Digging into Kendrick Lamar's Latest Album with Ethnomusicologist Emmett G. Price III

The Dean of Africana Studies unpacks Kendrick's cultural significance, the themes running through Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, and what a "big stepper" is, anyway.

June 10, 2022

Berklee Now's Keyed In series features Berklee artists and experts making news and sounding off on the latest news and trends from the music world and beyond.

Emmett G. Price, III

Emmett G. Price III, Dean of Africana Studies

Image courtesy of Bearwalk Cinema

In the month since its release, Kendrick Lamar’s new double album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, has spawned enough commentary to fill a second internet. But in the flurry of early reactions to the latest project from rap’s only Pulitzer Prize winner, it’s easy to catch a few hot takes, add a few tracks to a playlist, and move on to the next big story without really digging into the work’s cultural roots and its deeper significance.

Fortunately, we can reach out to an expert like ethnomusicologist Emmett G. Price III, dean of Africana Studies at Berklee and an expert on hip-hop culture and Afro-diasporic music, to help enrich our listening experience by guiding us through the many layers of thought and meaning—lyrical, musical, and cultural—that Kendrick has built into this record. So we caught up with Dr. Price this week to ask him what he’s hearing in Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers after a month of close listening.

Could you say a bit about Kendrick Lamar’s place in the landscape of hip-hop today? What is it that makes a new Kendrick release such a significant event?

The Compton, California, native Kendrick Lamar, now halfway through his 30s, is a hip-hop legend in the making. Each of his studio albums to date have gone platinum. He has earned over a dozen Grammy Awards, half a dozen Billboard awards, a Pulitzer Prize, and numerous other significant accolades. His work demands respect and at the very least a listen or a view, even after a five-year hiatus. Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is one of the most profound, astute, and formidable works within Lamar’s expansive portfolio. This work is very significant because of his maturity, as a human being and an artist, as well as his audible articulation (through lyrics and production) of hope despite his unpleasant lived experiences.

What are a couple of the stand-out tracks on this record for you, and what’s catching your attention in those songs?

The absolute brilliance of this project is found beyond its stand-out tracks. This project is about self-transformation through the metamorphosis of one’s own morale. Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers will be heralded and recognized for its clever commentary on the too-often ignored tensions within daily life from the embodied experiences of disposed, ostracized, and disenfranchised people who have the power to change their lives through self-actualization based on perspective, not perception. This project is about self-awareness, self-empowerment, self-love, and self-healing through the pathways of accountability, humility, integrity, truth, honesty, and hope. Each of the 18 tracks on this 73-minute, double-length concept album leans into these pathways in a deeply personal and provocatively intimate manner that Lamar, the person and not the prophet, exemplifies. 

Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers covers such a broad, sometimes messy thematic scope—could you pull out a couple of big ideas this album raises that seem particularly significant to you?

Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is dense, deep, and demands multiple listens. I have listened to the entire work over a dozen times thus far. Part one offers poignant commentary on numerous social, political, cultural, and religious tensions that most people avoid dialoging about, such as grief, trauma, “haters,” “trolls,” cancel culture, “daddy issues,” generational curses, misogyny, hypermasculinity, homophobia, transphobia, unhealthy models of loving relationships, and numerous others, including toxic Christianity. 

Part two moves the exhortations from personal responsibility and accountability to focus on morality and the implications of not dealing with the list of themes in part one. From choosing self-care over aiming to “please everybody” to dealing with the backlash of not succumbing to the ego-baiting idolization of being labeled an urban prophet, Lamar offers his introspective and insightful lessons on truth, love, self-respect through his own personal growth. His goal is transformation, even as he deals with the weight of embodied and internalized, generational Black trauma. With this project, Lamar priorities self-love and self-healing and encourages each listener to do the same.

The album, both in its title and in its sound design, includes repeated allusions to stepping and tap dancing. How do you see these references relating to the album’s explorations of Black performance and culture?

Deeply embedded within Black (Afro-diasporic) creative expression are potent tools of communication that are unknown, unrecognized, and most often misunderstood by individuals not indigenous to the Afro-diasporic cultural continuum. One of these tools is rhythm. Across various people groups, specific rhythms have been kept alive generationally, even when the instruments native to these rhythms were taken. As progeny of the cultural continuum, we keep generational rhythms alive in many ways, including hoofing, stepping, paramilitary drills, second lining, or the like. So, on one hand, Lamar offers a generational cultural reference that ties him to a rich, deep, and long legacy of Black brilliance where rhythms are catalysts and provocateurs of resilience, hope, liberation, and “speaking.” On the other hand, Lamar is simply stating the obvious, that if we stop dancing around important conversations, or as the elders in my community would say, “if we stop all this shuckin’ and jivin’,” we might be our own greatest healing agents. Big steppers are individuals and people groups who lack the courage and mental fortitude to engage with the most challenging conversations directly, thus they dance (or step) around them.

Sonically, there seems to be a push and pull on this record between the more organic, live-instrument sound we might associate with To Pimp a Butterfly, and the more modern electronic hip-hop sound Kendrick leaned into on DAMN. What are you hearing in this new music in terms of its tone, its instrumentation, its reference points, and so on?

The production on this project is just as potent as the lyrical prowess that is most often the focus of commentary. The integration of live performance with prerecorded samples is as hip-hop as hip-hop can be. The attention to detail relative to tone, timbre, and texture as a whole is what makes the project exceptional. The goal of the greater work is accomplished because the tonal centers provide a solid launching point from which the text propels. The timbral choices on each track provide the dynamics that are complemented by the shifting textures. The pace and pulse of this project from the beginning of each track to the end, as well as from the first track to the 18th, is a master class in paying close attention to detail at every level. As an example, to go from “United in Grief” to “Mirror” on the macro level, or to go from “Auntie Diaries” to “Mr. Morale” as succeeding tracks, offers the exemplary degree of detail relative to lyrical, sonic, and conceptual alignment. For those of us who are always looking for the head-bopping club hit on any hip-hop project, check out “Die Hard” and “Purple Hearts;” you will not be let down.