Mr. Morale & the Huge Steppers
20 May 2022-
Kendrick Lamar is (finally) back with a fifth studio album, the sprawling Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers. Yet there are no fillers here, only grade A music and lyrics. Or whatever the highest grade is.
Let us be honest: there are good albums, there are hit albums and then there are genre defining albums. In the past few months, we have seen a lot of good albums come and go, especially in hip hop, which seems to be by far the most creative musical field these days. Many of those were also hits: Lil Durk’s 7220, Young Thug’s Punk, not to mention last year’s one-two punch with Kanye West and Drake both releasing records within weeks of each other. Yet, and despite the hype those two certainly got, none of them arguably made such an impact that it effectively constituted a turning point in the genre. Admittedly, 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was just that for Kanye — a little over a decade ago. None of his subsequent albums could be considered disappointments, but they were not necessarily all equally groundbreaking.
Then came (back) Mr. Kendrick Lamar.
We have known for years that Lamar is a singular talent: every one of his previous albums came with an aura of greatness, of increasing greatness to be more accurate. The parallel between him and Kanye cannot be overstated, as both artists grew artistically in rather similar fashion as their respective careers blossomed. Not exactly in the same style, mind you: Lamar’s was always more complex and tortuous, less straightforward. And people loved him for it: 2015’s “Alright“, which the man brilliantly performed at this year’s Super Bowl, became a bona fide anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement as well as the soundtrack of a new generation eager for more justice.
The five years we had to wait since 2017’s acclaimed Damn. (skipping the great although collaborative Black Panther OST) felt very long. In no small part because Lamar stayed mum on the progress that was or wasn’t being made on a new project. His ability to keep a low profile standing as a near polar opposite to Kanye’s perpetual antics, as it happens. We hardly knew anything about his persona life either, other than his fiancee and him welcomed a child in 2019. We were not aware that there was second one… until the artwork for fifth album Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers came out a couple of weeks ago, days before the release of the album. And amongst the noise promotional single “The Heart Part 5” triggered.
We might have waited a while, but it turns out that it was absolutely worth it: this double concept album is not only amazingly well conceived, written and executed, but it manages to surprise even the most accomplished hip hop connoisseurs (company included, even though we definitely can’t claim to be that). From opening song “United in Grief”, you can tell that this record is different: thought through, incredibly honest (which is interesting given how little the rapper will speak outside of his lyrics), often disturbingly raw. Both sections of the album, the one narrated by his fiancee, then by him, portray two sides of the very same coin: a special kind of genius that manages to create a complete work of art, from the themes that are mentioned to the highly unpredictably beats that are used to the overall subtlety of the production and arrangements. None of this feels obvious, by any stretch of the word: on the contrary, very few people would have ever been able to conceive such a remarkable collection of musical moments. No one else, even.
Among such greatness, there are still bits that stand out even more, as it were: such is the case with “Father Time” on Lamar’s complicated relationship with his father, or the incredibly fraught “We Cry Together” that anyone in a long term relationship can relate to (to some extent), or “Auntie Diaries” which tells the unlikely tale of LGBT messages in the hood (an eminently important topic to be sure) or the incredible “Mother I Sober” with guest vocals from Portishead’s legendary Beth Gibbons… We should probably stop there, or else we risk referencing every single song on the record. The point is this: the rapper succeeded in producing, along with a stellar team comprising of The Alchemist and Pharrell Williams, what can only be called a masterpiece. One that will no doubt influence many other artists going forward, and that definitely cements Kendrick Lamar’s position as the most important artist in hip hop today — if not in music.