The Gospel of Kendrick Lamar

Unpacking the themes and messages of ‘Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers’.

Lamar has returned after a five-year hiatus.

Kendrick Lamar needs little introduction. Over the last decade, the Pulitzer-winning rapper has penned some of the best hip-hop albums of all time, captivating both casual and hardcore listeners with his storytelling prowess, personality, and creativity.

On May 13, Lamar released Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, the long-awaited follow-up to his acclaimed 2017 release, DAMN. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Morale is another dense collection of complex tracks ripe for study and debate by fans and critics.

As with Lamar’s previous albums, the realities of being a Black man in America once again take centre on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers. However, this new body of work is also highly personal, offering important messages for listeners from all cultures and backgrounds.

The first virtue Lamar has returned to preach is honesty.

The opening track, “United in Grief,” begins with a conversation between Lamar and his wife, in which he admits that he’s been “going through something.” His wife’s encouragement for him to be open about what he’s been experiencing sets the stage for a series of confessions.

On the hard-hitting “N95,” a frustrated Lamar challenges people to take off the ‘masks’ they’ve been hiding behind—be them designer clothes or political affiliations. It’s a scathing critique of materialism and a warning to everyone seeking purpose in the wrong places.

The honesty continues in “Worldwide Steppers,” in which Lamar exposes his addiction to texting other women despite the abundance of love he holds for his wife and their two children. He further deconstructs this behaviour on “Father Time,” in which he tries to unlearn much of the toxic masculinity his own father modelled for him as a child, ultimately pinning the behaviour on their poor relationship.

Most artists at Lamar’s level of celebrity would never dare be this honest, especially those operating in the macho, braggadocious world of hip-hop. Lamar’s own vulnerability on this album illustrates that openly discussing and attacking your flaws are the key to overcoming them—a great message for all listeners.

Embracing such honesty requires the abandonment of ego, which is perhaps the deepest and most important message communicated on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers.

“We Cry Together” is a shockingly real portrayal of a broken relationship in which Lamar and his significant other—voiced by actress Taylour Paige—scream at each other. Both characters show how ego drives the need to ‘win,’ which often leads people to mistreat their loved ones.

Lamar builds on this by looking inward on “Count Me Out,” singing, “Some put it on the Devil when they fall short / I put it on my ego, lord of all lords.” Framing this self-indictment in a Biblical context is a clever way to acknowledge the size and scope of his arrogance.

On the controversial cut “Auntie Diaries,” Lamar shares how his perspective of his transgendered family members has grown and matured. While the use of homophobic slurs on this track has been rightfully criticized, his choosing of “humanity over religion” is powerful.

Ultimately, it is on the heart-wrenching “Mother I Sober,” the album’s second-last song, where Mr. Morale’s ideas about honesty and ego truly come together.

Across nearly seven minutes, Lamar tears down his walls and abandons all personas as he tells the harrowing story of his mother being sexually assaulted. He explores how this trauma has kept him away from drugs and alcohol, yet driven him toward other vices—mainly infidelity.

“Mother I Sober” is a raw piece of self-reflection that intentionally throws dirt on Lamar’s once squeaky-clean public image. Rather than finding pain or embarrassment, he finds empowerment in denouncing his reputation and telling the truth.

Across this genre-defining album, Lamar shows his listeners that personal growth is only possible when we acknowledge it’s needed. These songs are a call for compassion meant to remind everyone that absolutely no one is perfect—especially not Mr. Morale. 

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