vulture guides

A Big Guide to Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers

Photo: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Kendrick Lamar albums are dense enough to merit dissertations. That’s once again the case on the rapper’s latest, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers. His fifth album and final for longtime label Top Dawg Entertainment comes after a five-year hiatus since his previous record, DAMN., which became the first non-classical or -jazz work to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Suffice to say, Lamar is one of the defining rappers of his generation — and on Mr. Morale, he returns to address his widest array of subjects yet, including trauma, sex, the pandemic, money, abuse, fatherhood, religion, gender identity, and more. (Maybe chalk it up to the therapist he’s been seeing, as he notes early in opening track “United in Grief.”) It’s a big album from a big rapper full of big topics, so you’ve probably got a lot of big questions. Here’s our big guide to Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers to help.

How long has this been in the works?

Well, it depends whom you ask. Days after releasing DAMN., Lamar was already talking about having new music — but that could very well have been songs for Black Panther or features. Thundercat, who co-wrote two tracks on the project, mentioned working on new music with Lamar in 2020. Also in 2020, Lamar talked to his cousin Baby Keem in an interview for i-D about new music, and spending “a whole year” thinking about his “new sound.” And 2020 was, of course, the year Lamar launched his “at-service” company, pgLang, which co-released Mr. Morale.

But while K.Dot was scheduled to headline big festivals like Glastonbury in 2020, fueling speculation about new music, the album couldn’t have been finished by that point. Mr. Morale gets extremely topical when it comes to the past few years, addressing the COVID-19 pandemic on songs like “N95” and “Savior.” “Mother I Sober” references Baby Keem’s song “Family Ties,” released in August 2021, and “Father Time” references Ye and Drake’s reunion concert, which took place in December 2021.

As for what Lamar himself says? “I’ve been going through something,” he declares at the outset of opening track “United in Grief. “One thousand eight hundred fifty-five days.” That’s five years and 30 days, or the precise amount of time since he released DAMN. on April 14, 2017. On “Worldwide Steppers,” he raps that he had “writer’s block for two years, nothing moved me” — adding an explanation for that long, long wait.

So is it a double album?

Yes. Details were few and far between before Lamar released Mr. Morale, but he did tease that it might be a double album when he posted a photo of two CDs to his website, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers logs 18 tracks, the most stuffed album of Lamar’s career. (At 73 minutes, though, it’s shorter than 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which clocks in at 79 minutes.) And those songs are split into two sides (sorry, volumes), “Big Steppers” and “Mr. Morale,” as the photo teased. At first listen, the songs on “Big Steppers” sound more upbeat, touching on Lamar’s dating and relationships, while “Mr. Morale” gets darker, digging into family issues and abuse.

Who are the returning players?

When Lamar finds someone he likes to work with, he keeps them close. This album pulls together collaborators from across Lamar’s career, including:

Sounwave: Produced 13 of Mr. Morale’s 18 tracks. Producer for Lamar since his mixtapes.

J.LBS: Produced nine Mr. Morale songs. Previously produced “Cartoon & Cereal” and Baby Keem’s “Vent,” featuring Lamar.

DJ Dahi: Produced five Mr. Morale songs, also contributed vocals on one. Previously produced “Money Trees” and five tracks off DAMN.

Bekon: Produced five Mr. Morale tracks, also contributed vocals on two. Previously produced eight songs and contributed vocals to four songs on DAMN.

Matt Schaeffer: Produced five Mr. Morale songs, as part of Beach Noise. Previously engineered “Humble,” mixed “Element,” and played guitar on “DNA” and “Feel.”

Baby Keem: Featured on “Savior (Interlude)” and “Savior,” produced “N95” and “Die Hard,” played drums on “Die Hard.” Lamar previously featured on his songs “Family Ties,” “Range Brothers,” and “Vent.”

Boi-1da: Produced “N95” and “Silent Hill.” Previously produced “The Blacker the Berry.”

Thundercat: Co-wrote and played bass on “Die Hard” and “Mother I Sober.” Previously featured, produced, wrote, and played bass on To Pimp a Butterfly, untitled. unmastered., and DAMN.

Pharrell: Produced “Mr. Morale.” Previously produced “good kid” and “Alright.”

The Alchemist: Produced “We Cry Together.” Previously produced “Fear” and “The Heart Pt. 4.”

DJ Khalil: Produced “Purple Hearts.” Previously produced “County Building Blues.”

Blxst: Featured on “Die Hard.” Previously produced Hitta J3’s “Do Yo Gudda (Remix),” featuring Lamar.

Who did Lamar bring to the party this time?

