Kendrick Lamar looks inward on 'Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers' : Pop Culture Happy Hour It's been five years since Kendrick Lamar released his last album, DAMN. Since then, he's won a Pulitzer Prize, been nominated for an Oscar, and become a parent. His new double-length album, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, is anything but a breezy victory lap. Lamar examines generational trauma, sexual politics, and his own attempts to grow amid high expectations and heavy introspection.

Kendrick Lamar looks inward on 'Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers'

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STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:

A warning - this episode contains mention of sexual assault as well as strong language.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

THOMPSON: It's been five years since Kendrick Lamar released his last album, "DAMN." Since then, he's won a Pulitzer Prize, been nominated for an Oscar and become a parent. But his new double-length album, "Mr. Morale And The Big Steppers," is anything but a breezy victory lap. He examines generational trauma, sexual politics and his own attempts to grow amid high expectations and heavy introspection. I'm Stephen Thompson, and today we are talking about Kendrick Lamar on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

THOMPSON: Joining me today is writer, NPR music contributor and co-host of "The Bottom Of The Map" podcast, Christina Lee. Welcome back, Christina.

CHRISTINA LEE, BYLINE: Hi, Stephen.

THOMPSON: It's great to have you. And making his POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR debut is Marcus J. Moore. He's the author of "The Butterfly Effect: How Kendrick Lamar Ignited The Soul Of Black America." He also covers jazz and experimental music for NPR, The New York Times and other outlets. Welcome to the show, Marcus.

MARCUS J MOORE: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

THOMPSON: It is great to have you. So "Mr. Morale And The Big Steppers" is Kendrick Lamar's fifth studio album. It follows not only "DAMN." from 2017 but also modern classics like 2012's "Good Kid, MAAD City" and 2015's "To Pimp A Butterfly." In 2018 Kendrick Lamar produced and curated the soundtrack to "Black Panther" and also made his acting debut in the TV drama "Power."

But his output slowed down for a few years after that. In 2021, he did appear on guest raps with his cousin, the rapper Baby Keem, and he performed at this year's Super Bowl halftime show. He recently released a single called "The Heart Part 5," though that song does not appear on "Mr. Morale And The Big Steppers," which came out this past Friday. The new album is a thorny, 73-minute epic. It features guest performances by everyone from Baby Keem and Ghostface Killah to the singer Summer Walker, Portishead's Beth Gibbons and the actor Taylour Paige. It's Kendrick Lamar's final album for his longtime label, Top Dawg Entertainment. So it feels like the closing chapter in a book he's been writing for the last decade or so.

Christina, before we delve too deeply into this record, let's start with your general thoughts and takeaways. What did you think of "Mr. Morale And The Big Steppers"?

LEE: I think thorny is a really good way to describe it. You know, coming out of my first listen, I immediately wanted to peg this as his most polarizing, if not most antagonistic album yet. I think the second and third time that I've heard it, my views have softened. Slightly, I've become a bit more sympathetic towards it. But I would say that this is maybe his most uneven album.

MOORE: I totally agree with that. Like I've been telling friends all weekend, I understand that I've listened to way more Kendrick than probably anybody else has, so my ears are probably a little washed out. But at the same time, it's pretty uneven. It's sort of messy at times, a tad incoherent. And I feel like there - certain parts of it were sort of reaching for controversy. Like, nobody moves the needle like Kendrick. And he's amassed such goodwill that he's probably the only person who can influence people to even sort of shift our thoughts on culture, on cancel culture. But at the same time, I feel like there were certain instances on the record where you still can't give him a pass for certain things he was trying to do. So if I were to be completely honest, I think the record is good, but I didn't fall out over it like I did other records.

THOMPSON: Yeah, I think I came down roughly the way you guys did. There was a great tweet over the weekend from my brilliant colleague Sidney Madden, where she wrote on Twitter, how is it possible for one album to make you feel like you're in a sound bath and on a minefield all at once? That really summed up a lot of it for me. There is an exhilarating quality to this record. He is rapping a mile a minute. He is stuffing a thousand thoughts into every bar. Your mind is just racing through this record.

