In our last article on Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers, we built on nobigdyl.’s sentiment of asking “what do [we, as believers] hear God saying” in art that does not fit into typical Christian labeling. Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers is not a Christian album, and referring to Kendrick Lamar as a Christian rap artist would be misleading. Still, we contend there is value in his undeniably powerful songwriting for the believer. This value includes sentiments that the Christ-follower can apply to our worldview, even if Kendrick did not intend for such principles to be the primary takeaway.
Here are a few of the ideas we argue can be extrapolated from Kendrick’s latest outing.
N95 – “Tell me what you would do for aesthetic…/Would you sell your soul on credit?”
“N95” refers to one of the more protective masks that have become ever-more important amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which Kendrick uses as a symbol of inauthenticity. In the first verse, Kendrick demands listeners “[t]ake off the foo-foo, take off the clout chase, take off the Wi-Fi/Take off the money phone, take off the car loan, take off the flex and the white lies” all of which he holds up as masks of their own, covering the ugliness in our real lives.
In effect, Kendrick is criticizing attempts to obscure one’s true identity with materialism and other “idols” he commands be taken off. Kendrick’s reference to “…sell[ing one’s] soul on credit” appears to be an allusion to Matthew 16:24-28, where Jesus warns the disciples of losing their souls in pursuing their own success rather than sacrificing for the Savior. In our modern context, selling one’s soul might mean using temporary riches or abilities to glorify ourselves. Only in submitting those short-lived pleasures to God’s sovereignty, do we find our lives in Jesus.
(The video, linked below, is NSFW).
Worldwide Steppers – “Writer’s block for two years, nothin’ moved me/Asked God to speak through me.”
“Worldwide Steppers,” like much of Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers, is a confessional track, with Kendrick’s nymphomania being made particularly apparent. Other themes of note include collective moral failure and a continued focus on deceptive self-portrayals.
When Kendrick confesses that even as a creative, he went through an extended period without inspiration, he scrapes off pieces of his own mystique, revealing his distinctly human reality. In calling God to “speak through” him, Kendrick admits he lacks the self-sufficiency to create on his own accord. This idea bears parallels to those found in the book of James, where the brother of Jesus reminds believers:
“[i]f any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” and “[e]very good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…” (James 1:5 and 1:17, respectively).
Father Time – “What’s the difference when your heart is made of stone/And your mind is made of gold/And your tongue is made of sword, but it may weaken your soul?”
With “Father Time,” Kendrick reflects on lessons in masculinity taught by his father, whose influence created aggressive competitiveness in the megastar that he is only beginning to shed in becoming a father himself. Those early lessons left Kendrick unable to process lingering traumas, displaying little time for grief or healing. Thus even moments that culture might celebrate, such as the recent reconciliation of Ye and Drake, leave Kendrick “slightly confused.”
In employing the symbolism of a heart of stone, mind of gold, and sword-like tongue, Kendrick comments on the futility of genius and eloquence devoid of empathy. Paul considers a similar thought in 1 Corinthians 13, questioning the value of great ability without love as support as he writes:
“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-2; NKJV).
Count Me Out – “Some put it on the Devil when they fall short/I put it on my ego, lord of all lords.”
“Count Me Out” continues Kendrick’s self-exposure as he wrestles with a sense of regret and begins to achieve the healing sought throughout the album. The first verse ends with Kendrick’s admission, “[e]ven my strong points couldn’t survive/If I didn’t learn to love myself, forgive myself a hundred times.” At this stage, Kendrick’s sense of self-forgiveness and love serve as a freeing force and turning point in the album.
At its heart, “Count Me Out” is about Kendrick realizing the best version of himself, the one he desperately pursues, is the one that has come to terms with his shortcomings and taken responsibility for them. The line quoted above, joined with the first few from Kendrick’s verse, “[o]ne of these lives, I’ma make things right/With the wrongs I’ve done, that’s when I unite/With the Father, Son, ‘til then, I fight” communicate an intention for repentance from the pgLang founder. Kendrick’s lines serve as a contemporary reminder of a sentiment expressed in Romans 14 after Paul speaks on individual convictions:
“Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.’ So then each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:10-12; ESV).
Savior – “The cat is out the bag, I am not your savior/I find it just as difficult to love thy neighbors.”
“Savior” tackles the idea of worshiping celebrities from the opening lyrics, as Kendrick specifically references himself, J. Cole, Future, and LeBron James as oft-idolized figures just as flawed as the rest of us. Much of the track appears to be inspired by recent protests for Black lives, as Kendrick rages against performative displays of solidarity.
While culture has often painted Kendrick as a savior, he recognizes that he falls short of the perfect love demanded of a true Messiah. In the third verse of the track, Kendrick lays into some of the individuals he has trouble loving, primarily the greedy. Extended exposure to such frauds leaves the Compton native frustrated, thus he retreats to the “valley of silence.”
Kendrick has used his hiatus to maintain his peace, but doing so has also forced him to remind listeners he is not the answer to the social ills plaguing our society. Jesus is the only one who can satisfy this role, as Peter attested before the Sanhedrin, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12; NIV).
Auntie Diaries – “To truly understand love, switch position.”
“Auntie Diaries,” tells the stories of two of Kendrick’s relatives who identify with genders different from their sex assigned at birth. In the song, Kendrick explains his youthful nonchalance in using anti-gay slurs contrasted against his love for these relatives and the criticism his cousin faced in their church. The song climaxes on an anecdote where Kendrick questions a pastor who used his cousin as a talking piece, claiming he was, “… [choosing] humanity over religion.”
Kendrick’s more profound understanding of love, as gained through experiences such as that with his cousin on Easter Sunday, ties directly into Jesus’s preaching before the multitude, as the Lord proclaims right after the Beatitudes, “[a]nd as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them” (Luke 6:31; ESV).
As Kendrick points out, experiencing love for a person or group, even those one disagrees with, requires identification with their personhood, an identification that should lead us to choose kindness as we hope would be done to us.
Mother I Sober – “Where’s my faith? Told you I was Christian, but just not today.”
“Mother I Sober” is the catharsis of Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers, as Kendrick recounts the familial and ancestral trauma that has followed him his entire life and calls for freedom from said trauma’s effects on his whole family. That freedom does not just apply to Kendrick and his loved ones, but even the “abusers” who haunt his people’s legacy.
In Kendrick’s releasing not only his own trauma but that of his abusers, we find another parallel to Luke 6, as Jesus commanded, “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28; ESV).
As a whole, Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers is largely about recovery from generational trauma through sincere love and responsibility. While the album’s content, as we have made clear, does not fit a traditional Christian label, many of the sentiments expressed are either inspired by or adjacent to biblical principles. The healing Kendrick seeks throughout the project will be a lifelong project like our journey of sanctification, so may we pray for his well-being and be inspired by the wisdom in his God-given creativity.