(I think the best way to do this breakdown is by going chronologically through this album’s rollout and how it has grown with me.)
I’ll be honest. After one listen, I didn’t LOVE this album. I was expecting a perfectly put-together body of work with an easily digestible story, but that’s not what Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is. So, I kept listening. After a few more listens, it grew on me. I remember driving around with my sister while the album was playing, and she said, “I don’t like the way he’s talking about women on this album.” (I think “We Cry Together” was playing, so these feelings were completely valid.) Her words stuck with me though. I ran the album back again, and it felt like I cracked the code.
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is an 18-part therapy session. Each song has a different theme or message, but ultimately, on every track, Kendrick is facing a demon or getting something off his chest or revealing his candid thoughts about an issue. Every one of these moments is intended to lead to Kendrick’s self-growth. We don’t get the polished answer or response to the dark times over the past few years like we were expecting. Instead, we get the messy back-and-forth of internal thought that comes with therapy. We get the contradiction. We get the unpopular opinion. This is an album designed to piss some people off, and above all else, this is an album designed to grow on people—how meta, right?
I want to circle back to the moment when it felt like I unlocked something about this album. After my sister told me she didn’t like the way Kendrick was speaking about women and I listened to the album again, the song “Mother I Sober” really hit me. In this song, he talks about his mother constantly asking him if his cousin ever molested him. He tells his mom that the cousin never touched him but the constant asking traumatized him and always made him question things. Later in the song, he raps, “There’s a lustful nature that I failed to mention. / Insecurities that I project, sleeping with other women. / Whitney’s hurt, the purest soul I know, I found her in the kitchen. / Asking God, “Where did I lose myself? And can it be forgiven? / Broke me down, she looked me in my eyes. “Is there an addiction?” I said, “No,” but this time I lied. I knew that I can’t fix it. / Pure soul, even in her pain, know she cared for me. / Gave me a number, said she recommended some therapy. / I asked my momma why she didn’t believe me when I told her “no.” / I never knew she was violated in Chicago.” At the end of this song, Kendrick’s fiancé Whitney says to him, “You did it. I’m proud of you. You broke a generational curse.” To me, it feels like Kendrick’s trauma of constantly being asked if his cousin molested him correlates with how he treated women. Of course, he always had a choice whether or not to treat women the right way, but I think Kendrick was subconsciously affected by this in a negative way. Now that he faced that trauma while also discovering the truth about his mom being abused–on this song and after the therapy–he’s able to overcome that pain. While overcoming that pain and vowing to be a good husband and father, Kendrick has now broken a generational curse. I believe this is the piece of the puzzle that unlocks a deeper, more powerful meaning for Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers.
Circling back to the thesis that was provided by the theme of “The Heart Part 5,” the big message that I took away from this album is “perspective leads to empathy, and empathy leads to healing.” Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is ultimately an album about healing. It’s about the peaks and valleys of being a human. It’s about the beauty and the flaws. I’ve never been to therapy, but I would bet that it’s hard work that isn’t very pretty. I’m sure it’s messy and probably brings out the ugly. But I’d like to think the goal is to come out better.
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is Kendrick Lamar’s most personal and vulnerable album to date. We all wanted his response to everything that’s happened over the last few years, but instead, he chose himself, his family, his happiness and his well-being. For that, I’m happy.