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Kendrick Lamar: The Immediate Impact of the Imperfections in ‘Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers’

On his fifth album, he strives for the freedom to simply be, forcing us as listeners to accept him for who he is and not what we want him to be.

On “B*tch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” the mildly daunting track from his critically acclaimed sophomore album good kid, m.A.A.d. City, Kendrick Lamar arrives with a statement drowned in humility. “I am a sinner who’s probably gonna sin again / Lord, forgive me,” he hazily sings before a rattling bass sprints out of the song. Kendrick has consistently dimmed his spotlight through each of his four heavily-praised albums, normalized his aura, exposed his flaws, and appeared much less than an otherworldly being. 

He instills that he’s not the “next pop star” or the “next socially-aware rapper” on “Ab Soul’s Outro” from Section.80. His preconceived notions cause him to misjudge a pure-hearted individual on “How Much A Dollar Cost” from To Pimp a Butterfly. He even admits that life’s scariest elements and possibilities have plagued him for much of his life on “Fear” off of the Pulitzer-winning album, DAMN. With each album, Kendrick invites us as listeners to peer our eyes into a telescope he intentionally sets for close viewing of a world he intricately crafts. We’ve wandered the gruesome streets of a mad city called Compton, taken flight on a butterfly set that promoted Black excellence through truthful political and personal commentary, and examined the individual threads that contribute to the good and bad sides of the artist’s “old-school Gemini” self.

Kendrick Lamar goes to great lengths for his fifth and final act with Top Dawg Entertainment to showcase his imperfections.

Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers arrived to conclude a five-year wait for Kendrick’s latest presumed masterwork, but what was delivered is a project distant from the rapper we knew – or thought we knew. Mr. Morale is as jarring as it is confessional. It’s as resistant as it is unearthing. It’s as controversial as it is accepting. Through 18 tracks, split between two discs, Kendrick grabs a baseball bat and takes a full swing at numerous topics, and with this, he doesn’t supply polished opinions or criticisms like his peers might’ve. Rather, his thoughts are off-center and rudimentary as they’re seemingly constructed block-by-block through the therapy sessions he discusses on the album.

On “Worldwide Steppers,” Kendrick says this direction comes from a higher power. “Writer's block for two years, nothin' moved me / Asked God to speak through me, that's what you hear now / The voice of yours truly,” he raps. Kendrick finds the courage to speak honestly about love, personal affiliations, grief, and more through this. It’s also through this that Kendrick profoundly aims to dismantle cancel culture.

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Kendrick’s gripe with cancel culture is that it allegedly limits the field of play that highly expressive artists like himself are allowed to operate. Not to say that he longs for the wild, wild west-like times where slurs are used flippantly, and irresponsible harm is done to those in disadvantaged communities. It’s that he feels like he and others are required to walk too much on the straight-and-narrow for his own comfort, so much so that it strips away from the purity and natural creation of art. He makes that clear just three songs into the new album. “N****s killed freedom of speech, everyone sensitive / If your opinion f*ck 'round and leak, might as well send your will,” he quips on “Worldwide Steppers.” “The industry has killed the creators, I'll be the first to say / To each exec', “I'm saving your children” — We can't negotiate.”

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Truthfully, it’s hard to believe that Kendrick understands the true intention of “cancel culture.” The decision to rap “Like it when they pro-Black, but I'm more Kodak Black” on “Savior,” just songs before alluding to his mother’s experience with sexual assault as a child, is rather odd. Kodak Black’s past is filled with sexual harassment/assault allegations which make him the exact being that “cancel culture” hopes to have punished for their wrongs rightfully. It’s this accountability that Kendrick fails to present on Mr. Morale

He uplifts Kodak in a way that practically flashes a middle finger to cancel culture, all without even attempting to show that his collaborator is decently removed from his heinous past. It’s an occurrence in the industry that we’ve seen with the likes of NBA Youngboy, Tory Lanez, and more, a trend that will certainly continue following the actions of one of music’s biggest names. For someone who repeatedly declares that he’s not our savior, Kendrick is in the mood to save us from something that isn’t exactly a detriment to the greater good.

Towards the end of the album on “Auntie Diaries,” Kendrick walks us through the improving understanding he has for transgender relatives in his life. His growth is depicted in an extremely raw and arguably offensive manner as he matures with transitions that repeatedly use the homophobic slur “f*****t.” As he ultimately shows by the end of the song, Kendrick's intention is to capture his eventual understanding of the harm that slur causes. But you have to question the way Kendrick sets out to achieve this. 

If Morgan Wallen, the country music superstar who was banned from award shows after a video emerged of him using an anti-Black slur, created a similar song with the N-word, would he be deserving of the same applause? Or should we also commend him for achieving a non-discriminatory approach to life? Then again, the established societal rejection of the F-word occurred much more recently than that of the N-word, an idea that Kendrick seems to lean on with the song. Then again, it’s like robbing numerous banks to fund a documentary that shows how stealing money from people can be harmful. There are just other ways to go about it.

Kendrick wants nothing more than to speak freely and without concern for consequences within his tug-of-war with cancel culture. While there should be limits to it, it’s this freedom that churns out admissions of infidelity with his fiancee, incomplete but at times progressive thoughts as a result of therapy (a concept that today’s generation of Black men and women are fighting to normalize), and crippling struggles with grief. Kendrick’s determination to share his brutal truths open casket-style is what makes for some of the best moments on Mr. Morale

The first four lines on the album warn of a spiraling confession. “I've been goin' through somethin' / One-thousand eight-hundred and fifty-five days,” he says coldly. “I've been goin' through somethin' / Be afraid.” Throughout the album, he lists his daddy issues (“Father Time”), shares his doubts about being loved for his true self (“Die Hard”), and reinforces his message that he’s a mere human and not a prophet in rapper’s clothing (“Savior,” “Mirror”).

Mr. Morale closes with a direct message to listeners. “Sorry I didn't save the world, my friend,” Kendrick says on “Mirror.” “I was too busy buildin' mine again.” Immediately after, he concludes the song by repeatedly chanting, “I choose me, I’m sorry.” While he often gave us the words and inspiration to view the world and ourselves differently, Kendrick never set out to rally the world on the road towards righteousness. He knows his flaws make him unqualified for the role – one he truly never asked for. His fifth album is a louder-than-ever call to detach him from such a heavyweight responsibility. Mr. Morale seems to be Kendrick’s inner conscious that strives to be the most authentic man he can be for himself. 

The Big Steppers seem to be the vices that drive him to varying extremes, the same ones that make his first album so jarring and uncomfortable. Together, the two parts complete the persona at the heart of Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers.

Kendrick Lamar once called himself a sinner, and while many might be forgiving towards him, his imperfections were at full display under a bright spotlight. 

Maybe now we’ll relieve him of these unsolicited duties.


Enwongo Okon, better known as Wongo, is a music journalist who has contributed to 2 Dope Boyz, Uproxx, Revolt, and Pitchfork. Rhode Island is home. Debate about all things music at @WheresWongo.

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