Kendrick Lamar is back with a declaration and a command.
He has been going through something. Be afraid.
Lamar tells us both of these things on “United in Grief,” the opening track of Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers. His words hint at the central message of his much-anticipated, two-disc album: healing can be downright terrifying.
The terror emerges from the prerequisite for healing: truthfulness. “Tell the truth,” Lamar’s fiance, Whitney Alford, demands repeatedly in a chilling voice as the album opens with stark piano keys filling the soundscape. The ominous keys are accompanied by the sounds of steps—like an actor hitting the stage—as Lamar plunges into 18 tracks of therapeutic confession.
Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is a masterfully crafted, brutally honest, and at times downright uncomfortable foray into the trauma, demons, and musings of one of the singular artists of his generation. Lamar’s declaration and command are in service to a quest: one man’s search for healing strong enough to mend himself and cast a line of hope to all who’d follow and listen. How has Lamar found healing? And how might this healing offer instruction to Christian and spiritually minded listeners?
For Lamar, healing comes from laying everything bare: family trauma, sexual addiction, infidelity, and generational pain. “United in Grief” offers a panoramic confession of his vices and failed coping mechanisms. “N95” bangs with the rattling synth of a summertime bop but remains no less devoted to exposure and healing: “Take off the idols . . . Take off the fake deep . . . Take all that designer bull**** off and what do you have?” Under the mask is a wounded and warped humanity, the chorus declares in terms that are more profane.
These two songs introduce the complex dynamic at heart of the album. Both he and we have been going through something. Lamar sees his wounds and healing as necessarily bound up with the broader world around him. We need healing just as much as he does.
Whether that “we” represents Black folks in particular or humanity in general, the album is punctuated with the belief that Lamar’s wounds are shared, microcosms of our universal wounds. For instance, although it is Lamar baring his soul on the track, the title is “United in Grief,” suggesting a group project. Similar in effect is “We Cry Together,” a brutal duet that gives new meaning to the concept of a hard listen. Built on vicious barbs tossed back and forth between Lamar and actress Taylour Paige, the song can be interpreted at a distance, as a reflection of Lamar and his fiance’s relational strife. Yet, the song is prefaced with an indictment upon all: “This is what the world sounds like.” Lamar wants listeners to reckon with the toxicity we hear not as just his mess, but ours, too.
A communal sense of responsibility can also be found on “Worldwide Steppers.” Although the song details, in coarse terms, Lamar’s sexual addiction, the title implicates others, as does the final verse (“Eight billion people on Earth, silent murderers)” and the hook (“We some killers, walkin' zombies, tryna scratch that itch”). All of this amounts to Lamar's own spin on Romans 3:23. In his view, all are wounded, implicated, and fall short of being whole and healed. We are united in grief and toxicity.
To listen to Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers and only attend to Lamar’s quest for peace and healing, but not one’s own, is to miss the deep structure of the entire album. In fact, it seems that the “big steppers” to which the album title refers are those in a long and universal line marching to the drumbeat of “calamities on repeat” “(Savior”). Then Mr. Morale—on disc two—enters to offer a path toward healing. Then, and only then, can we step together into wholeness.
Lamar wants listeners to reckon with the toxicity we hear not as just his mess, but ours, too.
This collective motif means the most fascinating aspect of Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is Lamar’s vocational direction and quest as Mr. Morale. Lamar is leveraging his trauma for a communal purpose. He announces his intent on “Mother I Sober,” declaring, “One man standin' on two words, heal everybody.”
Lamar’s performance and vulnerability sync up to form a vocational approximation of a wounded healer. In his book by that name, Henri Nouwen describes a wounded healer as one who “make[s] their own wounds available as a source of healing.” It is therefore Christ himself who is the world’s true wounded healer, pierced for our transgressions and by whose wounds we are healed. By his wounds, he mends our own. It is his wound–the vulnerable sacrifice of his broken body–that gives life to the whole world. This notion of healing–and Christ as the wounded healer–is often lost when salvation is considered only as a forensic exchange, in which Christ’s wounds pay for sin, but the reality of Christ’s wounds as a balm of healing for our experiential wounds sits silently in the background.
Though Lamar positions himself as a wound healer of sorts on “Savior,” he also rejects man-made messiahs: “Kendrick made you think about it, but he is not your savior / [J.] Cole made you feel empowered, but he is not your savior”
How does this fit his new mantra: “One man standin' on two words, heal everybody”? For Lamar, the distinction is his own flawed humanity. “The cat is out the bag,” he spits “I am not your Savior / I find it just as difficult to love thy neighbors.” Lamar is the wounded healer, not on the basis of a greater morality, but on the basis of a greater vulnerability. We too can be wounded healers by sharing our vulnerability rather than pretending to have perfect morality.
Vulnerability, however, is not enough for deep healing—in life or even in the album’s narrative. It is a step into healing, a much-needed one, but it’s not the finish line. Throughout the album, Lamar’s vulnerability is framed, guided, and interpreted by sampled audio from Eckhart Tolle, a teacher on spiritual enlightenment who borrows from Zen Buddhism, Sufism, Hinduism, and the Bible. The clearest instance is on “Mr. Morale,” the culmination of the album’s journey and the moment of transformation. The song begins with the heavy breathing of a detoxing man and the guttural groans of a body experiencing the shedding of skin—in this case the shedding of trauma—to emerge new and whole. Tolle offers the final word, suggesting that such insights, paired with deep vulnerability, form the basis of transcendent freedom. This is the reason “Mr. Morale” is followed by “Mother I Sober.” Lamar has detoxed from societal masks and false coping mechanisms of grieving in order to confront his pain clear-eyed and to assess the complex generational ways trauma has bound and warped him and us, his family, and Black culture at large. Now, he assumes the posture of a wounded healer.
While Kendrick declares explicitly that “he is not your savior,” the album leaves open the door of possibility that Tolle’s insights just might be. Tolle’s inclusion suggests a discernible shift in Lamar’s portrayal of religion through his albums, from the Christian motifs of good kid, m.A.A.d city, the exploration of Hebrew Israelite perspectives on DAMN., and now the enlightened spirituality of Mr. Morale. Lamar comments on this evolution on “Mother I Sober”: “Where's my faith? / Told you I was Christian, but just not today / I transformed, prayin' to the trees, God is taking shape”
Aside from recognizing the serious shortcomings of Lamar’s Tolle-guided path, what do we do with such a revelation? Rather than speculate on another’s faith, wise listeners can wonder how Lamar’s journey might help us better understand our own. His bold affirmation that he is wounded and his bold refusal of the role of savior reminds us that at the heart of the Christian faith stands one who is truly both.