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  • Cy White

Why 'Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers' Is Important to Me


When I listen to Mr. Morale, I think about my brother.

When I was almost 3 years old, a voice from a distant star whispered to me that there would be a child, and that child would be mine to love. My mother gave birth to a chubby baby boy, who took her ages to bring to me. But she did, and I love him and I always have. I will continue to love him when he returns to his stardust, when I no longer have a conscience to wrestle back to the earth. 

So when he told me about Kendrick Lamar’s latest album and told me it was the hardest thing he’d ever listened to, I listened, too.

While the music itself is brilliant—the poet’s words staggering in their weight, insofar as his expression of the jagged truth, the almost heroic self-flagellation and remolding of self into something resembling a functioning human being—in the end none of that mattered to me. What mattered was that this man that I’ve loved from a baby listened to each track as if he were staring at himself and finally breaking down. Breaking down the parts of himself he hated, the parts he loved (some of which he still does). He opened up his soul to the downpour of emotions every man must either embrace or reject (to the detriment of themselves) and questioned himself. 

Mr. Morale’s journey to self mirrors much of my brother’s. Not so much in terms of context (though much of it is strikingly similar), but in terms of looking at each scar and pockmark, following the lines back to their origins and reconciling with what he finds. My brother is a complicated free jazz that only the initiated are able to follow. That doesn’t always include our parents. In fact, it often doesn’t. I’ve been translating my brother’s words for them since I was 3. His mind works in riddles, sometimes abandoning their vessel and leaving him stranded wondering where to go. I’ve been blessed to be able to act as his North Star when it mattered, but I wasn’t always there in his inky blue-black skies. I wasn’t there when he was battling a fight for his mental health; I wasn’t there when teachers would try to break down his manhood and strip him of his brilliance; I wasn’t there (enough) when he was so full of anxiety and heartache that every pour became a chorus of “just one more, just one more.” I wasn’t the best sister I should’ve been to him, when he was gifted to me by something beyond even a toddler's genius. 

“‘Mother I Sober’ is the hardest song on the album.” When Hermanito texted me that, the title alone ripped something inside of me. We’ve gone down this path before. It’s a large reason why I don’t keep alcohol in this house (save for some remnant red wine so aged and aired out it’s more like its vinegar cousin than anything drinkable). That’s not something for you to read on a random music blog, but it is context. The weight of the singular piano, the thump of a heartbeat foundation as a woman’s voice creaks with exhaustion and cracks with the weight of every single moment that led up to the creation of the track. “I wish I was somebody/ Anybody but myself.”

Yeah, “Mother I Sober” is the hardest song on the album, and the one that made me want to wrap my brother in every living ounce of love and never let go. 

Mr. Morale is more than a look in the mirror for a person trying to rearrange his manhood to fit the forever of his feelings. It’s an indictment of those (of me) who were so wrapped in their own heartbreak they forgot to protect and love the gifts they were given. It’s a punch to the gut for those (for me) who didn’t do everything in their power to stop the world from gnawing on the flesh of our loved ones, cracking the bones and ribs and skull of the most precious person in the world to us.

The album is phenomenal, an unapologetic, unpretty gaze into the soul of a man still building himself up so he can be what he must for those who matter most to him. There are so many layers to unpack here, and I could. But that’s not why Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is important to me. It’s important because it reintroduced me to the most important human in my small universe. It painted a picture of his constant journey to healing. People now roll their eyes at the term, but if you’ve ever actually been on an extended trek through the muck and mire of your existence; sought out the X on the map of you; if you’ve ever forced yourself to dig for the buried chest at the end of your adventure only to find it full of sand, spiders and rotten sea flotsam, then you’ll understand what a true journey to healing is.

It’s not fun, it’s not heroic, it’s not pretty. It’s a fight to the death between who you thought you were and who you want to be. At the end of it, you’re bloodied, broken into pieces, and then must rebuild yourself, cracks and all, without lying to yourself, without hiding your shortcomings, insecurities, fears.

Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is a war on the self, both sides (fact and fiction) vying for space in your body. In the end, the only person able to decide who wins your soul is yourself. That’s one hell of a tragic joke: Fighting with yourself, the demon in your chest, only to have to decide who triumphs. Doesn’t seem fair, but it’s all any of us has. My brother has done the work to make sure his victor keeps true to himself and his word. Kendrick Lamar fought and slayed that same dragon, and now must keep the streets of his humanity safe.

Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers gave me a gift: my brother. And that’s why it’s so important to me.


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