrick liberally lets the word “bitch” fly and criticizes “fake feminists.” This track is jam-packed with critiques on gender roles and society at large, then ends with the couple having sex while a piano and tap music plays the us out.
“Stop tap dancing around the conversation.”
Purple Hearts featuring Summer Walker & Ghostface Killah
“They gon’ judge your life for a couple likes and a double tap.” Kendrick flows between singing and rapping in a higher cadence seamlessly to kick off another “R&B Kendrick” track. Purple Hearts is the antidote to “We Cry Together.”
After hearing Taylour Paige and Kendrick yell at each other on the last track, it’s refreshing to hear Summer Walker sing “Shut the fuck up when you hear love talking.”
Ghostface Killah blesses this track with a classic verse to finish the song. “We killin’ greed, we killin’ homelessness, and I don’t give a fuck about land, I want ownership.”
Count Me Out
Here Kendrick seems to bear his soul about the reality of his life and his come up. The first verse begins with a masterclass verse on what Kendrick has been through to get to the top of the rap game. “Done every magazine, what’s fame to me?” he asks at the top of the verse, but also mentions that he’s had lows “they layered me up, then broke me down and morality’s dust, I lack in trust.”
As the verse goes on Kendrick’s delivery becomes more confident and his lyrics become cockier, until 1:40 into Count Me Out when the song breaks down repeating “I love when you count me out” and the beat drops.
“When you was at your lowest, tell me, where the hoes was at?
When you was at your lowest, tell me, where the bros was at?”
This track delivers a rare message of realistic measured self-love. It expresses the importance of self love but also highlights the downfall an ego causes.
A slow piano plays as Kendrick sings poetically throughout this track. I have to believe that on an album filled with theatrics, full choirs, and orchestral arrangements that Kendrick left Crown bare musically so listeners focus on the lyrics. The song features two pianos and hardly any backing vocals for the first two minutes, then eventually adds some vocal element towards the end.
A string of lyrics that stood out poignantly were: “No I can’t please everybody. Tap your feet and nod your head for confirmation. Promise that you’ll keep the music in rotation.”
If there’s one thing Kendrick’s aware of, it’s the fact that he “can’t please everybody.”
Silent Hill featuring Kodak Black
Kodak Black keeps popping up all over this album and his rugged delivery compliments Kendrick like crunchy peanut butter and delicious jelly. Silent Hill is not the most complex track, it’s a song to mean mug and nod to.
It’s real braggadocious rap shit until the outro when Kendrick sings about being stressed out.
Savior – Interlude
A snippet of German intellectual Eckhart Tolle speaking about overcoming one’s past begins the track and then Baby Keem spits a verse laying out his difficult past and how he’s dealing with overcoming it.
Keem starts the nearly two minute long verse by asking “You ever seen your mama strung out while you studied division?” then finishes it by saying “Mama, I said it’d be okay.”
The last words Baby Keem says in the Savior – Interlude are “Mr. Morale.” It’s interesting that more than half way through the album, the only artists that have said the words “Mr. Morale” or “The Big Steppers” are Baby Keem and Kodak Black – the two most featured artists on the album.
Savior featuring Baby Keem and Sam Dew
Until Savior starts and Kendrick screams out “Mr. Morale” to start his first verse. Before that first verse starts Kendrick reminds the listener that artists and athletes will not be your savior.
“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.”
In Savior Kendrick talks about his relationship to fans and then dives into his responsibility as an artist to speak his mind. The most ear-catching portion of this song is when he name drops Kyrie in a set of bars about COVID.
“Seen a Christian say the vaccine mark of the beast
Then he caught COVID and prayed to Pfizer for relief
Then I caught COVID and started to question Kyrie
Will I stay organic or hurt in this bed for two weeks?”
Kendrick even seems to mention the conflict in Ukraine by briefly saying “Vladimir making nightmares.” This song is a warning to fans not to look to celebrities to save them.
