“I been going through somethin’/1,855 days/I been goin’ through somethin.’” These are the first words we hear from Kendrick Lamar in the song “United in Grief” from his new album Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers. Exactly 1,855 days have passed since his last album, 2017’s Damn, was released. In that time, conflict has risen worldwide and our global quest for peace is at an all-time high, making the release of Mr. Morale timely. In a culture that preaches and practices conflict in everything from social media, movies, and music to religion, politics, and sexuality, Mr. Morale challenges us to grapple with making peace with each other and—probably most importantly—ourselves.
Labeling Mr. Morale a “Christian” album or even a representation of orthodox Christian values would be a mistake. Indeed, it’s doubtful that Lamar would use such a specific label for his work. Instead, Lamar’s latest works more as an open journal of his therapy sessions to confess the shortfalls of his perspectives and his process of healing, which leave him vulnerable to criticism from within the African American cultural community. But Lamar isn’t concerned with labels or critics on this album. He desires to be whole, and he uses 18 tracks to make peace with both himself and his culture.
Given Lamar’s status as a cultural giant, his presence has been missed, so there are sure to be dozens of album breakdowns for Mr. Morale. This addition to that catalog of thoughts and opinions, however, aims to analyze just a handful of tracks that explore Lamar’s inner grief and grapple with his perspective shifts in Black American culture. Some of Mr. Morale’s tracks address common cultural issues (daddy issues, sexual and physical abuse, cultural hypocrisy) while others tackle taboo subjects (the intersection of faith and gender identity). But instead of simply preaching his thoughts on those controversial topics, Lamar shares his experiences and resulting perspectives on the matters.
My hope is that this analysis of Mr. Morale will give us the courage to both examine ourselves (inner conflict) and realize our need for repentance (outer conflict in turning away from our sins), forgiveness (making peace with God and ourselves), and a Savior.
Mr. Morale is Lamar’s exploration of himself, which is a scary task for anyone. It’s clear that he’s used many means this world has to offer (religion, self-spirituality, self-help, therapy) to escape his brokenness. Given his desperation for wholeness, Christians would love it if Lamar found it in Jesus absolutely instead of just partially. Sadly, that’s not the case. However, there still remains value in his art. And as we’ll see, Lamar isn’t aiming to be anyone’s savior (though Mr. Morale’s album cover might suggest otherwise).
At the beginning of Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, Lamar acknowledges that he’s been grieving (“United in Grief”). We’ve all been surviving a lifetime of hurt and loss. Whether it’s pain inflicted by the loss of loved ones; intentional or unintentional harm done by the church, government, or ourselves; or the collective sense of loss we endured during the 2020 pandemic shutdowns, all of it translates into grief. And though, as Lamar raps, we all “grieve different”—in ways both unhealthy (sex, materialism, money, anger, arrogance) and healthy (therapy, prayer, writing, acknowledgement)—we’re united by it as well.
Yet our moral expectations for anyone on our TV, movie screens, podcasts, pulpits, or songs are unrealistically high at times. We expect them to embody our culture’s ethical standards (racial justice, LGBTQ+ rights, climate change, etc.) and reflect our principles of decency and equality. When they don’t, we find ourselves ready to scold at best or, at worst, “cancel” them altogether. “Celebrity don’t mean integrity, you fool,” Lamar raps on “Rich Spirit,” and I think we’ve seen plenty of examples of that lately.
When Will Smith walked onstage at the Academy Awards and slapped Chris Rock across the face for making a joke concerning his wife’s (Jada Pinkett Smith) alopecia, there was a weeklong admixture of emotions, opinions and eventual repercussions. Some praised the eventual Oscar-winning actor for standing up for his wife. Others denigrated the behavior and pointed to the dangerous times comedians are living in. Some, like Whoopi Goldberg, praised Chris Rock for not retaliating.
We’re all great at playing judge when conflicts like these make headlines, but the truth is that nobody knows what they would’ve done in that situation. We make judgements without first sitting with ourselves, sympathizing with situations, and then analyzing our own hearts. Meanwhile, we expect more from everyone else than from ourselves. But what happens if we do some self-examination, sit with circumstances that make us feel uncomfortable, and remove everything that helps us conceal our flaws?
