Kendrick Lamar’s new album, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, is a double-disc manifesto when it comes to the artist’s typically private life. The TDE rapper, who rarely frequents social media and for the most part, keeps a low and unproblematic profile, often uses his music as a way to provide fans with an update on the state of his mind, while also typically addressing the state of the culture, and somehow, seamlessly tying to the two together and making subtle observations and connections to his socio-economic position (and those of his ancestors).
While this is Kendrick’s usual ethos, in the span of his 10-year-plus career, he has not done it as masterfully or as poignantly as he does on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, resulting in what is surely his most personal album to date, not only sharing stories from his own past but unburdening those of his relatives, from his mother to his aunt. Despite these anecdotes, or perhaps in spite of them, the album is also deeply relatable to its culture and its fanbase, with over-arching reflections on things like community, Black men and their fathers, obsession with social media, the government, love, religion, life, and death.
At the outset, Kendrick warns us that he’s been in therapy, as he states on “United In Grief,” “I went and got me a therapist / I can debate on my theories and sharing it”-- which is also pretty much exactly what he does throughout the album’s 17 songs that follow. To that point, we could essentially dissect/analyze/unpack every single song on the album, as each is affecting, each has its own set of lyrical acrobatics, its own underlying message, its own biting musings, and its own unique revelations. Nonetheless, we’re taking release day to look at one song in particular, “We Cry Together,” which, for whatever reason (we’ll look into it), seems a bit different from the rest.
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, sound-wise, certainly feels like a natural progression from DAMN. and TPAB; we’re seeing the return of the somewhat jazzy and bluesy influence, a lot of live instrumentation, with a bit of a modern or even trap edge on songs like “Silent Hill.” While we haven’t dug into all the samples scattered across the project, “We Cry Together” begins with Florence Welch’s vocals from Florence & The Machine’s “June.” As she croons to “hold on to each other,” the record quickly devolves into something much more “hip-hop,” the sort of gritty, piano-laden beat that feels slightly vintage– a beat that would probably be at home in the early 2000s just as much as today. It’s worth noting, that this is the only record on the album that includes The Alchemist among the production credits– and his touch is clearly visible once you know that (and perhaps even before). Meanwhile, the song’s two other producers, J.LBS and Bekon, are scattered frequently across the tracklist, perhaps helping tie this opus all together.
The feeling of nostalgia and familiarity begins at the beat level then, and it only heightens once Kendrick begins rapping– and perhaps even more so once actress Taylour Paige gets on the mic. In the record that precedes “We Cry Together,” K. Dot teases, "stop playin' with me 'fore I turn you to a song,” and indeed, he seems to do just that as we’re ushered into the next song– an unrelenting fight between a couple is documented for all to hear.
We’ve seen rappers use their poetic license to either paraphrase or relay word-for-word conversations with someone before. Lil Wayne detailed his back-and-forth with a lady he was flirting with on “Crying Out For Me,” and Drake later ran with the concept to share his awkward text message exchanges with female acquaintances, while Eminem delivered a letter-writing tirade from the perspective of a fan’s voice on “Stan,” and Slug of Atmosphere wrote an open letter to his lover (who was also presumed to be ‘hip-hop’) on “Fuck You Lucy.” It’s exciting whenever an artist opts to do this, and perhaps that’s simply due to the level of skill needed to execute this type of rhyme concept properly, or perhaps it’s because it feels as though we’re eavesdropping on an artist, getting insight into another person’s perspective in a way that feels all-too connected to the artist’s real life.
This, then, could be why there is so much fan-driven excitement surrounding “We Cry Together,” as Kendrick Lamar and Taylour Paige offer an extremely juicy fight to listen in on. What’s more, some Genius users are alleging beyond this surface-level fight, that Kendrick is actually arguing with ‘hip-hop’, similar to the way Atmosphere did on the aforementioned “Fuck You Lucy.” While it’s unclear if Kendrick has ever cited Atmosphere as an influence, and it could simply be a coincidence, it does still lend itself to a strong comparison.
As the record carries on, the aggravation and the contention between the two voices continue to grow, and allusions to the fact that K. Dot could be speaking to ‘hip-hop’ are up for interpretation throughout– but even when it does occur, Kendrick makes sure to throw a little sauce on it to steer us off course, or make us doubt ourselves. As he explains that “women in general just can’t get along,” he questions, “Why R&B bitches don't feature on each other songs?,” before his partner replies seemingly confused, “What the fuck is you talkin' 'bout?” “Never mind, bitch, I'm walkin' out,” he replies, swiftly bringing us back into couple-fight-mode, “Whatever, n***a, I'm off you now.”
The idea of drawing this sort of complicated or long-winded metaphor is something Slug of Atmosphere did masterfully, in a way that not many other MCs can (but of course, Kendrick). Equally, Slug’s writing was often very personal and very broad, in the sense that he shared anecdotes about his past and also touched on community issues or societal ills in a way that Kendrick now champions.
Beyond the subtleties that seem to hearken back to Atmosphere’s heyday, there’s another influence that appears to permeate “We Cry Together” in a more prominent and obvious way: Eminem.
Kendrick himself has referenced Eminem as an influence in the past, however, it’s not usually this overt. Where Kendrick’s Lil Wayne influence manifested into a whole project, the Eminem influence is perhaps more so relegated to Kendrick’s technical prowess and desire to push lyrical boundaries. Ahead of the release of good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick said with certainty, “Em definitely influenced a lot in my style,” before calling the rapper a “genius.” Several years later, following the release of DAMN., Kendrick revealed specifically that “The Marshall Mathers LP changed my life."
The Marshall Mathers LP is one of Eminem’s seminal works, and features the violent and deranged love song that is “Kim.” The record begins just as unsuspecting as “We Cry Together” and similarly to “Lucy Ford” as well– in fact, all three records share similarities in their hard-hitting piano-laden beats and their mounting anger as the song progresses. Where Kendrick brought on an actress to take the role opposite him, Eminem did it himself, offering a high-octave squealing voice as Kim. Nonetheless, Eminem also gives us less perspective from Kim’s side (if any), focusing more so on his own anguish and pain as he threatens his partner throughout the song, only to end up killing her and watching her bleed to death.
While it’s a much more brutal conclusion than Kendrick’s record, the feeling of familiarity is certainly still present. And it goes beyond the conceptual level, it’s at the technical level too, with Taylour Paige actually employing Eminem’s flow in much of her part– “Wastin' my time and energy tryna be good to you / Lost friends, family, gained more enemies 'cause of you / Bitches starin' at me in Zara, hoes scratchin' my cars up / Shoulda followed my mind in '09 and just moved to Georgia,” she rhymes with a young-Eminem bent to her cadence.
“We Cry Together” and “Kim” are both broken love songs at their core, and that remains true whether or not Kendrick is rapping to ‘hip-hop’ or a female lover. While the content therein differs– and we would expect nothing less from a writer as masterful as Kendrick– it’s the overall approach– the yell-rapping-conversational verses, the passion, the agony, and the chilling feeling.