And at the same time, he's dropping, like, these pearls of wisdom and then these turds, and they're just all co-mingled. And so even stopping and kind of taking it all in in one listen is a challenge. I found there were songs on this record I really loved. I loved "Mr. Morale," which kind of has this great kick to it. But even that one, you're kind of picking apart - what did he just say about R. Kelly?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MR. MORALE")

KENDRICK LAMAR: (Rapping) I think about Robert Kelly. If he weren't molested, I wonder if life'll fail him. I wonder if Oprah found closure, the way she postered the hurt that a woman carries. My mother abused young like all of the mothers back where we from.

THOMPSON: It's a really, really challenging record. I don't think it's an entirely 100% satisfying record. I don't think it's 100% intended to be. You're supposed to come away from it feeling conflicted, right?

LEE: Well...

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

LEE: What I heard toward the end was that, for everybody's transactions about being imperfect people and, I think especially for Kendrick, trying to figure out whether he needs to forgive himself for all the ways that he has been misguided in the past, I think there was a rush toward the end to be, like, you know what, though? We should forgive everybody. We should just continue to let things go. I think in the song "Mother Sober" toward the end of this journey, we have featured artist Sam Dew talking about, like, you know, I bare my soul, and now we're free.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOTHER SOBER")

SAM DEW: (Singing) I bare my soul, and now we're free.

LEE: But we is supposed to encompass not only Kendrick and members of his family but, as you mentioned, Stephen, R. Kelly as well. There's mention that, like, we're supposed to extend that same sort of forgiveness to even known abusers. And so, like, it's interesting that you came away from it feeling conflicted, like that was Kendrick's intent. But I think I heard a lot of places where he was trying to draw really tidy conclusions when I don't think those conclusions are necessary.

MOORE: I felt the same way. When I listened to it, it felt to me like a therapy session. And, you know, therapy sessions are like that, where, especially, you know, when you get into, like, weeks of therapy - right? - where, you know, the first few conversations are a little dicey. You don't really want to open up and talk about what you're going through. But then by the midway point, you reach an aha moment, and you start to lean into that.

Then by the end, that's when you have this breakthrough where your therapist, if they're a good therapist - they do a good job of steering you towards that aha moment. And you can almost kind of feel yourself spiral like, oh, right, that's what's going on. And so when I heard the song "Mother Sober," it just felt like that manifesto to me where, you know, he's talking about his mother. He's talking about Whitney.

THOMPSON: Whitney, his partner.

MOORE: Whitney, his partner. Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOTHER SOBER")

LAMAR: (Rapping) There's a lustful nature that I failed to mention, insecurities that I project, sleeping with other women. Whitney's hurt, the pure 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.

MOORE: And I also kind of got from him some sort of, like, gifted child syndrome going, where it's like, you've been told you've been gifted your whole life. And no matter what you do, people think you're always going to be in the right, and your cousins and whomever else are going to be in the wrong. I identified with that, and I picked that up pretty quickly. So it definitely wasn't supposed to be, like, this neat record. But at the same time, I think he's also sort of hampered by what he's done in the past.

So, like, when you think of Kendrick Lamar, you know, classics, right? You're thinking about "Section 80." You're thinking about "Good Kid," "To Pimp A Butterfly," "DAMN.," which won a Pulitzer. And then he's coming with this one, and I don't think he has it quite all figured out. And I don't think he's supposed to because he's an artist. But at the same time, I totally agree with Christina's point where I feel like he was trying to get us to forgive some people who, quite honestly, maybe shouldn't be forgiven. He kind of came off like he has something to hide or something to protect as a result.

THOMPSON: Yeah. You both have alluded to this batch of songs right near the end of the record, where he's trying to grapple with some of these larger issues, right? Like, you've got this string of tracks. You've got "Auntie Diaries," which is kind of about his own transphobia and homophobia. And then that is segueing into the songs "Mr. Morale" and "Mother Sober," where he's kind of trying to wrap his head around the way Black trauma gets passed down through generations. But I think you're right. It almost feels like making excuses for some really, really bad behavior. It also should be noted here that he's got the rapper Kodak Black appearing throughout this record. And Kodak Black has faced legal troubles, including a sexual assault charge.

Clearly, Kendrick is kind of trying to make this larger point about like, people contain multitudes. People contain contradictions. Not everybody is 100% good or 100% bad. His wrangling with so-called kind of cancel culture that he's talking about throughout this record - I don't think that's really reaching any particularly satisfying conclusion at all and kind of contributes to that thorniness that we're talking about.

LEE: Yeah, I think - so it's pretty early on that he first brings up these discussions of cancel culture. Specifically, he says, what the [expletive] is cancel culture, on the second track, "N95."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "N95")

LAMAR: (Rapping) What the f*** is cancel culture, dog? Say what I want about you n*****. I'm like Oprah, dog. I treat you crackers like I'm Jigga. Watch. I own it all. Oh, you worried 'bout a critic? That ain't protocol, bitch.

LEE: That was the first moment in the album where I felt myself sort of, like, tense up and bristle a little bit because that's when I immediately started to consider, I guess, like, how Kendrick's position on the world has changed. So obviously, there are very few folks who can relate to how he's been sort of uplifted in this culture. I mean, there's very few others that can say he won a Pulitzer and so, on that same, token has been upheld as sort of, like, a role model of sorts, particularly in the hip-hop space.

But when I hear the words cancel culture, I feel like it's urging us to immediately take sympathy to those who have enough power to rebound from all those transgressions as opposed to, like, holding powerful people accountable. I think that may be the part in the album that was most, I guess, unsettling to me because I think at this point - you know, especially after having read, you know, Marcus' book "The Butterfly Effect," you came away from "DAMN." thinking, for all the times that he's explored fame and how isolating fame can be, you still came away with the sense that he was in touch with the people and can still, like, speak to them and their concerns to an extent. But I'm wondering what Marcus thinks of all that.

MOORE: Yeah. Yeah. You know what? I was thinking the same thing when I was listening to the record. There were certain people who maybe, like, didn't feel the book because it wasn't reaching, you know, because that's the tendency with a lot of Kendrick music where it's, like, they equate it to, like, a Jordan Peele movie where, OK, the picture is hanging in this frame at a certain angle because it's a deeper meaning - you know? - and all of that.

(LAUGHTER)

MOORE: And it's the same with K-Dot, right? So it's, like - ultimately, it's, like, no, if you listen to his music, he puts it all out there. He's a guy who's still dealing with trauma. You don't just shake off getting shot at, you know...

THOMPSON: Right.

MOORE: ...And watching people die. And that's essentially what it was. And so to hear it all come through on this record, admittedly I was like, oh, OK, I was right - like, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

LEE: We love that for you.

THOMPSON: Which is as fine a take away as any.

MOORE: Christina would tell you that's a very rare instance where I'll, like, do a self-flex or whatever, but, like...

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

MOORE: ...It was like, oh, OK, that feels good. But at the same time, I feel like the isolation hasn't done him any favors. Like he said on the record, he already, you know, has been socially distant. He's already isolated. And when you reach the level of fame that Kendrick has, you can't really go and experience life, right? You can't just go outside and be inspired by some things. And so ultimately, what this record sort of rang true to me, among other things, was that he's a guy who maybe is being hampered by this isolation that has also been good for business because he's shrouded in mystery. And with every calendar year, we're wondering when he's going to come back, when he's going to come back. But as a result, I feel like maybe his thinking hasn't evolved to the point where it possibly needs to be.

And quite honestly, when I listen to it, I kind of had some visions of Dave Chappelle a little bit, right? So it's the same deal where - OK, Dave is just kind of on a farm in Ohio. He can't really experience what everybody else is experiencing. And so as a result, you still have the same thoughts that you had maybe in 2017, 2016, and you want to get back to these good old days. But at the same time, the world has moved on to other things.

How do you still be for the people, and how do you still evolve while remaining yourself? And he even touches on that on the album, too, where he's just like, you know, I choose me. I'm looking inward. I can't save anybody else. And so among other things, that's what the record sort of came off to me as - is a guy who - OK, I'm in therapy now. I'm a father now. Here are my thoughts on these different things, and no matter how messy they are, here's where I'm at. Take it or leave it.

THOMPSON: Yeah, I actually wanted to touch on the song "Savior" a little bit because there's a 20-second clip of that song where he manages to weave this whole little pocket narrative around COVID and then talk about, like, white hypocrisy during the Black Lives Matter movement. Let's actually hear that clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAVIOR")

LAMAR: (Rapping) 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?

DEW: (Singing) You really want to know...

LAMAR: (Rapping) Do you want peace?

DEW: (Singing) ...How I get so low?

LAMAR: (Rapping) Then watch us in the street.

DEW: (Singing) Only one way to go.

LAMAR: (Rapping) One protest for you.

DEW: (Singing) High up.

LAMAR: (Rapping) Three-sixty-five for me.

THOMPSON: That's 20 seconds that needs footnotes. And in that same song, you have this line - like it when they pro-Black, but I'm more Kodak Black. And you're like, really? There are all these big ideas pinging around, but then all these lines that land like, eugh (ph).

LEE: Well, yeah, it's funny that you picked out "Savior" just because I wrote about that song for NPR Music on Friday, what I thought would be an hour-long assignment. Every time I...

MOORE: (Laughter).

LEE: ...Kept going back to that song, I kept changing my mind and questioning what it was actually about and what it was trying to say. But I think what's really interesting about the being more Kodak Black than pro-Black line specifically is that that's just, like, a really striking example of how Kendrick is resisting being in this spokesman position where he currently finds himself, which I think is a really striking pivot even to come off of "DAMN." because in "DAMN.," so much of the crusade that he was fighting in that album was against, like, Fox News and pundits like Geraldo Rivera. You know, it was blasting his BET Awards performance for coming off as anti-police.

So even coming out of that album, I felt like I had a pretty black-and-white idea of where his political views were. And "Savior" really, really complicated all that. I think what I hear is very active resistance to how his music has been interpreted from both sides of the political spectrum, which I think is just, like - like Marcus said at the top, it sort of counters a good bit of the goodwill, I think, that he's accumulated over the years. And I think it's a really interesting time to do this now because of - for how long he's been making music, and I guess on that note, like, just how well we think we've known the man, you know?

MOORE: Yeah, yeah, no, 1,000%. But I also feel like that's just sort of part of his evolution, where Kendrick has always been a guy. And, you know, everybody told me the same story where he's just - he's always evolving because he thinks like a jazz musician. That's something that Terrace Martin told me directly, like, no, this dude is Herbie Hancock. He's Miles Davis. He's that guy where he evolves sonically and personally from minute to minute, month to month.

So to your point, Christine, and like, you know, I feel like, yeah, probably in 2017, he definitely - I know for a fact - we all know - I mean, it was all on the record where he felt that way about Fox News. He felt that way about Donald Trump getting elected. He felt that way about Barack leaving - all of that. But then, you know, again, you know, just the isolation and the fact that, quite honestly, he's still a famous guy with a lot to lose - so his views may have changed, you know?

You couple that with the transgressions that he talks about on the record, and you start talking about his views on cancel culture. And even in the "Heart Part Five" video, where he morphs into Kanye, he morphs into Will Smith and all these, like, once-beloved figures - I think he kind of sees that for himself in a way. Maybe he's trying to mitigate how people see him because quite honestly, he probably knew that he had sort of a dynamite stick of an album, right? And when it comes out, people may or may not cancel him because of, you know, songs like "Auntie Diaries" and things like that, where folks may not feel the same way about him. As much as he acts like, oh, I don't care; I don't care; I'm brave, he cares. I do know that.

THOMPSON: Yeah, it's worth maybe discussing "Auntie Diaries" because "Auntie Diaries" is this song where Kendrick is kind of reflecting on a couple of relatives who have come out as trans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AUNTIE DIARIES")

LAMAR: (Rapping) My auntie is a man now - what a relationship. I grew up fast, I needed no one to babysit. He gave me some cash. Then gave me some gang. Cherry freshener on the dash - I never complained. She even cut my hair at the pad, was loving my fade. The first person I seen write a rap - that's when my life had changed.

THOMPSON: It's coming to this kind of epiphany about, I have been wrong; I have been homophobic; I have been transphobic, and I needed to learn how that fits into a larger picture. And I'm not sure that song is going to wear quite as well as he thinks it does. What do you guys think of that song?

MOORE: I don't think it landed at all because he uses a certain slur over and over again. When he did it, he almost kind of comes off as a shock jock, trying to create this controversy. And I think he even gets into it at the end of the song where - it's no different than white people using the N-word. Like, you just don't use it. It's not your word. You can't rap the lyric. You can't act like, oh, you know, I'm rapping along with the song, and I can say it, too. It's not your word to use.

And I don't feel like he should have used the word. It's no different than any rapper from the '90s and early 2000's saying it, but it doesn't make it any less problematic. And so, again, you know, we referenced the book a couple of times. As much as that book was meant to celebrate what he did from that era, from, like, the "Section 80" to "DAMN." era, I also can't give him a pass for what he did on "Auntie Diaries." I don't think it landed quite as well as he thought it landed.

LEE: I agree. I mean, well, first, like, listening to the song, it's very unwieldy. You know, this isn't the first time where I feel like Kendrick Lamar has tried to give us this sort of family portrait that ends up having a surprise twist ending. I'm thinking specifically about "DUCKWORTH." off of "DAMN." where, you know, he reveals to the audience that, listen; there was a time where Anthony Tiffith, the head of Top Dog Entertainment, may very well have killed his father at one point because of how their paths had crossed. So I feel like he was gunning for that same sort of surprise reveal. Like, you hear these strings trying to coax, you know, all these emotions, like, leading up to the songs. And, like, I kind of felt like I was watching prestige TV, like, where a twist ending was about to happen.

You know, at the same time, I feel like I'm being coaxed to recognize Kendrick for all of his good intentions, which doesn't feel satisfying to me. Not only is he invoking that slur, but he's playing fast and loose with pronouns as well, which had me wondering, like, does he even fully understand how harmful even that small behavior could be? So, you know, throughout, I feel like I was being told how to feel about a specific emotion. And in the meantime, I kept thinking, like, there's still some disregard there for how his family members should feel, like, coming out of that song.

So, like, it's because of songs like that that ultimately have me feeling, like, super-uneasy about the album. It even reminded me of, like, Eminem when he was getting a lot of flak for using that same slur. And all Eminem had to say about it was, like, well, I don't feel homophobic, but this is a freedom of speech matter. It's just like, you guys, this is not (laughter) - it's just not that simple. It's just not.

THOMPSON: Yeah, I agree about that song. I agree. Throughout this record, it is fascinating. I've spent a ton of time with it like you guys have. It has dizzying highs and very, very low lows. It also has the most stressful six minutes of music I will probably hear this year in "We Cry Together." I'm sure there are many, many more conversations taking place about this record. We want to know what you think about "Mr. Morale And The Big Steppers," about Kendrick Lamar. Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Christina Lee, Marcus J. Moore, thanks to both of you for being here.

LEE: Thanks for having us, Stephen.

MOORE: Thank you.

THOMPSON: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. This episode was produced by Mike Katzif and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides the music you are bobbing your head to right now. I'm Stephen Thompson, and we will see you all tomorrow.

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