Most of the credited features are new names in the Kendrick Lamar musical universe — and they come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some aren’t surprises. Tanna Leone, featured on “Mr. Morale,” is signed to Lamar’s label, pgLang. And Sam Dew, who is featured on “Savior” and co-wrote 12 of the album’s songs, previously worked with Sounwave in the trio Red Hearse (along with Jack Antonoff). It’s also not too surprising to see Summer Walker or Ghostface Killah, both of whom are featured on “Purple Hearts”; while they have never worked with Lamar, Walker is one of the hottest singers in R&B right now and Ghostface is a rap legend still cranking out features.

As for the surprises? Amanda Reifer, singer for the now-defunct Barbados band Cover Drive and featured on “Die Hard,” is a name most American listeners may not know, since her band mostly caught on in the U.K. Speaking of the U.K., “Father Time” features R&B singer-songwriter Sampha, in a powerful, rare appearance since his 2017 Mercury Prize–winning album Process. It’s even rarer to see a feature from Beth Gibbons, singer of English trip-hop band Portishead, which just reunited for the first time in seven years for a Ukraine benefit performance. Gibbons, who provides a somber chorus on “Mother I Sober,” last released a collaborative album with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2019. Meanwhile, the song-skit “We Cry Together” features Zola actor Taylour Paige in her first musical performance, arguing with Lamar. (Expect to hear her voice clipped all over TikTok.) And there’s one more big surprise we need to talk about …

So what’s Kodak Black doing here?

Ever the provocateur, Lamar made controversial rapper Kodak Black a centerpiece of Mr. Morale. Black is credited as a feature on “Silent Hill” but also appears on “Worldwide Steppers” and “Rich (Interlude)” in a sort of narrator capacity. It’s a bit of an odd choice for an album that spends so much time considering both sexual abuse and cancel culture, given Kodak’s history. In 2016, an underage girl accused Kodak, born Bill Kapri, of rape, and he was charged with a count of first-degree criminal sexual conduct in South Carolina. The criminal case dragged on for years, and Kodak eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser first-degree assault-and-battery charges in April 2021, for which he was sentenced to 18 months of probation. He also, notably, had a 46-month federal-weapons sentence commuted by President Donald Trump in January 2021. Kodak has continued to have a successful music career since the rape accusation, with his recent single “Super Gremlin” hitting No. 3 on the Hot 100 in March.

Kodak doesn’t say much of substance on Mr. Morale. Introducing “Worldwide Steppers,” he teaches us that Lamar’s alias “Oklama” may actually be pronounced “O-K-lama.” On “Rich (Interlude),” he raps about “smart people makin’ horrible decisions” and takes stock of the struggles he has overcome. He also anticipates confusion over his Mr. Morale features, rapping, “What you doing with Kendrick? What you doing with a legend?” And on “Silent Hill,” he addresses that weapons charge, rapping, “In the studio with K.Dot, fresh out the Feds.”

But Lamar seems to be saying more with Kodak’s sheer presence. Early in the album on “N95,” he asks, “What the fuck is cancel culture, dog?” He goes on to discuss cycles of abuse on “Mother I Sober,” using sexual abuse as a particular example. He raps about rappers who have experienced abuse “buryin’ they pain in chains and tattoos” and warns fans, “Listen close before you start to pass judgement on how we move.” This comes after he contemplated R. Kelly on “Mr. Morale,” asking, “If he weren’t molested, I wonder if life’ll fail him.” Lamar concludes “Mother I Sober” by declaring, “I set free all you abusers, this is transformation.” Featuring Kodak so heavily on the album may be his way of putting that forgiveness for past abusers into action. “Like it when they pro-Black, but I’m more Kodak Black,” he raps on “Savior.”

Lamar’s specifically generational perspective on trauma and abuse on “Mother I Sober” relates to a sample at the end of the previous song, “Mr. Morale,” from the writer Eckhart Tolle. In the clip, Tolle discusses one of his signature ideas, the pain-body. “People get taken over by this pain-body,” he says, “because this energy field that almost has a life of its own. It needs to, periodically, feed on more unhappiness.”

Wait, who’s Eckhart Tolle?

A self-described “spiritual teacher,” Tolle’s work more closely resembles self-help. He has written multiple books, including the Oprah-endorsed The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment in 1997 and A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose in 2005. After seeming to appear in a 2020 pgLang video with his face blurred, Tolle’s influence looms over Mr. Morale. Kodak first name-drops him on “Worldwide Steppers.” Then, at the beginning of “Father Time,” Lamar’s fiancée, Whitney Alford, says, “You need to talk to someone. Reach out to Eckhart.” Tolle himself first appears on “Auntie Diaries,” delivering the line, “This is how we conceptualize human beings.” There’s also that previously mentioned Tolle sample at the end of “Mr. Morale.”