We actually did this not too long ago. One of the best and worst parts of the pandemic was the opportunity to isolate and self-examine ourselves as we processed our social ills. For example, when we weren’t distracted with sports, new TV shows, or movies, the world united around the murder of George Floyd and mobilized for real change. We were all forced to sit with Floyd’s gruesome death, examine what we felt and why we felt those ways, and figure out where to go from there. Many of us became some form of our best introverted selves, sympathizing and empathizing introspectively about our role in not only Floyd’s death but systemic racism overall. Since then, however, we’ve moved on from tragedy to tragedy to tragedy, rarely sitting with anything for longer than a day at most.
eMarketer reported that Americans spent an average of 82 minutes a day on social media during the pandemic. And according to Vox‘s research in Recode, we began interacting with social platforms much differently, finding craftier ways to conceal and curate our images to the worldwide community. This meant spending more time carefully sanitizing our thoughts and actions like blacking out our Instagram timelines for social media protests, bolstering our anger and opinions, flexing our ingenious activities and new purchases, and virtue signaling for whatever happened to be the latest outrage. But if we were honest with ourselves, we’d confess that all of these images didn’t truly represent who we are at our core. But we share them so much that we actually think we’re our projected images even though we realize there’s a cognitive dissonance about ourselves at play. We become our masks and as a result, we manufacture responses to appease the culture.
“N95” is the first of many tracks on Mr. Morale where Lamar challenges himself to remove his own façades and embrace the conflict with himself. It’s the first step on the long journey to making or finding peace with himself. “You’re back outside but they still lied,” he sings on the song’s intro. “Take off the car loan/Take off the flex and the white lies… Take off the new logic that if I’m rich, I’m rare… Take all the designer bulls—t off.” Lamar takes off everything that he thinks makes him, and what does he see? “Ew, you ugly as f—k,” Lamar thinks.
Even as we return to normality and shed our surgical and cloth masks, we might discover that the pandemic lockdowns trained us to mask our identities more craftily and more frequently than we realized. (We’ve been doing that long before the pandemic, however.) So maybe it’s time we take it all off, even though we might not like who or what we see. We’ve grown so accustomed to entertaining mediocrity and putting on airs like we know what we’re talking about—while deflecting from our intrepid hypocrisy—that we might find it uncomfortable to sit with who we really are. After all, the most uncomfortable person to sit with in solitude can be ourselves, especially when we’re honest about who we really are and trying to locate our true identity.
Many men define their identity by who their fathers are or aren’t to them. There are too many books, periodicals, and articles that cover this topic to source just one, but it’s clear that our fathers’ parenting shapes us in ways both noticeable and not so noticeable.
Black fatherhood, in particular, has been the focal point for government studies on why young Black men sometimes exhibit destructive behavior and why Black communities suffer from so much brokenness. Most famously, the Moynihan and Kerner reports put the onus for broken African American communities squarely on the shoulders of absent fathers in the 1960s and 1970s even as they glazed over the systemic issues that contributed to the fatherlessness in these communities. Those reports have subsequently been misused and weaponized by leaders to deny the all-encompassing issues of inequality.
In Josh Levs’s book All In, he cites that about 60 percent of Black fathers live with their children. And when they live with their kids, “they’re just as, if not more, likely to be involved in their kids’ everyday lives.” According to CDC data, “Black fathers… were most likely to have bathed, dressed, diapered, or helped their children use the toilet every day” compared to white and Hispanic fathers. But more father-child interactions can lead to more conflict, especially when fathers are trying to define manhood for their sons—and even more so when a father is teaching from a flawed perspective.
On “Father Time,” Kendrick Lamar paints a picture of what his childhood was like under his father’s tutelage. One specific interaction—during basketball practice—really molded his perspectives on pain, empathy, and relationships well into adulthood:
Daddy issues ball across my head, told me f—k a foul
I’m teary eyed, wanna throw my hands,
I won’t think out loud, a foolish pride…
Daddy issues made me learn from losses,
I don’t take those well
Momma said, “That boy is exhausted”
He said “Go f—k yo’ self”
If he give up now, that’s gon’ cost him, life’s a b—h
You could be a b—h or step out the margin, I got up quick
I’m charging baskets and falling backward, tryna keep balance
Oh, this the part mental stability meets talent
Oh, this the part, he breaks my humility just for practice
Tactics we learned together, sore losers forever
These broken generational lessons in manhood are common but still problematic when trying to find peace and order in this chaotic world. Young men become seemingly emotionless. But emotions still show up, just not in the ways men are supposed to express them according to societal norms. “Daddy issues hid my emotions, I never express myself/Men should never show feelings, being sensitive never helped,” Lamar raps on the second verse. He recounts watching his dad go to work and skip the grieving process after Lamar’s grandmother died.
The lesson that Lamar and many men learn from skipping out on processing grief is to reject love from others and self, which has further-reaching complications when it comes to accepting God’s love for us and learning how to love ourselves. But what K. Dot comes to understand is that avoiding hurt feelings doesn’t resolve anything. It’s called disenfranchised grief when grieving “doesn’t fit in with your larger society’s attitude about dealing with death and loss.” Lamar diagnoses this as a potential and partial symptom for why some men put on such a tough exterior, whether they grew up with a father in the home or not. “My n—s ain’t got no daddy, grow up overcompensating,” Lamar continues later in the song. “Learned s—t ‘bout being a man and disguise it as being gangsta.”
But whatever faults Lamar can find in his dad’s parenting techniques, he doesn’t blame his father for his daddy issues (“I got daddy issues, that’s on me”). What Lamar ultimately finds is that looking to any earthly man—himself included—to be his savior is futile.
In our celebrity-driven culture, Lamar wants to make one thing clear in Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers: he is not your savior. And neither is any other leader in our culture:
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
Christians often look to the world and condemn its celebrity-worship, but we’re just as guilty of it in our churches. When Christianity Today ran its podcast series The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, the takeaway for most Christians was the danger associated with pastor-worship. Mark Driscoll was allowed to avoid accountability and sidestep multiple opportunities to confess his sins of pride, verbal abuse, and deception. He instead used the currency of his celebrity across America to continue until the demise of the Mars Hill church organization.
Other congregations continue the same trends when they give their elders credence to peddle overly politicized misinformation from the pulpit in disregard to the gospel of Jesus Christ. This type of unchecked, celebrity-pastor-savior complex is what led to the recent bombshell revelations about the Southern Baptist Convention’s decades-long concealment of sexual abuse allegations within its ranks.
We really only have ourselves to blame if we’re centering our identities on the church organizations, celebrities, or pastors we identify ourselves with, instead of aligning ourselves and our actions wholly with Jesus. It’s the easy cop-out to simply hold up fragile, temporal men and women to whom we can point the rest of the world to and say, “this is who I am and what I believe” rather than mimic a Christ-centric lifestyle in our communities. We’re all guilty of this bumper sticker kind of lifestyle. How many times have you shared a podcast, song, or video clip of something you really identified with in hopes you would get your point across to someone else who you thought really needed to hear that? But what happens when that person or organization you identified with and shared beliefs fails?
Fans, in both the church and the public square, must succumb to faulty doctrines at the cost of their convictions if their earthly heroes say or act in ways that veer from truth, kindness, and mercy. For example, when COVID-19 vaccines became widely available, many people found themselves in a religiously politicized conundrum, Lamar included. “Seen a Christian say the vaccine mark of the beast,” he raps, “Then he caught COVID and prayed to Pfizer for relief.” In this moment, Lamar found himself judging someone else for changing their beliefs when the reality of the virus weakened their immune system, until he was forced to face the same dilemma: “Then I caught COVID and started to question Kyrie/Will I stay organic or hurt in this bed for two weeks?”
Some fans might go on justifying wrong or sinful actions to avoid shame. Others experience a crisis of faith. Regardless, we will be disappointed or manipulated into believing we are justified by what we know or who we associate with, rather than by who knows us: Jesus. He’s the only one who can handle the perfect balance of truth and justice, for he embodies both.
However, it’s not only celebrity worshippers who are in danger of being led astray by high-profile personalities both inside and outside the church. Celebrities themselves can become enslaved to popular opinion if they buy into the idea that they’re responsible for their followers’ collective conscience. The celebrity, as Lamar points out, becomes the slave to public opinion at the cost of their own convictions:
Bite they tongues in rap lyrics
Scared to be crucified about a song, but they won’t admit it
Politically correct is how you keep an opinion
N—s is tight lipped, f—k who dare to be different
Making gods out of celebrities, fans, churches, organizations, political movements, popular opinion, or philosophical ideologies will eventually leave us confused, enraged, and bound to problematic perspectives that are antithetical to the work and person of Jesus Christ. Like fellow CAPC writer Cara Dillon Runyan wrote in her article on Driscoll and Dr. Death, “Our ability to be swayed and soothed by smooth words reveals both our vulnerability and our potential power.” We know this logically, but our human design to love and be loved eternally as image-bearers of God in this sin-filled world can make it difficult to abide in truth. “Truth, it resides in the fire/The need of it’s dire/Deceiving the lies I know,” Kendrick sings on the bridge of “Mr. Morale,” further nailing his point home.
But if there’s any hope that we can find relief in the struggle for truth, perhaps it is in the invitation from Christ who desires for us to lay these burdens on his shoulders (Matthew 11:28–30).
There are many other conflicts Kendrick Lamar explores on Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, including broken relationships (“We Cry Together”), gender identity and sexuality (“Auntie Diaries”), and generational physical and sexual abuse (“Mother I Sober”). In the end, Lamar concludes that the best way to find peace is by making peace with one’s self. And this is a pivotal point in repentance. Until we can accept the ugliness of our true nature (our past and present perspectives) and how we may cause damage to ourselves and others, we will remain hurt people hurting other people. Celebrities, ideologies, followers, and organizations will be the means to justify our actions and words, even if we’re dead wrong convinced that we’re saving the world. “Sorry, I didn’t save the world my friend/I was too busy building mine again,” Lamar raps. “I choose me/I’m sorry.”
For Lamar to choose himself over popular opinion is remarkable given that he’s watched his music become more than music, especially in the Black community. Someone with Lamar’s gravitas and ability to make records like good kid, m.A.A.d city, To Pimp a Butterfly, and Damn could easily become enslaved to the zeitgeist. But Lamar recognizes that he cannot, and will not, be everything that we, the culture, want him to be. And perhaps this is the reason for his album cover, in which he wears a crown of thorns on his head and a pistol tucked into his pants while he and his girl care for their two children: Lamar’s ready to be crucified by the culture when he doesn’t live up to our expectations.
The imagery obviously brings attention to Christ who was mocked with a crown of thorns, beaten, and crucified by representatives of popular culture (John 19). Jesus didn’t fit into anyone’s categories. He ducked the cultural and political clout the Pharisees, Sadducees, Herod, Pilate, and the culture at large offered him (Matthew 16:6; Luke 23:8-11; John 18; Luke 12). But it wasn’t for his own personal glory. Jesus didn’t choose himself for himself.
Rather, he was ostracized and crucified for the glory of his Father in heaven and the forgiveness of the world’s sins, and was thus glorified himself. But that glorification was a process. Jesus, too, examined himself and faced internal and external conflict (Matthew 26:36-46). He embraced the conflict, died, and was raised so we can find and share eternal peace that only he can offer (Matthew 26:47-56; John 20:21-23). But we, too, must embrace the conflicts of our sin and divorce ourselves from celebrity-worship culture to embrace the forgiveness Jesus offers for ultimate peace.
Like Lamar, we’ve all been going through something. Conflict is ever-present in this broken world and the quest for peace is seemingly never-ending. In fact, as I write these words, news of an elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, where students and teachers were gunned down, just made the headlines. The chaos never ends in this lifetime, it seems. The hope, then, is that we find internal solace with ourselves and eternal peace with God in the midst of our innate grief and the world’s darkness.
Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers isn’t the antidote to remedy the poisons of pride and celebrity worship that seep into our souls and psyche. It can, however, be useful in its ability to help us walk confidently through the complexities of our imperfect selves and our fragmented culture.