We might have gotten the album wrong. Conceding that DAMN. lent us all a rock solid hint five years ago, it might well turn out that it was Kendrick Lamar‘s latest fifth full length studio project, Mr Morale & The Big Steppers, that was supposed to be listened backwards all along. Back to front. Its tracklist in reverse. Much has been said, taken apart, and dissected about the conscious hip-hop prodigy’s latest exploit over the past seven days, since what was arguably this year’s most highly anticipated mainstream rap moment. Contemplative approaches and critical reviews of the double disc-project by Compton, Los Angeles’ very own involving tenets of specularity, looped circularity, and inside-outness have since abounded in spades—yet no one contributing to the moralist discourse surrounding Oklama‘s swan song Top Dawg Entertainment release appeared to have dared as much as to advance the sustainment of a fully fledged backwards playback experience theory embedded in the very record.
There are of course the more surface-level clues underwriting the universally acclaimed return of the famed pgLang founder, such as the photographic evidentiary exhibit shown below. It discloses and suggests an inverted running order of the two album sides when juxtaposed to the official display-level crediting of the album’s name Mr Morale & The Big Steppers. On the mysterious book-stricken snap, the Grammy Awards and Pulitzer Prize for Music-winning MC clearly places the LP’s alleged B-side, Steppers, on top of the Morale one: a sequencing leitmotiv later confirmed by the record’s official chaptered track listing on digital streaming services as well as K.Dot‘s licensed merch window dressing. Yet another fascinating hint teasing toward a cyclical ethos being laced into the creative experiencing of the work of art at hand is the strikingly symmetrical track structuring around the disc one-to-disc two transition axis (props and kudos to the ever so brilliant Jah Talks Albums for pointing this out, amongst what we’re sure are many more).
Let us feed off this latest ethereal conjecture for a moment. Cut number three on Big Steppers, the linear and incessantly pounding short-of-breathness of “Worldwide Steppers“, is minutely specular to disc two’s other namesake “Mr Morale“, tracklisted no more and no less than three slots away from the apparent album closer—aptly titled, well, “Mirror“. By a similar token, the Kodak Black-helmed “Rich (Interlude)” appears and rings before our eardrums at number six on the front side, and thus three slots away from the aforementioned disc one-to-disc two transition axis, only to be met by the Morale side’s own skit three more steps removed from the shaft (shaped in the form of a two and a half-minute avantgarde chamber pop arrangement, featuring German spiritual teacher and self-help guru Eckhart Tolle and Kung Fu Kenny’s own cousin and protégée Baby Keem). Needless to say, and without breaking protocol, both are followed by their parent flagship instalment along the playback ride: “Rich Spirit” and “Savior“. Thusly, not much of a formatting difference between listening the album front to back, or back to front.
Furthermore, the self-evident insular virtuosity of Mr Morale & The Big Steppers’s reflector coda number “Mirror” stands to irradiate the LP’s artistic agency right back to where it came from, à la auditive recoil. Crucially though, rewinding the tape with the inherent intention and assertiveness of flipping its chronological script on its head, would undoubtedly recount a dourer and more tumultuous voyage for Oklama. If the plastic and hegemonic songwriting motif exhuming from a full frontal listen of the album transcends wages of sin and mercilessness to attain higher spiritual re-alignment via a quasi-complete trauma catharsis and purge, embarking on a listen of Mr Morale & The Big Steppers by actually starting with Mr Morale all the way down to track number one unleashes instead chronicles of a progressively more recidive, mortal, and tormented man. If this sounds familiar to anyone privy to Kendrick Lamar’s previous discography, it’s because it is.
Provided the proposed capsizing, the supposed lectured debuting sense of closure and centeredness (re-)gained by the Black Hippy member while shunning away from the limelight and withering social, political, economical, and public health crises exemplified on “Mirror”—”Do yourself a favor and get a mirror that mirror grievance / Then point it at me so the reflection can mirror freedom“—all of a sudden flickers as a frail, fallen, yet coveted lighthouse to strive toward again, with the hindsight of the eighteen cuts in reverse. Likewise, as soon as 34-year old Mr Duckworth sends us all off with “I grieve different” on the newly conceptualized outro “United In Grief“, the rescued and discharged list of liberated pain-bearers enunciated on the stark and sombre early moment “Mother I Sober“, echoes now less as an appeased trip down victory lap memory lane than the load of what fallible men have the wherewithal of undoing:
So I set free myself from all the guilt that I thought I made
So I set free my mother all the hurt that she titled shame
So I set free my cousin, chaotic for my mother’s pain
I hope Hykeem made you proud ’cause you ain’t die in vain
So I set free the power of Whitney, may she heal us all
So I set free our children, may good karma keep them with God
So I set free the hearts filled with hatred, keep our bodies sacred
As I set free all you abusers, this is transformation
Perhaps the as of this writing yet-to-be-published companion red paperback is to provide us with a definitive settlement pertaining to the premeditated and intended experiential flow of Mr Morale & The Big Steppers. Ideally, that is to be levied upon listeners in a less ironic and self-aware fashion than others have seen fit to bestow. After all, the present essay rests upon rather latent and unspoken assumptions—admittedly not enough to run with the presumption for a universal application. However, what we do know, is that Kung Fu Kenny has hinted at it before. What’s more, across his brilliant suite of artistic oeuvres, he has all but mastered the pocketed deliverance that self-actualization and emancipation aren’t discrete, but rather complex and perturbed journeys. What if the inexplicable post-pandemic and post-personal breakthrough zeitgeist Mr Morale & The Big Steppers is released within reversed the restoration undergone by him in the five years since DAMN.?
As the rapper took to his tried and tested promotional Heart series antics to officialize the long-awaited release of the double LP by dropping the rabid and incendiary “The Heart Part 5” on 8th May, his webhosted parking lot oklama.com quietly got updated with a loose and disordered scatterplot of empty folders on a non-navigable subpage: as if suggesting users be filing them freely and according to their liking (see images below for reference). We understand and appreciate how the associative link to a behavioural theory suggesting that Mr Morale & The Big Steppers oughta be consumed as Mr Morale first and The Big Steppers second, runs fairly brittle. Especially if assuming that there is in fact a correct way of experiencing the record as Kendrick intended it. And yet we ask; how come is there an even more secret sub-root of said subpage cataloguing all cryptic folders in neat grids, including a blacked out folder 327, if not to signify a defiance of appearances whilst adumbrating at a suppressed and abeyant narrative woven into the project’s tracklist? Or should we say, list of tracks?