Wait again, Lamar’s fiancée is on this?

And his kids, too. Lamar dropped a bit of a bomb when he revealed the Mr. Morale album art, which shows him holding a child and Alford holding a second. Lamar previously had a daughter with Alford in 2019, but his second child had not been reported; TMZ soon confirmed they indeed had had another baby. On “Worldwide Steppers,” Lamar mentions his new son, revealing that his name is Enoch, after the biblical figure who did not die and instead walked with God into heaven at the end of his life. (He calls his son “part two” of his genetic “multiverse.”) Lamar’s daughter features at the end of “Mother I Sober,” after Alford congratulates him for breaking “a generational curse.” “Say ‘Thank you, Dad,’” she tells their daughter. “Thank you, Daddy; thank you, Mommy; thank you, brother,” their daughter replies, before also saying “Mr. Morale.”

So could anything else here make people mad?

Aside from those three Kodak Black features? Well, there’s the song where Lamar says a gay slur ten times. It’s a bit more complicated than that, though. “Auntie Diaries” is a reflection on trans acceptance, and the most in-depth one ever from a straight, cisgender mainstream rapper. But that’s not to say it’s not a bit heavy-handed. Lamar raps about a transgender uncle, along with a cousin who transitions. It’s unclear if this is based on a real experience, but he does drop the name Demetrius, whom he previously mentioned on the 2012 song “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter.” On that song, he called Demetrius Sherane’s “favorite cousin”; now, he raps, “My favorite cousin said he’s returning the favor / And following my auntie with the same behavior.”

While Lamar raps about admiring that trans uncle, he also thinks back to “when it was comic relief” to use gay slurs. He goes on to rap about continuing to use those slurs despite that uncle and cousin. “I was taught words was nothing more than a sound,” Lamar raps. Then, he remembers the cousin comparing it to a racial slur, rapping from her perspective, “F- - - -t, f- - - -t, f- - - -t, we can say it together / But only when you let a white girl say n- - - a.” That’s something Lamar notably didn’t do; he brought a white fan onstage to rap “m.A.A.d city” with him in 2018 and cut her off when she used the N-word. Except that the lesson seemingly didn’t sink in, with Lamar still actually using the word throughout the song. (He also deadnames Caitlyn Jenner and, as the title suggests, still refers to the trans uncle as an “auntie.”)

Okay, but — K.Dot can still rap, right?

Oh, yeah. If you somehow haven’t, you’ve got to listen to the album for yourself. But here’s a sampling of some of the best (and most Kendrick) bars on Mr. Morale:

➽ “Take off the weird-ass jewelry, I’ma take ten steps, then I’m taking off top five / Take off them fabricated streams and them microwave memes, it’s a real world outside” (“N95”)

➽ “Playin’ ‘Baby Shark’ with my daughter / Watchin’ for sharks outside at the same time” (“Worldwide Steppers”)

➽ “When Kanye got back with Drake, I was slightly confused / Guess I’m not mature as I think, got some healin’ to do” (“Father Time”)

➽ “Seventy-two ways, lost ten, ballin’ with the flu” (“Rich Spirit”)

➽ “Stop playin’ with me ’fore I turn you to a song” (“Rich Spirit”)

➽ “The aloof Buddha, I’m Christ with a shooter / Praise to Muhammad, I might n- - -a noose ya” (“Rich Spirit”)

➽ “My life is like forbidden fruit, my bitch know better than I do” (“Purple Hearts”)

➽ “Got six magazines that’s aimed at me / Done every magazine, what’s fame to me?” (“Count Me Out”)

➽ “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” (“Savior”)

➽ “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?” (“Savior”)

➽ “Where’s my faith? Told you I was Christian, but just not today” (“Mother I Sober”)

And who is Mr. Morale?

Oh, yeah, him! At one point, Lamar seems to refer to himself as Mr. Morale on “Savior,” rapping, “Mr. Morale, give me high-five.” And on “Mr. Morale,” Lamar raps, “Better known as myself, I’m a demigod.” Except Kodak Black also once seems to refer to Lamar as a big stepper, saying, “This here is the big stepper” to introduce Lamar on “Worldwide Steppers.” Lamar very well could be both — it’s his album, after all. But as with most of K.Dot’s music, things aren’t always how they seem. Mr. Morale could very well be Kodak Black, Eckhart Tolle, some fictional figure, or really anyone else. We’ll have to send you to the Reddit theories for that one.

More on Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers

See All
A Big Guide to Kendrick’s Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers