How Kendrick Lamar's new album tackles cancel culture, artistic expression, and social justice
Kendrick Lamar’s redemption is the redemption we all need now.
His latest album, Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers, is a sprawling story of transformation. It’s a story of accepting both the dark and the light inside of oneself. It’s a story of abusers who are trying to change, of marginalized people having real, deeply human experiences, of daddy issues, grief, gender battles, and the violent state of the world. But most of all, it’s a story of love—the redeeming force that transcends all the darkness.
This is not an album to be approached lightly. It opens with “United in Grief,” in which we hear Lamar struggle to tell his whole story, as if he senses that speaking honestly comes with risk (which lately more and more people are sensing is true). But deeper into the track Lamar loses the timidity, gradually accelerating to attack velocity and spitting deep personal reflection. The breakneck delivery then suddenly stops, like sprinting all the way to the edge of a cliff and we hear him lament:
I grieve different
everybody grieves different.
This moment is a stark contrast to the rest of the song, making the listener pause and absorb something unexpected and perhaps think, Is that me too? Are we all just grieving? This statement sets the tone for the album, which artfully weaves together aggression and beauty.
In the next song, “N95,” we learn that Lamar’s hesitation to speak was warranted.
Hello new world
all the boys and girls
I got some true stories to tell…
you’re back outside
but they still lied, whoa.
Lamar goes on to rebuke just about everyone: cancel culture, virtue signaling, fake social justice, and our immersion in the metaverse. He demands that the hypocrites of the new world take off their masks; once the facade is gone, the ugliness is revealed. But Lamar doesn’t stop at the hypocrisy of our culture today. He also explores the deeper contradictions within the human condition, including the hypocrisy he sees within himself. He starts by defending the indefensible, taking the whole world down with him.
In “Worldwide Steppers,” disgraced rapper Kodak Black and self-help icon Eckhart Tolle are placed right next to each other, along with Lamar under his new moniker, Oklama. Lamar seems to take the position of mediator, with the entire world on trial as killers. With that in mind, he goes on to list all the ways people are more concerned with posturing than with grappling with the consequences of their actions. It’s fashionable to tweet your virtue, but what if we’re all leaving a trail of destruction in our wake at the same time? He then returns to the divide between good and evil within all of us:
Hide your eyes and then pose for the pic.
“We Cry Together,” an obscene domestic argument with no musical hook or obvious structure, played over a discordant piano, is the centerpiece of the album’s first act. What makes something like this so compelling? How does it make one both laugh and cry by the end? It works because, to quote the song, “this is what the world sounds like.”
Despite its undeniable eccentricity, the song plays like a jazz performance that grows more compelling with each listen. It’s the furthest thing from fluff; it’s menacing poetry. It renders the sound of Twitter—a hostile personal argument that completely avoids the real problem—applied to a visceral real-life dispute between a couple.
In a perfect follow-up, “Purple Hearts” begs the noisy world to shut up and listen to love. “Count Me Out” opens the next movement with Eckhart Tolle’s voice. His contribution—the linchpin of the album’s transformative arc—should not be underestimated. His wisdom informs the whole experience, the second half of the album in particular. From here on out, we are in therapy with Lamar, walking with him on his way toward the light. He reminds himself over and over that he can’t please everybody. He lets go of the opinions of his detractors, releasing what he can’t control. He mourns the death of truth.
Then, Lamar’s talent for bringing the personal into the political takes center stage.
There is no shortage of bad online takes about “Auntie Diaries”—which, if it isn’t the best song on the album, must be at least a serious contender. It’s no surprise why. In it, Lamar takes on the trans issue, much to the chagrin of some reviewers. Never toeing the line, Lamar is committed to both free expression and compassion. In the story, he is learning to grow more loving toward the people in his life without sliding into the identity politics of either the left or the right. He’s willing to use controversial terms and slurs, which, despite what many of the critics have concluded, is not gratuitous and does in fact help to convey the emotion Lamar is trying to evoke in listeners. His repeated use of this slur conveys two contrasting ideas: First, our current fear of problematic words can hinder creative expression, particularly in the arts. Second, those words shouldn’t be taken lightly because they can harm the people we love.
The songs “Mr. Morale” and “Mother I Sober” play like two sides of the same coin, first attacking trauma in African American communities, then becoming deeply personal as Lamar reflects on how that same suffering has manifested within his own family. These songs form the perfect response to the first half of the album, putting cycles of abuse and the path toward healing on display. It is also an insightful and relevant commentary on how one should realistically go about the process of healing, turning the popular instinct of many of today’s activists on its head: heal yourself, then your family, then your community, then your culture.
With “Mother I Sober,” in particular, Lamar brings it all to a head:
A conversation not being addressed in black families
the devastation haunting generations and humanity
they raped our mothers, then they raped our sisters, then they made us watch
then they made us rape each other…
I know the secrets, every other rapper sexually abused
I see them daily burying their pain in chains and tattoos…
Lamar moves from these dark passages into a prayer that everyone be set free from the cycle of abuse into a place of transformation. How? The seed was planted in the first half of the album with a woman’s voice telling him, “…you really need some therapy.”
Then, as the album closes, we hear the voice return:
You did it
I’m proud of you
You broke a generational curse
Kendrick Lamar, of course, hasn’t solved the world’s problems here. He has, perhaps, broken the power of abuse in his own life, and shined a powerful light onto the path forward for anybody who listens, anybody who’s willing to change, leaving the question to the listener: Are you ready to change?
If you read many reviews of this album, you’ll likely come away thinking Lamar missed the mark, even if slightly. This bewildering response couldn’t be further from the truth, and it leaves me wondering if these reviewers actually listened to the album—like, really listened.
We now live in a world where most entertainment is not only politically motivated, but doctrinally motivated. In our new paradigm, opinions and creative expression must conform to a set of predefined rules. That is by nature unartistic, leaving creative people scared to make an error or take a risk. As Lamar says, “The media is the new religion. You killed the consciousness…The industry has killed the creatives. I’ll be the first to say it.”
Lamar questions many deeply held beliefs which are prevalent within the Entertainment Industrial Complex. To the establishment and its adherents, this album is mediocre, very Midwest. Look to Twitter to see that insult nonsensically launched at this album. However, it is these very “mid” people—the ordinary targets of endless resentment and loathing from condescending ideologues—who will best understand the ingenuity of Lamar’s latest work. It’s those who believe in redemption, not cancellation; those who are fleeing the mainstream news in droves; those who know that although we’re all capable of terrible things, we are striving toward something better; these are the people who will truly get what Kendrick Lamar has done.
We, the “mids,” can find motivation within those first few moments of the album, a message from the women in Kendrick Lamar’s life:
Tell them the truth.
Throughout this album, Kendrick Lamar is boldly voicing things that most are afraid to. Its music runs headlong into the culture wars without becoming a merely political piece of art. It reminds us that individual redemption is the true path to cultural redemption. What really matters, despite all of the insufferable disputes which drag online discourse into the mud, is the power of the individual to be reborn. It’s not your fixed traits or your problematic past; it’s your willingness to change and grow. That power, spread across millions of people, can also change the world. There are many who underestimate that energy, many who openly laugh it off, but regular people are counting on it.
After listening to this album, I believe that Kendrick Lamar is counting on it as well.
Jason Zito is an independent musician and designer from Michigan who cares deeply about defending pro-human values.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism or its employees.
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