Some critics do not understand the nuances of the album. Many don’t know what a “big stepper” is. In the streets, to be a big stepper is to be willing to take the most aggressively dominant approach to the opposition, to have the upper hand. That aggressive approach often means killing someone. That being said, this album goes deeper than Kendrick Lamar proclaiming he is a killer with morale and killers behind him.
Kendrick tackles the everyday contradictions humans suffer, especially within the Black community, and Black culture, where the term “big stepper” originated. These contradictions include issues of gender disparity, homophobia, racism, ideology, philosophy, hypocrisy, society, and… you get the point. Mr. Morale is Kendrick battling his own contradictions with a new son, Enoch, who may help him correct his sins if he raises him righteously. The Big Steppers are us. Everyday people who have it in us to contradict, philosophize, and “step,” or aggressively approach situations that do not fit our comforts and considerations.
“United in Grief”
The album opens with “United In Grief.” They say grief is nature’s most powerful aphrodisiac. Here, Kendrick opens up about the success he has had while touring North America. On one stop he met a tall, green-eyed model and they both expressed grief over fallen loved ones and those incarcerated, leading to them knocking boots. Kendrick raps, “I grieve different,” suggesting he is not mourning by solemnly unpacking the trauma that comes with the loss of someone sacred, instead, this one-night stand is all he needs to get over the tragedy. At least, for that night.
Following up with “N95,” where Kendrick addresses that everyone is “masking” their real selves through trips to Cabo, mimicking their idols, advertising falsely woke takes on society, and showing off their wealth on social media to feel better about themselves. People are “ugly as fuck” when they finally take off their masks. Uncovering their true selves and true intentions is revealing. In today’s world, it is so easy to filter your life through memes, popular social media quotes, and groupthink mob mentality. Kendrick, with a stellar beat and a call-and-response hook, lays these aspects of modern life out in perfect execution.
Kodak Black appears at the beginning of “Worldwide Steppers.” The beat is up-tempo and mostly monophonic. Kendrick addresses his lust addiction and exposes the two times he had sex with a white woman. The first time, he was 16 years old, and she was the daughter of a sheriff who locked up one of Kendrick’s uncles. This was payback. The second time, he knew he had a problem with lust because it was during his relationship with his wife, Whitney. He spits, “ancestors watching me fuck, was like retaliation.” As a Black man, he contradicts himself by cheating on his Black queen, especially with a white woman. A grave sin in the Black community.
Kendrick is not being a good revolutionary in this sense, but what leader has not fallen short of their legacy at times? “Eight billion people on earth, silent murderers.” This lyric flows in a song that reveals the world on edge, as we all try to live up to social standards that are beyond repair. Lust puts Kendrick on edge, yet he is one of eight billion. You never know how long it may take before someone falls the edge, into a killer.
“Die Hard” (with Blxst and Amanda Reifer)
“Die Hard” takes a smoother approach. Blxst and Amanda Reifer ride the chorus with ease. Two voices soothingly asking each other about trust, love, and forgiveness. Kendrick wants to be loved for who he is, including his flaws. The outside world is constantly reminding him of the ills that come with it. He knows he is no different, he just wants that one person by his side that can see past his issues and give him the love he needs to carry forward.
“Father Time“ (featuring Sampha)
Fellas, please listen to “Father Time.” Especially when Kendrick reflects on “Daddy issues. ‘Fuck everybody. Go get your money, son. Protect yourself, trust nobody. Only your mama nem.’” Often in the Black community, especially growing up in low-income environments where opportunity is limited, boys are taught to be as tough as they can be in a world that thinks less of them. This “survival mode” mentality helps, and hurts, the community as a whole. These same Black boys can grow up to be Black men misguided by their fathers’ teachings, leading them down a path of confusion in not knowing how to truly settle their problems.
Often, it is even worse for boys abandoned by their fathers if they don’t have a role model and have to figure out the whole “how to be a man” thing out on their own. Without the proper structure, these boys remain boys until they are guided differently. These same boys will give hell to the women in their life, from their mothers to their spouses. In recognizing this, KDot tells the men of the world to “Give the women a break.” Grown men with daddy issues are a turn-off, fellas. Grow for yourselves, and allow those blessings to be taken in the way they should.
Kendrick Lamar brings his Hebrew Israelite brother Kodak Black back into the picture for “Rich (Interlude).” In one verse, to a piano rift, Kodak explains his personal baby story, illustrating being fatherless, having a workhorse mother that still needed WIC, and Kodak still needing to steal for a meal. “… you know, poverty… Now look at this shit, we own property.” The interlude ends with this line signifying the Black man’s come-up.
“Rich Spirit” is my song to feel untouchable. Invincible. This is the song you play as you laugh at the text from one of your exes or that one lil friend you was fooling around with that one summer. Girl, it’s over now. Or, in other words, “Bitch I’m attractive. Can’t fuck with you no more, I’m fasting.” This song is a victory song after you finally recentered yourself after fallback after fallback. You definitely have to play this song when it’s payday. This is probably the smoothest song on the whole album. Audio silk.
“We Cry Together” (with Taylour Paige)
Sometimes it seems we are in the midst of a gender battle; venus vs. mars, Kevin Samuels vs. city girls, (no, not JT and Caresha). We see it frequently on “Black Twitter,” where a Black man and woman open fire on each other about who caused more trauma, and why the community at a macro level is damaged from the back-and-forth of Black men vs. women. “We Cry Together” personifies all of these elements of the detriment to the relationship between Black man and Black woman in a heated argument. On a micro level, you have these Jody and Yvette situations. Kendrick Lamar and Taylour Paige say some harsh words to each other throughout the song that addresses their personal relationship, but also how Black men and women can treat each other as a whole.
Kendrick: You know that pussy is loose
Taylour: I’d rather act like I’m cummin
K: I’d rather fuck off the juice
T: I’d rather fuck on your cousin
If you have been in a toxic relationship, or witnessed one firsthand, then you know every word said in this song is the actual way it can go. Women and men can both say some nasty shit when they are mad, that’s for sure. If my girlfriend say she wanna fuck my cousin I might cut that whole side of the family off. Why him? Anyways, the song ends with them making love. Like any toxic relationship, the girl goes from “Fuck you, nigga!” to “Fuck me, nigga.” The contradiction is clear here, but exposes the toxicity in some folks’ relationships. It feels to me like so many conversations of a toxic couple in the Black community are thoroughly represented by this dialogue between Kendrick and Taylour. An exceptional performance.
“Purple Hearts” (with Summer Walker and Ghostface Killah)
Finally, the Mr. Morale side concludes with my favorite song of the album, “Purple Hearts.” Kendrick preaches, “I know y’all love it when the drugs talking, but shut the fuck up when you hear love talking!” Love is at the center of this song, but also the pain that comes with that unconditional love. True love is forgiveness, sacrifice, and going against sometimes your better judgment to receive the love you feel you deserve from that one person.
“It ain’t love if you gon’ judge me for my past. No, it ain’t love if you ain’t never eat my ass. It ain’t love if you just only tie me down because you seen me in my bag.” Summer Walker’s verse skates through the instrumental like Disney on Ice. Ghostface Killah kills the closing verse explaining God’s love. When you are battling the chaos of today’s time, “Shut the fuck up when you hear HIS love talking,” Ghostface declares. “To the mind, it’s God’s cipher, divine in a small portion.” A lot of our problems come from us not listening to that inner voice that some people recognize as “God.” True love is from within. With that understanding, we should always be listening and taking in love for what it is. Good job, Mr. Morale.
“Count Me Out”
Intro to The Big Steppers, “Count Me Out.” Kendrick doesn’t mind being at his lowest because he has already seen his highest and knows there is higher. “When you was at your lowest tell me where the bros was at? 3:30 in the morning, scroll through the call log. Ain’t nobody, but the mirror looking for the fall off.” Sometimes your biggest enemy is yourself. You have to take that person in your head that is counting you out and evict them from living rent-free in your membrane. The biggest stepper against you is the mirror sometimes. Don’t let the mirror step on the real you.
“Crown” sounds like Kendrick’s moment of clarity. “I can’t please everybody” is repeated as he sings about having trouble satisfying loved ones, balancing both fulfilling their needs and fulfilling the needs of his fans. “Heavy is the head that chooses to wear the crown. To whom is given much is required now.” Following this phrase with, “love gon’ get you killed” which also becomes repeated a few more lyrics after, shows how overwhelming it is to “wear the crown.” Kendrick is suffering from success—his responsibilities as an artist and as the famous person in his family are tallying up the more he succeeds. He is torn by the love he has for those around him and those that forget him when Kendrick is out of sight.
“Silent Hill” (with Kodak Black)
“Silent Hill” is a bop. Plain and simple. Second smoothest song on the album behind “Rich Spirit.” Kendrick swings through the chorus with pure finesse in the most catchy, fun way possible to a beat that has some funk to it. Loaded with 808, sounds of a bird chirping, and chilling violins, KDot and Kodak both annihilate this song with their verses. Kodak, notably, was talking that shit. “They don’t fuck with me even if they could. Pull out the stick, hit a bitch with the wood. First to park Rolls Royce, ‘vert in the hood. Don’t worry bout us over here, we good.” Out the gate exploding on the track letting us know he is the first to park the best whips in his hood, living life to the fullest. This is another one of those songs you play when a hater pissed you off and you need a song to push them off you. This is definitely Kendrick’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.”
“Savior (Interlude)” begins with Eckhart Tolle talking about how people develop a victim mentality based on bad things that have happened to them. Baby Keem breaks into a verse about the bad things that have happened to him. “You ever seen your mama strung out, while you study division? Your uncle ever stole from you day after Christmas? Seen both of those in them county jail visits. The first and the fifteenth the only religion.” Baby Keem is down, but he is not out. Despite what his environment was, or what was happening to him, he overcame it. He never allowed the trials and tribulations to get in the way of his personal goals. “Been down on my luck. Been down on my luck when I fall. I gotta get up. I gotta get back up and ball.”
“Savior” (with Baby Keem and Sam Dew)
Keem reappears on the hook to “Savior.” Asking and repeating, “Are you happy for me?” leading into Kendrick with an immaculate verse on cancel culture and political correctness. “Politically correct is how you keep an opinion. Niggas is tight-lipped fuck who dare to be different.” In times when health is at its most important to the human consciousness since COVID struck, people are not outspoken on their own opinions on health and morality. “Seen a Christian said 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.” We all have principles that we stand on until we are in a compromising position that forces us to bend for a new cause. No rapper, basketball player, or entertainer on TV is your savior, save yourselves.
In “Auntie Diaries,” I believe Kendrick gave us the most earnest rap song to battle homophobia in the genre. He is going over his childhood when his auntie decided to transition from female to male, and how this journey affected a homophobic family and unaccepting environment. “Drinking Paul Masson with her hat turned backwards.” His auntie had the gestures and ways of a man that intimidated the men around him, but soon understood, “My auntie was a man now, we cool with it. The history had trickled down and made us ign’ant.”
His cousin Demetrius would follow suit and become “Mary Ann now.” He knew his cousin was different from him at an early age when they would play with the barbie dolls. His cousin did not like when homophobic slurs, such as the F word, were used. “We ain’t know no better, middle school kids with no filter.” The song is beautiful. Respect is not saying things or adopting an ideology that harms others through phrasing and word usage that is problematic to certain groups. Someone should not have to be your family to treat them with the same respect.
“Mr. Morale” (with Tanna Leone)
An angelic voice sings Kendrick’s son’s name, Enoch, in the background of booming percussion on “Mr. Morale.” “Enoch, your father’s your detox, my calling is right on time. Transformation I must have a thousand lives and like three thousand wives.” Kendrick takes charge on this track like a Black Clark Kent waking up to find out he is Superman. He has the mind he needs to tackle all of his objectives. “Fighting off demons that’s been outside. Better known as myself, I’m a demigod. Every thought is creative, sometimes I’m afraid of my open mind.” This is a song that wakes you back up from the sleep you had on yourself and your own abilities. When you finally realize who you are again, press play on Kendrick Lamar’s “Mr. Morale.”
“Mother I Sober” (featuring Beth Gibbons)
“Mother I Sober” is probably Kendrick’s most vulnerable piece he has graced the rap game with. A mostly monophonic piano rift that gives Kendrick the sheet to write his words of shame, guilt, self-hate, and craving. “Intoxicated, 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?’”
Kendrick is despairing, knowing he’s responsible for hurting someone near and dear to him. The album makes a full circle, revisiting Kendrick’s lust problem that he keeps as a throughline throughout the course of the album. The song also reveals him feeling helpless after the passing of his grandmother, and not being able to defend his mother as a child. These feelings brought about insecurities that took a toll on his life. “I wish I was somebody. Anybody but myself,” Beth Gibbons gently sings in the chorus.
The circle closes at “Mirror” where Kendrick chooses to work on himself instead of trying to be everyone’s savior. “I choose me, I’m sorry. I choose me, I’m sorry. I choose me, I’m sorry,” goes the hook to this final touch. What is the point of being there for others if it ultimately means neglecting yourself and what you need for your soul to be straight and your mind to be at peace? “Faith in one man is a ship sinker. Do yourself a favor and get a mirror that mirror grievance. Then point it at me so the reflection can mirror freedom.” Kendrick is free from his need to save everyone around him, and from constantly being the beacon of hope. He is free from his sins, addictions, and lustful nature that hindered his own growth and is now stimulated by self-love and self-care. He chose him.
Is a week too soon to refer to an album as a masterpiece? Of course. Do I care, personally? Absolutely not. Neither should you if you enjoyed this album from top to bottom, as I did. As a young Black man at 25, this album hits close to home like Kendrick’s predecessors, but it could not have come at a better time. Kendrick attacks his own morale, sins, and guilt, as he sees it all as a reflection of what surrounds him. He uses this, musically, to formulate his thinking in the process of unlearning and relearning himself and his community. It is a masterpiece. Kendrick Lamar, you have done it once again. Thank you.