Sam Dew is an unsung hero who pops in and out of this album, however he’s only featured officially on “Savior.” If you hear an uncredited male background singer on Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers odds are it’s Sam Dew.
In Savior Kendrick Lamar speaks on COVID Vaccines, Ukraine, Kyrie and name drops other rappers in an attempt to show that he’s willing to speak about anything, then on Auntie Diaries he puts his money where his mouth is and talks about a woman transitioning to a man.
“My auntie is a man now
I think I’m old enough to understand now.”
Kendrick speaks on the liberal use of the LGBT slurs in the past, the dynamics of transgender sexuality, and his journey of acceptance with his cousin. “Demetrius is Mary-Ann now. I mean he’s really Mary-Ann, even took things further. Changed his gender before Bruce Jenner was certain.”
The song ends with Kendrick challenging the logic of a preacher disowning the LGBT community and Kendrick atoning for the use of the f-word. “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.”
Throughout this album we hear bits and pieces of other Kendrick projects, Mr. Morale is reminiscent of Kendrick’s work on the Black Panther album. This track focuses on the Black experience and trauma referencing R. Kelly, Oprah, and Tyler Perry by name.
“SSI bury family members
At the repass, they servin’ Popeyes chicken.
What you know about Black trauma?”
Mother I Sober featuring Beth Gibbons of Portishead
“One man hiding behind two words: heal everybody.” After an album highlighting trauma and issues, Mother I Sober is a ballad of healing.
“You ain’t felt grief til’ you face it sober.”
Anytime Kendrick raps over a soft piano, he’s drawing in listeners to listen to what he’s saying. Here he wants you to hear his dialogue about the grief he has faced, which is a running theme throughout the album.
Ken talks about therapy and presents each of his verses as candid conversations he’s had. About 4 minutes into the track, the pace picks up and Kendrick’s subject matter begins to focus on the struggle that Black American have faced throughout the country’s history.
“His anger grows deep in misogyny, this is post-traumatic
Black families and a sodomy, today is still active”
Vocalist Beth Gibbons sings a haunting outro “I wish I was anybody, anybody but myself,” harping on the theme of guilt that presents itself throughout the song.
The closing track of the album “Mirror” starts with Kodak Black saying “I choose me.” After an album of explaining his guilt and grappling with his status in the world, Kendrick sings “I chose me, I’m sorry.”
Pockets of this beat are reminiscent of Kanye’s Flashing Lights. Kendrick starts the album by explaining how we’re all United In Grief and trauma, then explains that grief over 18 tracks only to apologize on this closing track for “choosing himself.”
Throughout Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers Kendrick Lamar explicitly explains and even acts out the variety of issues facing Black Americans. He explores nearly every major social issue in America from LGBTQ+ issues to the COVID-19 vaccine, but then makes a point to remind you that he is not your savior.
The text of this album is about Black trauma, healing, and grappling with the current state of the world. The subtext of this album is about Kendrick’s inner struggle to better the world but the limitations he faces as both a celebrity and artist to do so.
In other projects Kendrick has talked about his issues with “overnight activists” and people who present themselves as the solution. In the six years between Kendrick Lamar albums, America has gone through a racial reckoning and global pandemic. Rather than immediately releasing a “BLM” song or running to social media – it seems that Kendrick has digested the last six years and processed his feelings, as well as his place in society.
Artists are limited in their capacity to make change and no one in hip-hop is more self aware of that than Kendrick Lamar. It remains the undertone to much of his work and seems to be like an issue he’s been addressing internally for some time. This struggle is not unique to artists, but something the entire public should be considering.
The decision to choose yourself in a world full of problems is something that every citizen of a capitalistic society has to grapple with. In the case of Kendrick, he feels guilt because of the fame and success he’s achieved while the world burns around him – whereas listeners may feel a less visceral feeling of guilt because they are not A-list celebrities.
Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is an album that any true hip-hop fan should listen to front to back. It is not easy listening and it is not music that will make you smile, but it is a complex and beautiful album that encapsulates the issues of modernity.